Wire Sizes and Spacing/Twisting the Bus

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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 track bus 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.

Controlling Inductance in the Track Bus

A conductor in free space will have inductance when current flows through it.

A length of wire will have impedance, caused by the resistive and reactive properties of the wire. A larger gauge wire will have less impedance, as its resistance will be lower, and self induction (reactive) properties are also reduced. The mathematics required to demonstrate this is complex and beyond the scope of The DCCWiki.

Compare two long and widely spaced bus wires (inches apart) in parallel with two identical but closely spaced bus wires (~1mm apart). The latter have much 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. Since the two forces present are in opposition, they effectively cancel out. 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 for a stronger signal and clearer communications.

DCC Issues

  1. Excessive track bus impedance can cause a multifunction decoder's PWM pulses to be superimposed onto the DCC signal. This distortion can create problems such as runaway locomotives.
  2. 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.
  3. Large voltage spikes are created during intermittent short circuits caused by derailments or other track electrical issues.
  4. Many boosters rely on rate of change to detect a short circuit. Excessive impedance in the bus can impair the ability of the booster to detect a short by increasing the RL time constant of the bus. This impedes the rate of change, resulting in excessive currents flowing and damaging rolling stock or track work. As impedance is a complex function of both the resistive and reactive components of the bus, keeping the wires close together and using heavy wires goes a long way to control impedance issues.
  5. Excessive voltage drop

Lenz's Law

Nature abhors a change in flux. (D. J. Griffiths)

This is an advanced topic, and it is not necessary to understand the physics involved. It is for reference.

Self Induction

Inductors store current in a magnetic field, when current flow increases, it resists that change. Lenz's Law states that voltage, which will be opposite in polarity, opposes any increase in flux and current. This voltage is called Counter–Electromotive Force, or C–EMF, which is similar to Back EMF. This process is called Self Induction.

When the current is disconnected, such as when the booster output switches phase, the magnetic field collapses inducing an Electromotive Force into the inductor. When this happens the polarity of the self induced voltage is reversed as the inductor attempts to maintain current flow by having the polarity of the induced voltage such that it adds to the source voltage, raising the total voltage in an attempt to maintain current flow in the circuit.

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

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, storing energy. The ‘’points’’ (a switch) then open, the current stops and the magnetic field collapses creates a huge voltage in the secondary coil through mutual inductance. 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.

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. Twisting the wires may 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. It is also advisable to keep the various buses under your layout separated to reduce the possibility of mutual inductance. 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.

Managing Inductance

This table demonstrates the differences that occur when the bus wires are kept apart or kept close together.

The bus under test was made of two lengths of 12AWG wire placed in parallel, ~36 feet each for a total loop of ~72'. One end of the loop was closed to enable a reading to be taken.

Before the inductance measurement, made with an Agilent ESR meter, each wire was measured, resulting in an Average impedance of each wire is 0.8Ω, L = 12.6μH, resistance 0.09Ω. Measurements made at 10kHz to simulate DCC frequencies.

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