Sunday, November 21, 2010

My DCC Adventure

Today, November 21, 2010, was the first day of a new age in my model railroading career. Yesterday I came home from the WGH show in St. Paul with a pile of brand spanking new Digitrax equipment and a credit card that had a serious hurt on it.

I was beat when we got home last night, so just grabbed the manual for the Zephyr Xtra system and sat down in my recliner. Like a lot of other tech heavy things, the manual didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I need to get my hands dirty (figuratively, in this case) before I start to understand what is really going on with a piece of equipment. And so this morning, an Athearn Genesis SD70MAC in H2 paint came off the layout for some work.

Not even knowing how to get the shell off, I adopted my usual style-pull until something breaks. That takes about 15 seconds with one of these models, as there is a boatload of very fine detail on them. One bent grab iron, two broken sanding hoses, and one detached air tank later, the shell was still on the model. I called Chris for advice. Strangely enough, just as he answered the phone, I heard a defect detector sound off. The temperature was something like 19 BELOW. Turns out he was up along the Canadian border fanning the CN and the temps must have been in Celsius. He gave me some advice about 4 hidden tabs that poke through the bottom of the frame and need to be disengaged to remove the shell. Back to work.

Some time later, having detached the second air tank from the unit, I finally managed to get the shell off. Happily, I stared at what I believed to be a DCC-ready light board with a quick plug hanging off the end. Comparing what I was looking at to the decoder that Chris had helped me select, I figured out where the harness had to come apart.

Except it wouldn't. Pull, pry, lever, pray, curse. Nothing worked. Finally, in desparation, I read the instructions. Oh, you have to pinch all the wires and pull-OK, let's give that a try, even though I know it will never work. Oops-I guess it does work. Now to plug the new decoder in. This locomotive may just survive this installation yet.

Not having the layout wired as completely as I want yet, a piece of flex track was prepared and plopped on the kitchen table. Since reading the instructions worked so well for removing the quick plug, I gave in and read the quick start guide. Step by step, the moment of truth approached. Digitrax told me to try running a DC loco first, by selecting address "00". Hmm, something's happening, the loco is giving off a humming noise. Select forward and open the throttle-it moves! Hurrah! Next step is to select a DCC equipped loco, so I removed the GP40 and set the MAC on the track. The brand new decoder was supposed to have an address of "03", so I pushed the loco button, 0-3, then the loco button again. Put 'er in gear and open the throttle-IT'S MOVING!!!!

And you can even make it move the other way. Say, what do all these other buttons do? Why, it has lights! Headlights, and ditch lights! And I can turn them on or off, whether or not the loco is moving. This is kind of fun.

Getting the shell to latch back on wasn't as much fun, but it finally went. Next up was the Atlas GP40, which should only take the moving of a jumper to enable the decoder that came installed from the factory. Once again I selected address "03", but this time there was no response. Hmmmm......

Back to the drawing board. The loco still worked in DC, so I haven't totally destroyed it-that's a good thing. What's this program mode business, and CV readbacks? Why the address is "08", not "03". Guess what, now the loco is working.

DCC is fun, cool, and has the potential to be frustrating. Running two locos on one piece of flex track, independently, with one or two throttles, was a rush. I can't wait to get the layout switched over, and sound installed in the next loco. How sweet it is...

Jim

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