Keller OnBoard, DCC or ??? N scale getting started

Kilohertz Sep 11, 2020

  1. Kilohertz

    Kilohertz TrainBoard Member

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    Hi all,

    I am getting ready to build an N scale layout this winter and am trying to decide which direction to go for train control and layout control. I bought out my friend who got out of the hobby a few years ago, all N scale, tons of stuff, cars, locos, buildings, track etc. and included was a brand new (33 years NOS) Keller Onboard control system, with all documentation, several throttles and the mixer. The only thing missing are sound modules. I have done a little research on modern DCC and I am an avid electronics nut and am kind of familiar with Arduino, but given that I have this complete system already, I'm tossing around which way to go.

    My gut says, to start out fresh and go "modern" with a DCC system, build an Arduino base unit, but that would probably get into the $200-$400 range for a system with multiple mobile decoders, maybe more, it seems the decoders are the most expensive part.

    Anybody here still using Keller equipment?

    Your thoughts?

    Cheers
     
  2. ajkochev

    ajkochev TrainBoard Member

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    I'd go with the Arduino DCC++ EX route. Very happy with it. Around $50 for the hardware. If you have a older computer you can attach JMRI to the Arduino and with WiThrottle and the web server on it, anyone with a smartphone or tablet has a wireless handheld throttle.
     
  3. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member

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    Playing around with the old stuff could be fun, but I bet you'll eventually want to upgrade to a modern DCC system, especially when you want to purchase and use new engines, or use JMRI to program and run your trains/layout.
     
  4. rray

    rray Staff Member

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    I moved to another state a couple years ago, and got rid of all my old electronics, everything, including big old resistors, caps, T1-3/4 size LED's, DVD Players, MP3 players, cdroms, PC's, power supplies, and tons of devices. All gone. Replaced with SMT resistors, LED's, and other devices, Arduino Nano's, Buck Converters, Boost Converters, DF Players, ect. Everything is tiny now, super powerful and super cheap. I'm all solid state, have no optical or magnetic media, and everything is tiny.

    The only thing old I kept were all my Tortoise switch machines, which are so big I can fit 10 computers in the same space. I also kept all my DCC stuff because it is the only electronics that have remained relevant.
     
  5. Kilohertz

    Kilohertz TrainBoard Member

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    Thanks boys, I believe you are all correct, ditch the old system and start fresh.

    I like the idea of small, I don't know how these Keller units would fit in an N loco, it must take a little wiggling. And yes, the SMT stuff is dirt cheap and so tiny, perfect for N, T1 3/4 would be great for O. :LOL: Speaking of O, I just came home with about 1,000 pieces of O-27 in 7 boxes, mostly excellent clean condition, which will be awesome for my planned shop layout running around the perimeter of the shop on the walls, about 2' below the ceiling, I should have enough. :D

    So now for the N, are there preferred brands of decoders? One's to avoid? If I am using Arduino, I would assume all DCC needs the same code? I have seen mention of DCC++ but will need to do more research to find how it is different from DCC. All part of the fun.

    Cheers
     
  6. rray

    rray Staff Member

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    For decoders, I have had good luck with all of the small ones. I like the Digitrax decoders because they are cheap. I model Z so don't really use sound decoders, but you can in N.

    DCC++ is a compatible DCC system, just using the Arduino with a motor control board to create the DCC system. There are lots of versions going around, and any will perform the basic functions. Some versions include Digitrax transponding, some have LCC layout control, etc. So far it looks like the DCC++ EX is the most complete version.

    So these days you only need one 12-15V, 20amp power supply for an average layout. Depending on your layout plans, you can get larger power supplies for cheap prices. Just avoid buying the supplies offered by DCC manufacturers because they tend to 10X the going prices, as is done with all model train accessory manufacturers. Use the one supply to power your DCC system AND all your accessories.
    Example single brick layout solution for $40:
    1.jpg

    Many things like turntable controllers, Arduino modules, LED Backlighting strips, etc use custom voltages, 3V, 5V, 9V, 12V. Use Buck Converters as needed. These things can be had at 8 units for $12, some cheaper, some more expensive, and are adjustable from 1.5-35V depending upon input voltage and can deliver 3A. 2.jpg

    These things are tiny, often less than 1/2 square inch of real estate, and can be hot glued at point of use easily. Just buss the accessory voltage everywhere, and locally use the buck converters to power local electronics.

    So the bottom line these days is using modern mini electronics, sourced through internet suppliers and enthusiast sites, you can build a complete DCC layout and accessory control system for a fraction of what it cost 20 years ago, using a footprint a fraction of the size it once took.

    What's out there? You can use $4 Arduino's with a $2 motor shield and $4 stepper motor to index turntables. You can add $2 DFPlayers and $1 speakers to add triggered MP3 sound files anywhere on your layout. 0402 wired LED's cost less than 50 cents, and SMD resistors are often $1 for hundred on the tape. Light shows, animations, sound effects, all for a fraction of the cost of the old layout campfire simulator or crossing gate simulator boards. Those companies will soon be gone because they cannot compete.
     
  7. Kilohertz

    Kilohertz TrainBoard Member

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    Thanks Ray, that is amazing that 240W comes out of that little brick. As I have been into electronics for 45 years or so, I have collected lots of stuff, and I have many 12V supplies, but very old school and to get 20A mine are the size of a shoe box and weigh 10 lbs. I may have to do the same as you, scrap all the old stuff. Those little buck/boost converters are great, I have a few of them here from when I was last playing with an Arduino last year. I think I have some motor drivers as well. I just ordered a mess of stuff, micro servos, motor shield, current xfmrs etc. I plan to have everything here and ready to go before the snow flies.

    Appreciate the info.

    Cheers
     
  8. rray

    rray Staff Member

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    I'm not the only one doing this. My friend Jeff Merrill, also a 40+ year veteran of the electronics industry, had just dumped all his parts bins of old electronics, his huge precision bench supply, and giant CRT O Scope, in place for the tiny newer more powerful electronics.

    I recycled a 4 foot x 4 foot x 3 foot high bin of old junk. Jeff probably did the same, and is now adding SMT and LCD stuff to his bench, with Arduino, and Raspberry Pi modules, and all the modern cheap tiny stuff that can do amazing things. It's a new era for us old retirees of expensive oldschool electronics.

    Back in the day, I would highly covet and old 12V transformer, a giant PC Board that had a dozen harvestable T1-3/4 LED's or some electrolytic caps, and an old tower PC could do so much for you back then. But now, you can get a single board computer for $30 that is more powerful and supports 4K video graphics, and has GPIO onboard, Now prewired LED's are so small that a bundle of 50 can occupy the space of a single 5mm LED and a $4 Arduino Nano has 22 digital outputs that can drive motors, lights, trigger sounds, etc, only limited by your imagination. Super cheap, Super powerful, Much smaller carbon footprint!
     
  9. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member

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    The only thing stopping modern electronics from lasting the decades that older stuff did, is aluminum electrolytic capacitors. Cheap and effective, but don't last, especially if powered off for long periods of time. They are banned from most defense programs' component management policies.

    Of course working for decades and still being relevant are two different things. Power supplies are OK (see above), but anything more intelligent than that is at risk of being functionally obsolete, with the ever-advancing state of the art in technology. Now Arduino's have more computational power than my first three home computers in the early 80s, put together (TI 99-4A, Tandy Color Computer II and CC3.) And Raspberry Pi's have as much computational capability as desktop PC's (remember those?) did 10 years ago, along with much better video, audio and connectivity, not to mention power efficiency.

    But luckily, the DCC standard has lasted decades, and anything that runs it well will will continue to be viable for quite some time yet, especially in smaller scales.
     
  10. Kilohertz

    Kilohertz TrainBoard Member

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    Yup! I worked for a railroad for years as radio and signals tech, the cab radios made by /\/\ were loaded with cheap SMT caps which were built in the mid 90's, they would crap out and leak and the radio would be dead. I can't recall how many caps I replaced in those radios and with thru hole parts soldered right onto the pads. Worked great.

    So if we are going to date ourselves :LOL: don't forget the Sinclair ZX80 and the Radio Shack TRS-80...2 of my first computers.

    I really like the Arduino platform and am looking forward to getting one up and running again...it's been a year, hope I remember how to write the code. :rolleyes:

    Cheers
     
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2020
  11. rray

    rray Staff Member

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    I never messed with the trash 80, or any of the Zylog stuff, even though they were fabbed here in Nampa Idaho. I was an Atari 6502 fanboy. I had 800's, 400's, 600XL, 800XL, and 1200XL's. I was in 8 bit heaven back then. I could peek and poke with the best of them, that said, I seem to have lost most of my programming prowess over the years, and it takes me a lot of effort to get an Arduino programmed with exactly what I want. Fortunately we have the internet, and I can always find someone to look over my code and get me back on track.

    The Arduino's so much remind me of my old Atari days, but are so much smaller, faster, and more powerful.
     
  12. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member

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    Oh, my; when peeking and poking were just good, clean fun!

    For the youngsters, PEEK and POKE were the BASIC language interpreter commands for accessing specific memory addresses.

    The CoCo had a Motorola 6809, 8 bit processor with 16-bit arithmetic instructions, and 16-bit index registers/stack pointers. It also had a 8x8 multiply instruction that produced a 16 bit product. It even had a Sign EXtend (SEX) instruction! The company I interned with in college used 6809's in many of their products.
     
    bigGG1fan and rray like this.
  13. Kilohertz

    Kilohertz TrainBoard Member

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    Last night I pulled out my box of N locos, and had a close look at some of the accessories that came from my friend, and even though most of the locos are new and still in the cases, they were new in the late 80's or early 90's and are not "DCC ready". Most are Kato and few Minitrix and a couple of Bachmans. I haven't pulled any of them apart but I image some Dremel work will be required to fit DCC boards. And even though my house size dictates that I build in N scale, my eyes are wondering if perhaps I should build in O :unsure:. I think most of my model railroading will be with reading glasses and magnifiers...the people are the size of ants. o_O

    I will continue to look for DCC decoders as that is all I am missing now, all the Arduino stuff is here or on the way.

    Anyone here old enough to have worked with the Sperry Univac. :LOL: [​IMG]

    Cheers
     
    bigGG1fan and rray like this.
  14. OlyPen

    OlyPen TrainBoard Member

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    Big Jake, I do almost identical work for a Class 1 railroad in the PNW. It's not only older electrolytic caps that can go bad. Several years ago I fired up an HXP-3 with a brand new transfer logic module in it.

    POP!

    An electrolytic cap had blown, showering a bit of molten slag out everywhere inside the chassis. GE fixed it under warranty.
     
  15. SteamDonkey74

    SteamDonkey74 TrainBoard Supporter

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    I bought at one point two Digitrax D300 throttles used that turned on but malfunctioned. I got a good price on them, but it was a little bit of a risk I suppose. I sent them to Digitrax who at the time still serviced them and got them repaired. It turned out the capacitors had failed. All in, I think I spent about $70 to buy the throttles, send them to Digitrax, and pay for the repairs. This was probably about 2009/2010.

    If I were starting over now I'd be going DCC++ as mentioned here. I am already set up with Digitrax command, a booster, and throttles. I know pretty much nothing of that Keller system you mention so I can't comment on whether I would stick with it.

    Adam
     
  16. Kilohertz

    Kilohertz TrainBoard Member

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    I am finally modelling with Arduino, yeah! ...it took way longer to upload this stupid video than it took to get the Arduino programmed...some days I think I would have been better living in the 50's. I mean every time you go to do something you have to update the friggin software. Can you imagine what it would be like every time you got in your car the dash said, you can't go anywhere until you download the latest engine module...too bad! you are out of wifi range..guess you have to tow your car to the nearest hot spot....but I digress. :mad::confused::eek:(n)

    Cheers

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/kq4gkjoinhxhux5/IMG_8888.MOV?dl=0
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2020
  17. rray

    rray Staff Member

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    Yeah, constant updates annoy me too. It started with AOL in the early 90's, and has grown worse ever since. That's why I use Thin Clients with an embedded OS as my PC's. I have both windows 7 and a windows XP thin clients with embedded OS. No updates, no viruses, no problems.
     
  18. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member

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    I just remembered this thread as I was learning about the new Raspberry Pi 400 computer. It is Pi 4b electronics, on a new circuit board, housed inside a keyboard. All of the IO connections (including the GPIO) are on the back edge of the keyboard. It is designed to be a fully functional computer when connected via HDMI to a TV or monitor.

    Sound familiar? Commodore 64's, Atari's, TI-99/4A's, Tandy Color Computers, Sinclair **80's, also hooked up to your TV for a display.

    We've come full circle: what's old is now new again!

    Another benefit of the new board and form factor is that the Pi 400 also has a large heat sink/spreader inside, that does a much better job of keeping the SOC and RAM cool, so it actually runs at a faster default clock rate than the Pi 4b, and some experiments have shown that it can be over-clocked to higher speeds than the standard 4b form factor models can.

    Oh, and to bring this subject back around to model railroading, the Pi Sprog 3 DCC "Hat" is fully compatible with the R-Pi 400, as are the USB based SPROG products!
     
  19. bigGG1fan

    bigGG1fan TrainBoard Member

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    I feel your pain with the eyes... N scale seemed like a great idea 35 years ago. :D

    Not the UNIVAC, but my first post-college job I worked on a homebrew system where you had to use toggle switches to set the boot address, and programmed in ALGOL. Still have a crashed disk from one of the disc packs we used for storage.
     
  20. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member

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    Pick your poison... Larger scales could require a scooter to access the whole layout!
     

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