Digital Command Control Tutorial: Starter Sets

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Summary: All about DCC Starter Sets

This article is part
of the DCC Tutorial
Tutorial pages...

DCC compared to Computers
Basic System
Starter Sets

Getting Started

The easiest way to get up and running with Digital Command Control is to buy a DCC starter set. A starter set includes the command station and booster (many are now integrated into a single unit), and a throttle. Buying a starter set will give you everything you need right out of the box and are more cost effective than buying individual items. Also, they usually do not include a power supply, so you'll have to read the package and buy accordingly.

DCC starter sets typically do not include tracks, trains, or rolling stock. A starter set is just for the power components. Don't confuse a DCC starter set with a "holiday" or analog starter set which includes an analog power supply, a few sections of track, and a non-DCC equipped locomotive.

Selecting a Set

Video: Overview of Basic Digital Command Control Systems

One of the most important choices in getting started in will be selecting which DCC brand. For help on selecting a brand, or manufacturer, please see the selecting a system article.

If someone insists on comparing the cost of a Digital Command Control system to an Analog (Direct Current) system, always compare a high end Analog controller to a DCC System for a fair comparison. A basic, low cost power pack doesn't equal what a basic DCC Starter Set can offer.

NMRA Digital Command Control standards assure that NMRA DCC conforming products are compatible at the track. Command stations and throttles are not interchangeable between manufacturers. The decision on which brand to go with is crucial as changing to another brand can be expensive. Some manufacturers do not offer upgradeable systems, so keep that in mind. The ideal system should grow with your needs, and have the option to add additional features in the future. Another important point is a computer interface. This feature will allow even more capabilities using third party software for signals, automation and even programming sound decoders.

Another consideration is the throttle network. This connects the throttles to the command station. Different manufacturers approach this in different ways, some are very limited where others offer a full set of features. The throttle network can also connect to other devices such as stationary decoders, block detectors, and other accessories. Not all companies employ a full featured throttle network, so read up on the features available before settling on a brand.

Although, you wouldn't be the first, or the last, to change brands. You will not have to change mobile decoders and other decoders that connect to the track, thanks to the NMRA DCC standards.

How Much Power?

The next question you will have to answer is "How much power do I need?" Starter sets come in amperages ranging from 1.5 to 8amps. This decision is not as crucial as the first decision as you can always add additional boosters to your layout at any time. (See track wiring). Again, do your research, as upgrading your DCC system may be difficult with some systems.

You do not need to concern yourself with track length when calculating power needs. The length of track is not important as you are powering your locomotives and other devices - the track just delivers the power, it doesn't consume it - assuming you have wired your track properly. (See Track wiring on how to properly wire your track.)

As each locomotive, piece of rolling stock and layout is different, the following is a rough guideline to get you started. These calculations are based on an HO scale layout. You'll need to double these numbers for S or O scales. You'll have to halve these numbers for N or Z scales. For G scale, 8amps should be your minimum starting point for outdoor layouts. Keep in mind, you can always add more power to your track layout with the use of an additional booster.

A typical HO scale locomotive equipped with a sound decoder will draw 500mA. Locomotives made before the arrival of DCC can draw up to an amp. So a new motor will be a good idea. Older motors draw more current, and as the magnets age and lose power, the current needed increases as well.

A typical 5A (nominal) booster could operate 10 locomotives. Locomotives at idle will draw less current. In fact, according to NCE, you could probably add 50% to that number without any problems, thanks to more efficient motors and better drivetrains. (Sorry, this estimate does not apply to Brass.)

The term nominal is used as many boosters advertised as having a 5A output will often have only 4.5A available to the track.

If more power is needed, additional boosters can be used to increase the number of locomotives you can operate simultaneously. An auxiliary booster could also be used to power an engine facility and yard, allowing the main booster to run the mainline.

See the article on Power Management.

So you might be asking yourself "Why not just get the largest power supply and booster I can afford?"

Initially this may sound like a great idea, additionally you would be prepared for some expansion or more running trains on your layout. However, too much power (amps) on the track can cause some serious damage to your locomotives and other rolling stock. For example, if wheels derail, for whatever reason - a bad turn out, sharp turn, etc - then you are at risk of causing a short. This short can melt the plastic mounts inside locomotives, burn up engines, melt sideframes or damage other rolling stock. It can also weld metal pieces together. The risk is minimized by the booster's short circuit protection devices, but if your track is not properly wired, the booster may not detect the short and thus keeps the power flowing while your locomotive starts smoking - and not from the smoke stacks. Power management devices, such as the Digitrax PM42, can split up the power from your booster into individual districts to help detect short circuits, without shutting down the entire layout.

Next Purchases

The following is a list of items that can be purchased to expand your layout. These are ideas to keep you on track to running your locomotives. You can pick and choose from below which best suits you.

  • The starter set is just that, a starter set. You'll need a multifunction decoders. See the decoder section for multifunction decoder selection and installation.
  • However, before installing that decoder, we recommend you test it with a decoder tester. They can be found from various vendors.
  • If you have a reverse section, you need an automatic reverser. Boosters typically have these built in, but if you have a reverse section, it's best to wire that independent of the main track. There are many different auto-reversers from various manufacturers.
  • It's fun running trains with friends. You will need an additional throttle for each engineer. The Digitrax Zephyr lets you use 2 "old-style" DC power packs as 'jump throttles,' so you get 3 throttles for the price of the one Zephyr. Or select a system compatible with the other layouts in your operations group, and you can bring your throttle to other layouts, as can they.
  • Your need a throttle network to plug those additional throttles into. Each manufacturer has various ways of setting up their network. This typically involved running a wire from the command station to the area(s) where you will want to control the trains. The wire is terminated into a jack that allows you to plug throttles into.

What's Next

The next step is to lay track and get all the wires connected. Although the track wiring page is very long, it's important that you read it all at least once before laying a single piece of track.

Continue on to the track wiring page, at the bottom, you'll see a link to the track work page.