Wire Size and Spacing for DCC

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Summary: Proper wiring results in less problems later. It is one of the most important aspects of Digital Command Control.

Wiring is one part of layout construction which is easier to do correctly the first time than to change or upgrade it later.

Some of the information presented may seem overly complex or unnecessary. The wiring practices described are based on Best Practices which have been demonstrated to work, both in a home layout and large modular layouts.

Wiring Issues

Selecting an Appropriate Wire Gauge

Good or Cheap. Pick One.
Proper Wiring is Central to the Proper Operation of your Digital Command Control System.

No DCC topic seems to elicit more debate or misunderstandings than wiring. This article will attempt to explain some of the rationale behind DCC Wiring Practices. Most of the recommendations are based around technical reasons and Best Practices which have been found to work reliably.

  1. Power Bus wires must be the correct size (gauge).
  2. The amount of power available to locomotives will be reduced if inadequately gauged wires are used.
  3. Trains will run slower in areas which are poorly wired
  4. Consists or multiple trains in the same Power District will run at reduced speeds if the wiring is inadequate
  5. Wires which are too small can be a fire hazard when used with high current boosters (8 or more amps)
  6. Poor wiring can result in runaway locomotives or damage due to shorts not being detected

Can You Use Wire Which Is Too Heavy?

Experience has shown that since you can run more trains with more locomotives using Digital Command Control, you will.

This means your electrical loads will be higher for a given layout. In addition, a voltage drop of only 2 volts is a big issue with Digital Command Control, and you can't compensate by cranking the throttle open a little more. Keeping these factors in mind, it is clear you will need a heavier gauge of wire. A small table top layout can reduce these sizes slightly without problems, but larger home or club layouts should adhere to these suggestions - you'll appreciate it in the long run. It's cheaper to do it right the first time than it is to tear it out and do it over!

The important issue with wire gauge is resistance. Heavier wire (a smaller gauge number) has less resistance than light gauge wire (with a larger gauge number).

The resistance causes energy loss when current flows through the wire. This is lost through heat. The result is a drop in voltage. This is expressed as I2R loss (I Squared R). When current flows through a resistor, a voltage drop is created, equal to the current multiplied by the resistance. The energy loss equals the current squared, times the resistance.

Basically, if a loop of wire has one ohm of resistance, and you pass 1 amp through it, you will see a loss of one volt. If you pass 5 amps, your loss is 5 volts. You will also convert 25 watts of energy to heat. If the resistance is doubled, that voltage loss increases to 10 volts, and the power loss increases to 50W.

For the most part, the resistance of copper wire is so small that it is expressed as ohms per 100, or 1000 feet. For a short run of a few feet, the resistance is negligible. It becomes an issue with a long run of wire. Remember, an equal length of wire is needed to complete the circuit, doubling the resistance of the circuit. High impedance caused by inadequate wiring can prevent proper operation of the booster's over current protection circuit, resulting in damage to track, rolling stock, and even your booster.

Keep in mind that one of the reasons for using heavy gauge wire is to minimize the effects caused by the nature of the Digital Command Control signal. While the DC resistance (R) is quite low, the AC Impedance (Z) is not the same, and may be higher. In fact, a heavy AWG 12 wire may be electrically equivalent to a 20 AWG wire when used with a Digital Command Control signal.

Remember, electrical codes are written with 60 Hz (or 50 Hz) alternating current in mind. Also, thou shalt not exceed 80% of the rated current capacity of the circuit in actual use. This will introduce new problems in terms of voltage drop.

Proper Operation of Overcurrent Protection Devices

The short circuit protection features of your booster are designed to protect the booster, not your expensive locomotive, from damage.

An important concept which is often ignored is the way circuit protectors work with many DCC boosters. They are not sensitive to the amount of current. They react to the rate of change in current. A sudden spike will trigger them. This allows them to cut off current flow much sooner than a device that relies on a set value. Which means power will be cut off long before significant damage occurs from excessive current flow which would not trip a device acting on a set value. Some boosters can provide an almost unbelievable amount of current for a very brief period of time, upwards of 60A!
Poor wiring will interfere with the over-current protection circuit's operation. Which could result in damage to your locomotive, or its decoder, because too much current was flowing, resulting in excessive heat. Or a short occurs, and something melts because the power was not interrupted. This happens because the wiring isn't adequate, interfering with the rate of change the booster sees. Or the voltage drop demands more current to maintain the same amount of power. A change from 1A to 1.5A in draw will also increase the power dissipation by more than twice.
Good heavy wiring goes a long way to preventing problems like that. Using AWG 14 or heavier is not overkill for a power bus, and track feeders of AWG 18 are not that heavy. Choosing wire because it is cheaper or easier to hide is just asking for problems.
Automotive tail lamps are not recommended as current limiting devices. This idea belongs in the analog era, not the DCC era.
Always test your wiring using the quarter test. The booster should cut out immediately. If not, there is a problem.

Harmonics

This is an important issue. Harmonics are multiples of the fundamental frequency. They cause distortion of the waveform. Harmonics Do Not contribute to the available power. This is mentioned in the NMRA S-9 Electrical Standard years before the NMRA Digital Command Control Standard was written, warning of possible damage to your motor by harmonic currents.

Why is this important with Digital Command Control?

The nature of the DCC waveform. A DCC signal consists of a square wave. Square waves are, by their nature, loaded with harmonics. Harmonics waste energy by not contributing to the power available to you. In extreme cases, half the power available will be wasted in the form of harmonic currents.

In DCC you probably will never see that happen, yet energy will still be lost in this manner. That is why the wiring is much heavier than that used for analog operations. Analog power packs will also waste energy when using pulse power modes, the difference being they supply one low current load, whereas your DCC booster and wiring supply multiple loads demanding a lot more current.

Recommended Wire Gauges by Scale

Note
Recommended Wire Gauges Shown in an Ampacity Table Are For Copper Wire Only, at 60 Hertz, AC, Sine wave. Keep that in mind when making comparisons.
This chart is based on a 5A maximum current on the bus. For an 8A booster, move to the next larger gauge (smaller number).

According the Big Book of DCC by Digitrax, runs up to 100 feet are possible with 12AWG wire, and 50 feet with 14AWG. This is for one leg, in theory it is possible to have a 100 foot run (14AWG) with the booster in the middle (50 feet on each side). Don't skimp on wiring, plan for future power needs.

These guidelines are based on technical requirements and Best Practices.

Feeder Length is not the distance between feeders. It is the recommended maximum length between the track and the DCC Power Bus.

Wire Size Table, American Wire Gauge

Wire Size Guidelines for DCC Power Bus
Wire sizes are American Wire Gauge (AWG)
https://dccwiki.com/Wire_Sizes_and_Spacing
Scale Bus Length Feeder Length
< 21 ft 21 − 40 > 40 ft < 5 ft < 10 ft
< 6m 6 − 12m > 12m < 1.5M < 3m
G 1:20.3 12 10 8 16 14
1:29
0 1:48
S 1:64
H0 1:87.1 14 12 − 14 18 − 22 18 − 20
00 1:76.2
TT 1:120 14 20
N 1:160 16 14 12 18 − 22 18 − 20
Z 1:220
N−Trak 16 14 12 18 − 22 18 − 20
N−Trak is based on the N−Trak Wiring RP for DCC http://ntrak.org/ntrak_powerpole_rp.htm
Quick Link to this page: https://2tra.in/o4WZH WireSizeQR.png

Metric Equivilents

Wire Size Guidelines for DCC Power Bus
Metric Equivalents, mm2
https://dccwiki.com/Wire_Sizes_and_Spacing
Quick Link: https://2tra.in/o4WZH
Scale Bus Length Feeder Length
< 21 ft 21 − 40 > 40 ft < 5 ft < 10 ft
< 6m 6 − 12m > 12m < 1.5M < 3m
G 1:20.3 4.0 6.0 10 1.5 2.5
1:29
0 1:48
S 1:64
H0 1:87.1 4.0 4.0 - 2.5 1.0 - 0.5
00 1:76.2 1.0 - 0.5
TT 1:120 2.5 0.5
N 1:160 1.5 2.5 4.0 1.0 -0.5 1.0 - 0.5
Z 1:220
N−Trak 1.0 - 0.5 1.0 - 0.5
N−Trak is based on the N−Trak Wiring RP for DCC http://ntrak.org/ntrak_powerpole_rp.htm
Quick Link: https://2tra.in/o4WZH WireSizeQR.png
Metric Equivalents to American Wire Gauge

American Wire Gauge (AWG) with Metric Equivalents

American Wire Gauge (AWG) with Metric Equivalents
AWG Diameter (Inches) millimetres millimetres squared Nearest Size (mm^2)
7
0.1443
3.67
10.55
10
8
0.1285
3.26
8.36
--
10
0.1019
2.59
5.26
6.0
12
0.0808
2.05
3.31
4.0
14
0.0641
1.63
2.08
2.5
16
0.0508
1.29
1.31
1.5
17
0.0453
1.15
1.04
1.0
18
0.0403
1.02
0.82
1.0
19
0.0359
0.91
0.65
0.75
20
0.032
0.81
0.52
0.5

Not all sizes are shown. For the equivalent to 22AWG, use the 20AWG or 0.5mm2. If in doubt, use the next larger size.

Power (Track) Bus Wiring

Bus wires carry the power from the booster to the track, but do not directly connect to the track. Feeder wires handle that task.

Below is some information to get the most of your system but using the correct wire types, gauge, and installation methods.

You can use either solid or stranded wire. Stranded wire is more flexible and will handle repeated bending. Repeated flexing of a solid wire will anneal the copper and make it brittle, which can then break. Stranded wire also is more tolerant of nicks caused during stripping. A nick in a solid conductor creates a weak point, where the wire may break.

To Twist, or Not to Twist

This topic is fiercely debated on internet forums and DCC related mailing lists, endlessly and without any real solid conclusions. Seems everyone has an opinion, just like they do with wire sizes…

To Twist or Not to Twist, That is the Question…

There is always a large debate on the twisting of track bus wire. Keep in mind that DCC track buses are an Unbalanced Pair: One wire (A) is held to ground while the other (B) is energized, then they flip when A carries a signal and B is held to ground. This is happening constantly.

Twisting: Is It Necessary?

Insert Heated Debate Here

It is not necessary to twist the wires together. Track Bus wires should be kept close together, which is easily accomplished by twisting them together. Tying them with a cable tie is another option, and accomplishes the same purpose: Reducing inductance. Compare two long and widely spaced bus wires (inches apart) with two long but closely spaced bus wires (1mm apart), the latter have a lot less inductance which is better. This is demonstrated in the table below. When a pair of wires make a long run parallel to each other, the one wire induces currents in the other. This was discovered in the early days of telephony. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell discovered that by twisting the two wires together, interference and inductance were reduced, meaning the signal was stronger and clearer at the other end of the line.

Excessive track bus impedance can also cause a multifunction decoder's PWM pulses to be superimposed onto the DCC signal. This distortion can create problems such as runaway locomotives.

The amount of inductance in the bus directly relates to the degree of DCC waveform distortion and other problems such as large voltage spikes. Due to the harmonic content of the DCC signal, it has a lot more in common with alternating current than direct current. Large voltage spikes are created during intermittent short circuits caused by derailments or other electrical track issues. Inductors store current in a magnetic field, and when the current flow decreases, it resists that change by inducing a voltage in the wire. That voltage, according to Lenz’s Law, will be positive when the current increases, or negative when it decreases.

Should a short occur, the current suddenly increases and ‘’charges’’ the inductor. When the current flow is cut off by the overcurrent protection circuit, the magnetic field collapses and the inductor rapidly discharges into the circuit. This causes a voltage spike to appear. This is exactly what happens in your car’s ignition system: The ‘’coil’’ is in fact a transformer, and current flowing through the low voltage coil creates a magnetic field, which is storing energy. The ‘’points’’ or a switch then opens, the current stops and the magnetic field collapses, which creates a huge voltage in the secondary coil. This voltage, which is thousands of times greater in magnitude than the 12V used in the primary circuit, has enough potential to break across the gap in the spark plug. Televisions with a CRT used much the same trick to create the high voltages needed to energize the CRT.

Relays and solenoids do the same thing, which is why they have circuits added to prevent/reduce the damage the kick back can cause.

Interference

If your DCC system is causing electrical noise, keeping the bus wires close is one way to reduce it. Since many people don’t listen to AM Radio anymore, you might be radiating a large amount of RF energy without realizing it. Since TV is now in the digital domain, you won’t be yelled at for introducing noise into the picture either.

Interference could be interpreted by loco decoders and could cause havoc on the system. This interference can come from outside the layout, or be caused by the bus wires themselves or nearby signal buses. It can reduce any interference the track bus may cause by inducing a signal in a low power signalling bus, such as your throttle network or occupancy detection system.

Inductance and Impedance Reduction

One way to decrease the inductance/impedance is to keep the wires close. The closer the better. The most effective solution is to twist the wires, with about three to five twists per metre. Doing so alters the phase relationships between the two wires, reducing any induced currents in the wire. Twisting is very effective in reducing the inductance and the resulting impedance. Tying the bus wires together is also a very effective approach.

Keep this in mind when routing wires: You don't want to induce signals in another bus, such as the throttle or LCC wiring. Also keep AC wiring away from your track bus and other layout buses.

Attaching feeder wires to twisted bus wires could get complicated if you are not consistent with your colour coding, however, if the wires are not twisted a great deal so it shouldn't be too difficult.

Capacitance

Twisting the wires will also create a capacitor, with a value of 1 to 2 pF per inch. Doesn't sound like much, but that can be as much as 480pF over 20 feet. This creates a leakage path for the DCC signal, which will cause issues with current sensing block detection systems. If a block detection system is planned, keep this in mind while the track bus is being installed. Wires feeding a detection block should not be twisted together for at least a foot before and after the current sensor.

Power/Track Bus Impedance

Impedance Measurements on a loop made of two 12AWG wires, ~36 feet each for a total loop of ~72'. Average impedance of each wire is 0.8Ω, L = 12.6μH, resistance 0.09Ω. Measurements made at 10kHz.

Bus Wires Z (Impedance, Ohms) Inductance (μH) at 10kHz
https://dccwiki.com/Wire_Sizes_and_Spacing
Parallel, >1 foot spacing 1.38 22
Parallel, Tight 0.57 9
Loose Twist 0.50 8

Rail Resistance, Nickel Silver

The following table gives the impedance of various codes of rail. The impedance was found with 1A (at 60Hz) current flowing through the sample, using a comparator feeding a detector set at 50μV. By injecting a negative impedance, the impedance of the rail is found when the measuring system is brought into balance.

Code of Rail Impedance per metre, mΩ Equivalent Wire Gauge Strands/Gauge
https://dccwiki.com/Rail_Size
100 76 24 7/32
83 108 26 19/38
70 206 28 19/40
  1. The wire used for an equivalent is stranded. Since the measurements were made at 60Hz, impedance better reflects the results.
  2. Rail resistance measurement uncertainty is >50ppm. Actual resistance will vary by manufacturer due to alloy and profile.

Some multifunction decoders have increased sensitivity to waveform distortion because:

  • The manufacturer has designed them to reject out-of-specification waveforms.
  • The default setting is to continue as it was in the absence of a valid waveform (many decoders simply shut down after a packet timeout period). This can make some brands of decoders less sensitive to dirty track resets, at the increased risk of loss of control when waveforms are badly distorted.
  • Failure to remove the EU-mandated interference suppression inductors from the loco motherboard is another cause of loss-of-control at speed.

To isolate this issue:

  1. remove the vehicle from the track,
  2. place in a cradle or on a short section of isolated flex-track (restrain the vehicle if needed),
  3. power supplied with jumpers directly from the command station's track output.
    1. disconnect the command station from the layout's power bus first!

This process will isolate whether the problem is layout or vehicle wiring.

Other Opinions

"The track power bus wires should generally be parallel to each other. Slightly twisting the track power bus wires together will virtually eliminate radio interference, but this is not absolutely necessary. Avoid non-parallel wiring which might be tempting when running wires through and around various obstacles. This prevents unnecessary electronic emanations. The trains will not care, but reception of distant AM radio stations might experience some interference if track power bus wires are neither twisted nor parallel."


DIGITAL COMMAND CONTROL; Stan Ames, Rutger Friberg, and Ed Loizeaux, Alt om Hobby AB, 1998, page 38, paragraph 4.1.1

Digitrax doesn’t require it, and suggests that proper selection of wire gauge and feeder lengths kept to a minimum are essential to reducing resistance and power loss. 


Terminating Bus Wires

This is another DCC topic that gets a lot of ink (or maybe electrons moving) on a regular basis.

In general, bus wires should not need termination. However, you may find it beneficial on pre-installed long wire runs and/or in situations in which your experiencing control problems, such as decoders losing their programming or worse, a decoder blowing up. Refer to the your system manual to see what is recommended. The RC Network can absorb some of a voltage spike by giving it an alternate path, instead of your decoder’s front end.

For more information on Bus Snubbers or Terminators, see Bus Termination. Also see the section on Inductance above.

Some manufacturers recommend the installation of a bus terminator, others do not. Digitrax doesn’t recommend them, while some command stations may have the equivalent built in. If the output of the booster is a high impedance, this usually minimizes the issue. A low impedance output driving the track bus with moving higher impedance loads on it will create a transmission line, and ringing is quite possible.

As a rule, they should only be installed if needed, and after proper investigation such as measuring the waveform with an oscilloscope.

Feeder Wires

Track soldered at the joints, with feeder wires

Feeder wires are wires that connect the track to the bus. That is, every few feet, a set of wires run from the bus to the track. The goal is to make sure that there are no voltage drops and that the train has full power available to it. The benefits are that the train will not slow down. Also, this helps to ensure that the booster's short circuit protection will work.

Feeder Spacing

For a trouble-free railroad, it is recommended that you follow these guidelines for feeder wire spacing.

Feeder Spacing Guidelines DCCWiki.com/Wire_Sizes_and_Spacing
Scale Feeder Spacing
G (1:20.3-1:29) Every 12 − 20 feet (4m-6m)
I (1:32)
O (1:48)
S (1:64)
HO (1:87.1) Every 3 to 6 feet
TT (1:120) Depending on size of the layout: Mainline ≤ 250 feet: every 4ft, 250 − 450ft of mainline:every 3 ft,
> 450 ft Every piece of track, for short pieces (≤ 5") should connected to a bigger piece
N (1:160) Every piece of track should have its own feeder. Track pieces >18" should have a feeder near each end. Never rely on rail joiners for electrical connections
Z (1:220) Every separate piece of track should have its own feeder. Never rely on rail joiners for electrical connections!

Feeder Tips

Distance between Feeders

This is directly related to the rail used. With Code 100 to Code 83 (HO Scale) rail, every three to six feet (1 - 2 metres) is recommended. With smaller rail, such at Code 55, more feeders will be needed as the impedance of the rail will have increased.

Length of Feeders

Feeders should be kept as short as practically possible. There will be exceptions, but as a rule, no longer than needed. Options also include routing the power bus for easier and shorter feeder installation, such as routing it diagonally across a yard. Or branching off from the power bus to feed a number of sidings.

Don't Place Feeders at the End of a Short Section

If you have a very short block or track section, and will only have one set of feeders, place it in the middle instead of at either end. Don't worry if you can't get it exactly in the middle. There is the ideal and then there is the practical: aim for the ideal, but keep the practical in sight.

Feeders can be installed in a variety of ways. Marrettes, splices or IDCs (Insulation Displacement Connectors). When choosing a mechanical method of joining the feeder to the track bus, make sure it can handle the difference in gauge. IDCs are made for joining two wires, and they are available for different gauges.

IDCs are also known as ScotchLoks (manufactured/invented by 3M) or sometimes called 'suitcase connectors'. The 3M devices are usually superior in design and construction than the generic knock-offs.

3M makes a T-Tap, an IDC you crimp onto the wire, which has a tab which will accept an appropriately sized crimp-on female connector. These can be useful to make connections for feeders as well, with the advantage of being able to be disconnected.

See Also

  • Wiring - Primary wiring article.