Wiring Your Layout for DCC

When converting from DC, what wiring changes to I need to make? Perhaps None!

If your layout works well on DC, it MAY work well on DCC!  The best way to find out is to test it:

  • Disconnect your power pack and substitute a DCC set - the Digitrax Super Chief is a favorite of Bruce's for this, as it beeps when it sees a short. Otherwise, connect a bulb across the rails so that you can see when the track voltage is on.
  • Conduct the "Quarter Test:" Place a quarter across the rails everywhere around the layout and assure that the DCC set sees the short and shuts off the power.

If your layout passes these criteria, you should be fine. If not, read on.

I’m building a new layout or rewiring my existing layout – what should I do?

Here’s what I recommend for HO or smaller (using a 5 amp or smaller booster or power manager):

The goal of this exercise is to provide a power drop to EVERY piece of track. I know that this may sound like overkill, but I’ve never seen a layout where this was done that had problems. Many that tried to shortcut this step do have problems. The extra time and a few dollars worth of wire are much less expensive than the frustration and time spent reworking a layout – especially after the scenery is in place!

Buy 20 AWG thermostat wire (home improvement stores sell it as twisted pair – two solid wires twisted loosely together). The last roll I bought was 500 feet of red and white for about $30. Any smaller (higher number) and the loss in the wire causes problems – any larger and it is difficult to connect to the track.

Buy enough house wire to run a loop around under your mainline plus about 20% for those gotchas that always happen. I recommend 12 AWG for runs in excess of 40 feet and 14 AWG for shorter runs. A small shelf layout (say under 20 feet long) could suffice with 16 AWG. A quick check is to take add all the dimensions of the edge of your layout and add 10%. If you have a U-shaped layout with dimensions of 10, 17, 8, 4, 4, 9, 6 and 4, just add them up (62) and add 10% - buy about 70 feet of each wire. Since I got red and white thermostat wire, I’d buy 70 feet of red and 70 feet of white house wire.

Now comes the question – how do I connect the track feeders (20 AWG wires) to the power bus (the house wires)? There are three methods – each with its advantages and limitations:

1. Quick and Dirty – strip the insulation off the house wire every six feet or so and solder the 20 AWG. Advantage: quick and cheap. Disadvantage: rework is a pain!

2. Slip on Connectors – auto parts stores and other stores sell clips (Scotchlock is the major brand) that will slide over large gauge wire and connect it to smaller gauge wire. Advantage: quick. Disadvantage: these are somewhat expensive and are more prone to failure than soldered connections. CAUTION: get the size for the specific wire sizes that you are connecting.

3. Most Elegant Solution – mount a barrier terminal strip (fairly inexpensive and available at Radio Shack and other electronic suppliers) every so often under your mainline and at both ends of major yards. Using SEPARATE pieces of the heavy wire, connect all of the terminal strips. Thus, you can break up your layout wherever you wish in the future. Position the terminal strips so that you can run less than two feet of 20 AWG wire from the terminal strips to your track feeds. Advantage: easy to rework and troubleshoot while being reliable. Disadvantage: somewhat more time consuming and expensive. Just remember, you may only do this once, so why not do it right?

Now you run the house wire around the layout under the track, using holes in the benchwork or cable clamps for support. Lightly twisting this buss wire seems to eliminate some problems. You might like to put a barrier terminal strip wherever you plan to attach the booster.

Build a buzzer: a 9 volt battery and a buzzer (Radio Shack has them) connected between the two buss wires will buzz the instant you start to wire a short into the layout. The most frequent sources of shorts are “Electro-Frog” switches where the points aren’t insulated and getting confused wiring the track and crossing your wires.


At every other rail joiner, drill a hole near the rail on each side. Whether or not you solder the metal joiners to the track is your option – some like to leave room for rail expansion and so don’t solder the joiners.

Since you’ll be soldering your power drop to every rail, you won’t need to solder the joiners for electrical conductivity. Solder your 20 AWG wire to the rail on each side of the joiner as shown.

Other items to consider:

How do I handle turnouts (switches or points)?

Since DCC is a bit more sensitive to power disruptions than DC, improved reliability can be had by paying a bit more attention to your turnout wiring than you may be used to. Bruce recommends current vintage turnouts, as they are DCC "aware". Older turnouts may need lots of fiddling to handle the momentary shorts. Turnouts basically fall into two categories – here’s a discussion of both and how to handle them:

Peco “Inslu-Frog”, Atlas, and such

These turnouts can be used directly without any need for modification. Advantage: easy to use – Disadvantage: not as easy to set up signals and there is about a one inch dead spot right at the frog (locos with minimal pickup may stall on the switch). I like to drop power to the turnout four places: each of the four rails at the exit of the turnout.

Peco “Electro-Frog”, Shinohara, and such

These turnouts can be used directly by putting insulated joiners on each of the two rails connected to the points of the turnout. There may be some limited reliability, depending upon the contact between the moving point and each rail. To enhance the reliability of these turnouts, use an external switch (part of the ground throw or motor which moves the turnout) and connect power from the selected rail to the frog by an extra drop somewhere inside the triangle. Advantage is that there is almost NO area where the loco does not receive power. Also you can create “quick and dirty” signaling with these turnouts. With a bicolor three lead LED, connect each element to one side of the track. Connect the common lead to the points with a series dropping resistor. Now when the turnout moves the light changes. Power drops to the two outside rails will suffice, especially if you have used an external switch to route power to the frog.

Power Districts

How many operators are you going to have?

Bruce recommends one power district for each JOB! If one job is running a yard, the yard and its lead and the mainline connecting it for a distance should be on the same district. Why the mainline? That protects against a situation where the yard switcher derails on the mainline turnout and a through train is coming!

As you can see, a one-operator layout may not need to be subdivided.

Each power district is wired to its own bus and each district bus is powered from the booster through a circuit protector.

How do I control my turnouts?

Of course you can use ground throws with DCC.

If you want to activate your turnouts with a motor, either stall (Tortoise) or snap, you can do so in the time proven ways with separate power supplies and fascia (or control panel) switches.

If you want DCC (or computer) control of your turnouts, you will want STATIONARY DECODERS for your turnout. These little boards will control between one and eight turouts each, depending upon design. Typically, if you have a lot of turnouts in a small area (like a yard) a larger capacity board, such as one to activate eight turnouts, will be more economical - only one brain to push around 8 turnouts!

Stationary decoders draw their power and control signal from the DCC bus. However, Bruce highly recommends that you connect your stationary decoders to a SEPARATE bus which goes directly to your booster. Put the layout on a circuit breaker (or more). That way, if you short out on a section of the layout, you can still control the turnouts!

Bruce built a small (8.5 x 1.25 foot) HO shelf layout for testing and setup. It is an expanded Time Saver with an A/D track added. He used it at Litchfield Station. It can be seen in the photo in the newpaper article (CLICK HERE). It has four dual turnout stationary controllers activating eight Peco snap motors. There is a circuit breaker between the DCC input to the layout and the track, but the stationary decoders are connected directly to the DCC input.

Turntable

Turntables come in two types - those with contact rings on the shaft and those that use the shaft to connect one rail and the other rail is connected to the support rail in the pit.

If your model has the track wired with one rail connected to the center post and the other wired to the support rail, you simply connect an autoreverse module between the turntable supply contacts and your DCC bus.

If your turntable has two contacts on the shaft, here is how to tell the difference on your model and how to wire them!

Single Split Ring:

Connect your DCC bus to the two contacts directly - the turntable provides the reversing automatically.

Double Continuious Ring:

Connect an autoreverse module between the turntable supply contacts and your DCC bus.

Can it really be that simple? Yes, but some folks try to make it hard.

Copyright © Bruce F. Petrarca 2007 - 2017; All Rights Reserved