DCC versus Radio Control
It should be stated that for this page, Radio Control (R/C) means using a proprietary non-DCC standard radio controller to talk directly to a train, not using a command station. That is, using a proprietary receiver/transmitter by a specific company.
This is not to be confused with R/C throttles which talk to a command station that issues standard DCC commands through the rails. There are also systems which transmit DCC packets wirelessly by connecting the output of a command station to a small transmitter, with small receivers connected to the DCC decoder. They also can use battery or constant Direct Current on the rails.
These are two separate topics, this article deals proprietary non-DCC systems.
Radio control operations typically involve a proprietary decoder to be installed into each train, that is, a non-industry standard decoder/receiver.
Radio Control Operations allow you the option of taking power from the rails, an on board battery pack, or a combination of the two. This means that the Control signal from the throttle is never interrupted by interference due to dirty or dead rail segments like unpowered frogs in a turnout.
Just like DCC, Radio Control may utilize a capacitor to energize the decoder/transceiver during momentary power interruptions when using power from the rails. It is sometimes called an "electronic flywheel".
Proprietary Protocols and Systems
There is the issue of single vendor, proprietary system versus a multi-vendor, standards based solution. Being locked into a single vendor solution has been the downfall of many model railroads and command control systems in the past. It is very possible for a single vendor to be unable to supply product due to discontinuation of a specialized electronic part, a downturn in business, a lawsuit or some other disruption. A standards based solution like Digital Command Control allows the end user to easily switch brands if one vendor cannot supply product. It also allows the user to mix and match components based on their needs.
DCC would offer a far greater choice of options. Easy addition of sound. Lower cost due to competition. More advanced control. Added features like Feedback, automation, signaling, computer control, and others.
If you have a large number of engines, the DCC option will be less expensive spread over a number of engines. There are also some operational advantages. There is no recharging. The downside of DCC is high initial cost of the equipment and the wiring. DCC wiring can be fussy and if you have long runs, you need to use heavy gauge wire. DCC capability is expanding dramatically right now. Automatic train control, route control, etc is becoming ubiquitous. You are not locked in to a single vendor. Battery power requires simple wiring and also offers flexibility, such as sound and lights like DCC. Downside is you have to haul the batteries with you, recharge them, and they run down after a while if you like to watch the trains run. Given battery technology the run time is a good amount depending on the engine's power requirements.
Advantages of radio control (compared to DCC):
- No need to run wires everywhere
- Lower track maintenance - no cleaning the rails
- Low initial startup cost
Disadvantages of radio control (compared to DCC):
- More expensive with large numbers of locomotives
- Proprietary hardware - no standard between companies/brands
- Limited run time - need to recharge batteries
Outdoor operations require clean track. With battery operation, this issue can be mitigated. Radio receivers and transmitters also require a battery to provide energy to operate them.
Interference can also be a problem, as sections of track can be close to other RF sources. If using the ISM band, a number of other devices can cause interference, such as WiFi enabled devices, microwave ovens, communications devices, etc. Also, the leaves on trees and plants can absorb RF signals, reducing range.
Indoors with a nice clean space we recommend running electrons through the rails and not have to think about the $$ needed to charge batteries or the chargers that are needed to top them off.
Also, you can use IR DCC throttles which are cheaper than radio versions for outdoors - such as the Digitrax IR throttles.
However, IR throttles require line of sight and Radio Control does not.
As many of these systems are not NMRA DCC compliant, they are not compatible with equipment that meets the DCC Standards.
These systems are usually proprietary, meaning you are locked into a single supplier for equipment and support. Should they lose interest or go out of business, the system becomes an orphan. Other makers may simply adapt equipment from the R/C aircraft hobby, allowing for a better choice of suppliers.
Multiple operators also means there needs to be an accounting of which channels are in use. Much like at a model aircraft meet where everyone has to register their transmitters and a great deal of control is imposed to prevent a conflict between two pilots during flight, or accidental transmissions from another transmitter.
- DCC advantage over DC - Compare advantages of DCC over DC