April 4, 2014

Some thoughts on battery operation in model railroads

I recently did a quick look article for MRH on the Stanton Battery system. The article was essentially a compilation of various of my notes from this blog. Long time readers of the blog will have seen most of it already. In this post I thought it would be useful to address some points not in the article, and answer several questions I got from people via email and forum posts. I realize that DCC is like a religion. These are my observations and I am not trying to convert you. 

I did not spend much time in the article spelling out some of the advantages of battery power. In case you are not aware, here are some things I find very handy.

1. Track need not be scrupulously clean. Since I charge my batteries through the rails, I need some degree of electrical contact, but not the "clean room" standards that normal DCC requires.
2. Shorts on the track power rails do not stop battery powered locos. During op sessions, when one causes a short, by splitting a turnout or derailing, all locos in that power district go dead.  So one has to divide up the layout into several power districts with separate boosters, or use power shields, or some other expensive solution to break the layout into power segments. Not so with battery power. They chug right through most shorts. No power districts needed. That is a real nice benefit that is frequently overlooked.
3. You don't have to wire your track at all if you don't want. My portable layout has no feeder wires to any of the rails except in the staging cassettes.  That is right ....no wires, no frog juicers,  no broken feeders. You do need to implement a recharging scheme but track power is not required.
4. With battery power, intermittent interruptions in track power do not cause the on-board loco sound to recycle.
5. Did I mention you don’t have to clean track.

Folks with large fleets of locos that are currently DCC may not want to convert all their engines to battery power. But, you could very easily add battery powered locos to an existing DCC wired layout. The two systems work well together.

That is what I did. Two of my locos have conventional DCC. The other 3 (with a 4th coming on board soon) will have battery power. Ted Pamperin added battery power to some of his problematic steamers to improve their performance on a HO scale DCC powered layout.

I had previously wired the first sections of my layout for DCC. I still need to finish about 30 percent of my track. The question I face is whether to wire the remaining section for DCC or not, If I don't add the DCC wiring, then I will have to convert the last two locos from DCC  to battery. However, I have already run the main bus wires into that section. I also have a frog juicer 6 pack unused. The frog juicers make DCC wiring pretty easy. So my current thinking is to wire the rest of the layout for DCC and use it as a power recharge source and DCC control for my first two non battery locos. If I was starting from scratch, I would not bother with wiring.

Yes, one can assign any Stanton equipped loco to any Stanton cab.

There are some other battery systems out there  (see Del Tang,  CVP Airwire,  TamValley). Some are smaller and will work in HO scale locos. Note that my O scale steamers are not much bigger than HO modern diesels.

It is also important to realize that installing a battery DCC system in my small steamers is actually easier than regular DCC. Why? When I do a DCC install, I have to completely disassemble the locos to add insulators and pick-ups on all the wheels. If I do not, then the loco performance is erratic and I have issues with dirty track, stalls, sound break-up, etc. With battery installs extra pickups are not needed. In fact, I got rid of the pickups on the pilot trucks on my first two installs as they aren't needed.

The challenge I had with the first 2 locos has been room in the engines and tenders for the battery and battery power supply. The latest generation of SMRs brass locos has more room in the tenders, so installing will be much easier.

The issue with the plugs between tenders and engines in not unique to battery power. The DCC locos have it too. I plan to hard-wire the rest and have a permanent drawbar between the tender and engine. My experience with moving these engines around is that the less handling the better.  So the plugs will be moot.

Using the Airwire T5000 I am able to program the Stanton Radio Tsunami DCC decoders to fine tune the performance. 

Notice I did not mention cost. I don't know if battery power is cheaper than DCC. I have both systems, so cost is a moot point. What I want is outstanding performance and simplicity. Battery power gives me that. 

With the current state of the art, I would say that battery power is not yet for everyone. Like the adoption of DCC, battery power will really take off when manufacturers start adding it to the new locos.

The Stanton System is intentionally designed for layouts with just a few engines. The Del Tang system is incredible small and may find lots of applications. But any layout where electrical pick-up is an issue (just about all of the 200 plus layouts I have operated on including some of the biggest and most famous) could benefit from freedom of picking up current from the rails.  For layouts like mine, where I am dealing with small, highly detailed, but finicky locos, battery power is imperative.

Radio controlled battery power has other applications on model railroads. Radio controled road vehicles are possibilities, especially with the tiny Del Tang system.  


  1. I'm sure you've heard of Tam Valley's DSR1 as well too. http://www.tamvalleydepot.com/deadrailsystem.html

    I bought an S-Cab to try it out a few years ago, back when they were still being sold by Neil Stanton himself. The S-Cab is one of the simplest systems to use and as far as I know the only one with the BPS allowing charging through the rails.

    I just picked up the DSR1 to try it out as well. No battery charging but it allows you to use your choice of decoder. If someone has a large fleet of locos it means they don't have to re-buy decoders for all them. I paired mine with TCS's new Wowsound. The first few attempts didn't work because the Wowsound actually requires 1 amp. I had to find some new batteries that were large enough to power it.

    Like you said, battery+dcc isn't for everyone yet, but it sure offers a lot of promise right now. I'm finishing my basement now and planning to start a layout in September, and I am very strongly leaning towards not wiring it at all. Perhaps the only track power I might do is DC to light passenger cars and cabooses. We'll see.

  2. I have heard of the Tam Valley system. Some of my friends use it. It is a cool system but does not provide on-track trickle charging.

    My locos are small for O scale. They draw current at about what most HO engines do, and close to what the limit of what the Stanton system can provide. According to the Stanton Website, the BPS can provide 0.5Amps. Neil told me recently that he has a higher capacity battery and BPS now. That may help with my locos.