drums147 Dec 16, 2021

  1. drums147

    drums147 TrainBoard Member

    That's the question. Please provide at least a little support for your answer and here is my situation/dilemma and try not to let your pro-DCC bias cloud your answer.

    I am in the process of building a completely new (and in reality my last) layout . . . nothing huge, 12'x3', but this will also be my dream layout . . . hence my question.

    I am 65 and a definitely an old school modeler (I have been involved in the hobby 50+ years in one form or another, totally non-DCC). This will be a one-man operation (no one else will ever be operating with me) and in most cases I will probably only be moving one or two locomotives/trains at a time. Also, if it makes a difference, I operate in N-scale.

    Being retired and disabled, I am on a very limited budget, but I would like this last layout to be more or less completed before I reach the "end of the line" (we all know our layouts are never really complete).

    And while DCC looks fantastic (a dream), is worth the time, money and learning curve trying to completely convert to DCC (not only my plans, but ME)?

    1. I own nothing DCC, but have pretty much everything to set-up DC.
    2. I am going to have to invest several hundred (if not thousand range) to purchase ALL the equipment for a DCC layout.
    3. With my limited budget I don't want to head down a road I cannot reach the end of due to my monetary or intellectual situation.

    Excuse my lengthy discourse, but this is important to me as I am suffering a major quandary and need some input from knowledgeable venues before I can make my final decision. Thank you all in advance . . . Big D-
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  2. Mr. Trainiac

    Mr. Trainiac TrainBoard Member

    I think DCC is a question of fleet size. Do you have a significant number of old locomotives to convert? That's really the difficult part and where decoder costs begin to stack up.

    Starting a new layout is the best time to convert to DCC, so I think you are wise to ask now. Getting a DC layout complete and then deciding to convert to DCC can be tedious, as you need to rework the wiring and track circuits, especially switches which are usually power-routing.

    Power-routing switches are good for DC operation, but I think we have seen a shift toward switches designed for DCC layouts. The new Walthers HO track system has switches with all routes powered for DCC operation. If you are using Kato Unitrack, they usually have a selector switch on the bottom for you to choose power or non power routing.

    One thing you need to consider with DC are power districts. If you want to run multiple locomotives, you need discrete zones to run them independently. With DCC, your wiring can be simplified to have one power district. With a small-to-medium sized layout like you are planning, DCC can be manageable. Even just a starter set from NCE or Digitrax should be sufficient to get yourself a fully-functional DCC system.

    I don't think the DCC learning curve is too steep. Obviously new systems have lots of advanced features, but the basics of just getting a train to move can be obtained without much trouble. Once you get trains working, you can dial in the features you wish to use.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2021
  3. MRLdave

    MRLdave TrainBoard Member

    I'm not sure ANYONE needs DCC, but it sure is fun. But if you don't care about all the bells and whistles DCC provides, for the parameters you list, DC would be fine. About the only negative, is the wiring I'm sure you're aware, you need to switch every siding/section of track where you might park a loco. That was the deciding factor for me.
  4. Bookbear1

    Bookbear1 TrainBoard Supporter

    I was in your position, minus the length of time in the hobby (20+ years for me). I dithered long and hard about changing to DCC before making the jump. I didn't go whole hog, I did a MRC Tech 6 unit. It functions very well as a DCC core, even has optional hand-held throttles (tethered, not wireless). It has served me well. HOWEVER.... my main reason for doing this was to use the sound functions on newer DCC locos and to allow more realistic operations of DCC locos. Other than that, there was NO reason to switch, given the size of my layouts. DCC has many advantages for large layouts, but there is a learning curve. Only you can determine if you want to expend the time and effort to learn a different way of wiring and operation.

    In your case, I would stick with DC. You seem to have a number of DC pieces of equipment that would need replacing if you switch to DC (yes, DCC set-ups can usually run in a DC mode, but it's an either/or choice... you can't run both modes at the same time on the same trackage). DCC locos are always more expensive than DC versions of the same unit. Retro-fitting DC locos with DCC decoders is fiddly at best, often impossible given the space available in the loco. Newer DC locos fair better in that regard, but there is still the expense of the decoder, and your time and effort. I've done it, it's possible, but is it worth it? Not always.

    So... build your dream layout, use as many of your old favorites as you wish, and have fun planning and building, and most of all, playing with trains! BTW, MicroMark Tools has MRC Tech 6 units on sale for $99.98 currently. There are also 'beginner' DCC set-ups from the heavy hitters in the DCC world, like DigiTrax's Zephyr, NCE's PowerCab, etc.)
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  5. Hardcoaler

    Hardcoaler TrainBoard Member

    Your age, 50+ year longevity in the hobby and layout size are quite similar to mine and I faced the same decision as I began to think through my new layout.

    Mine too will be a one-man railroad, 34 SqFt. I decided to continue on with DC and will wire the layout accordingly, but I added a toggle switch on my control panel for DCC input. (I have an older DCC throttle and two DCC locomotives.) With this feature, I'll be able to learn more about DCC and add a few more locomotives if I wish. In my brief bit of play with DCC, I am very impressed with the technology.

    I'm not concerned about my DC wiring, as with a one-man railroad there are no block conflicts and the power routing turnouts will direct the power just as they will with DC. Locomotives in my engine terminal will be well protected with multiple blocks to help assure that none receive a shot of the wrong power.

    You ask a good question and more than a few of us old-timers wrestle with it.
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  6. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member

    The DCC specification allows pulse stretching on the DCC waveform to create a DC bias, which can be used to run most DC locomotives, while still controlling other DCC locomotives on the layout at the same time. When enabled (if supported by the DCC system), the DC Locos are controlled via loco "address" 0. Not all DCC systems support DC operation. I know SPROG and NCE do not support DC operation. Generally, DC operation under DCC does not support multiple blocks and throttles for the DC operation, so you are limited to a single DC loco or DC consist operating at a time, along with multiple DCC locos/consists, unless you maintain all the blocking and DC controls.

    There are somewhat unique approaches to operating a DCC vs DC layout. With DC, you operate the layout (controlling which throttles are attached to which blocks of trackage, and all the locos in them). In DCC, you operate the locomotives (and/or consists), no matter where they are on the layout.

    Speaking of consists, DCC allows fine tuning the throttle settings for each DCC locomotive, to speed-match them across the entire throttle range. This is very hard to do in DC. A good operational example of a DCC advantage, is helper operations. Not only do you have individual control of the locomotives, you can on-the-fly create (or dissolve) consists, and even drive the helper right up and couple onto the main loco on the track, wherever you want (not just at the boundary between two blocks).

    All Kato Unitrack switches are power routing. Some of them can be easily re-configured (by moving a screw from one hole to another) to non-power-routing. Unless you are using sound decoders (and want to hear the loco idling "in the hole"), power routing is not always an issue with DCC, and if so, can easily be overcome with additional feeders for the inner rails (outer rails of switches are continuous anyway.) Their crossovers vary; the double crossover is isolated end to end, except for the two outside rails, which are continuous end to end.

    And of course, DCC makes the operation of reverse loops much easier, with an auto-reversing (electrical) switch or booster.

    I suspect your decision may come down to how many of your DC locomotives you would need to upgrade or replace to/with DCC, and if you are proficient enough with fine soldering skills to convert them yourself, or you would hire out the conversions.

    One other big difference between DC and DCC is the potential integration of computers with DCC. JMRI is a free and very powerful software suite that can automate and/or simplify lots of aspects of your DCC layout, including programming (configuring) the decoders. If you are a computer geek, you will love how JMRI marries two great hobbies in one!

    If you are not ready to integrate computers with your trains and layout, that's fine; most DCC starter systems have very intuitive throttles available to manage configuring and running DCC locos.
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  7. Shortround

    Shortround TrainBoard Member

    I'm in some what the same situation. I started with DC when I was in my twenties and wired several layouts for others because back then I was good at it. In the '90s I had two Ns and an O outside. But, had to sell them to move and thought I'ld return in HO and DCC in '07 but that never come to completion. Now at 72 I'm going back to N and struggling like you are as to DC or DCC. I also am asking and started studying (books).
    You got good answers here today but, it's still you decision. My issue is that there are few, if any, small locomotives in N & DCC. I want a switching layout and no passenger interest. Hard to find the smaller cars as well.
    Hope all were helpful and you get more.

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  8. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member


    Are Alco S-2's short enough? Atlas makes them in N scale, DC (DCC-ready for plug-in decoder), DCC, and sound versions, in a variety of liveries.

    But I'm not sure what DCC really buys you on a small switching layout (especially one that does not offer continuous running), operated by one user, that DC cannot deliver, except sound in loco. And in a small switcher, I'm not sure the sound is going to be that good from a speaker that will fit.

    But JMRI software (used with a DCC system) has a virtual sound decoder feature that your computer can play on a speaker under a small layout quite well. JMRI can also build switch lists for you automatically, and a ton of other cool stuff. I suppose you could use JMRI to create switch lists for your layout even without DCC. It can build them at random to keep things interesting. JMRI's practically a hobby unto itself.

    40' railcars are getting fewer and farther between, but they're still out there (and new ones still coming). Most new production is tending to later eras, with longer railcars. Still plenty of re-runs on older cars though. And if you're lucky enough to have a good local hobby shop or two, they'll likely have a lot of old stock.

    Thank you for your service!
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  9. Sumner

    Sumner TrainBoard Member

    I did the same on my test track.


    The entire layout is wired basically as one block. It is either DC or DCC but I can turn the power off to sidings #1 to #5. This allows me to park a DC loco on one with the power off while running DCC for the rest of the layout or vice versa. If you do something similar you don't have to buy into one or the other and can explore both. If you want to run a couple DC throttles for more than one DC loco at a time you could still have a few blocks but wire it similar.

    Hard to answer your question without knowing what areas you are comfortable working in or not, mainly electrical. I'm running DCC++-EX on an Arduino and motor board and JMRI on a Raspberry Pi computer. All of that was less than $100 using a spare monitor/key board/mouse I had. If you go to you can see that you can get DCC up and running very inexpensively with no electronics background. They have made it basically plug-n-play.

    JMRI is free and excellent for programming a DCC loco to its road address (about all you have to do if you want to keep it simple). It also comes up with a WiThrottle so that you can use an Android or Apple phone as a wireless throttle. I'm using an Android and with it I can use the free EngineDriver app and if I want a physical speed/direction knob to use with the phone it only adds about $35 and again no electronics involved ( look HERE ). JMRI can run on a spare computer if you have one so don't necessarily need the Raspberry Pi.

    If you can run a soldering iron and do some basic wiring decoder installs don't have to be black magic using older DC locos as a starting point. Over 90% of the locos I have fit that description and most cost less than $60. I put $16 Digitrax decoders in them and then have a DCC loco. Of course if one won't take on the conversion themselves things will get expensive. I'll bet most of the older DCC locos you have can be 'hard wired' with a decoder that costs less than $20 (ask for links if interested). You can even convert them to sound if you are willing to pay more and work harder but it still doesn't have to cost a ton.

    I bought the U30C above for $55 and put the $40 sound decoder in it and a speaker for a little over $100. A better decoder is going to cost more though.

    With a layout that is 12 feet long I think I'd want a walk-around-wireless throttle and DCC will give you that. With DCC++EX you could have DCC and the throttle for less than $125. I'd wire the layout for both, isn't complicated, and at least leave the door open for DCC. In my case I like using the hand throttle better than the fixed DC throttle.

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  10. jdetray

    jdetray TrainBoard Member

    Big D -

    In my opinion, this is the single most important statement in your post. Assuming you want to operate two (or more) locomotives at the same time, DCC offers overwhelming advantages.

    On a DC layout, running even two locos at the same time dramatically increases the complexity of the layout's wiring. With DCC, there is no additional wiring required to run multiple locos at the same time.

    Here is my personal experience.

    My current layout is a small N-scale layout. When I built it, I had only a single DC powerpack, so I wired the layout as I would any single-powerpack DC layout. In a rare (for me) good decision, I bought a loco that would run on either DC or DCC. I had fun with my DC layout for a while but soon realized I would get more enjoyment if I could have one train circulating the layout while used a second loco to do some switching in my small yard. If I stayed with DC, this would mean purchasing a second DC powerpack AND re-wiring the layout to allow the operation of two DC locos at the same time.

    Instead, I purchased a DCC starter system (NCE Power Cab). I disconnected the DC powerpack from the layout and connected the Power Cab in its place. This took less than 5 minutes, and with NO additional wiring, I now had a DCC layout. The little dual-mode loco was now running as a DCC loco. I soon purchased a second DCC loco and now had two locos running at the same time -- just what I wanted!

    So if you want to run two or more locos at once, I recommend DCC. You'll have to purchase DCC locos or convert some of your existing locos to DCC. You can balance that against the vastly simpler wiring and ease of operation that comes with DCC. Much depends on how many DCC locos you will want.

    Good luck!

    - Jeff
  11. Mike VE2TRV

    Mike VE2TRV TrainBoard Member

    I'd say if you have a lot of locos to add DCC to, DC is just fine. A lot of older locos have no provision for mounting a DCC board, and some may even need to have a part of either the frame or of added weights milled to make room for it.

    Cost-wise, it's a bear. I have a fleet of about 80 locos, 70 of which are operational. Almost all are DC and the few DCC-equipped locos (bought new) are DC compatible. One has a sound board (a BLI USRA 2-8-2) that is also DC compatible with limited functions. To convert/modify my fleet would cost about twice what I paid for my cataract surgery.:eek:

    Not an option, and the cussing required to modify the older engines would make the entire endeavor unpleasant. If I want unpleasant, I'll go shopping on Boxing Day at opening time...:confused:

    But I'm not a masochist.

    Save your money, save your enjoyment. Keep it simple, keep it DC. Keep it fun.
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  12. JimJ

    JimJ Staff Member

    I think you deserve to experience the joys of DCC. Sound and realistic control will provide a new level of model railroad love. Enjoy the latest technology while you can.
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  13. Shortround

    Shortround TrainBoard Member

    But ya miss out on all that fun of wiring a complex layout of many sidings. Flickin all those switches, watching all those lights that indicate what's going on, etc. and having a good memory and a good thought pattern.
    Oh the memories. :confused::eek:o_O
    Like being a platoon leader in combat.

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  14. Doug Gosha

    Doug Gosha TrainBoard Member

    Rich, you hit on it, for me, anyway. I actually like the track-laying/wiring phase and then throwing all the switches, testing my layout-running skills. I like controlling the layout, being more of a conductor/switchman/yard master/engineer rather than just an engineer.

    Of course, these days, I get ever increasingly tested, finding my operating problems much more being caused by me instead of by layout flaws, probably by a ratio of, like 10/1. Things like throwing the wrong switch (turnout) or assigning the wrong block to the wrong locomotive, etc. I still generally enjoy it, however. It's "easier" to get mad at myself than at actual things wrong with the layout.

  15. in2tech

    in2tech TrainBoard Member

    I'm curious what the original poster thinks about all the information they were given? A friend of mine after seeing me constantly posting pictures of my N Scale layout on my Discord, ( mainly a flight simulation Discord, but have a train area ), finally last year or the year before did as most people since they were a kid and bought a HO Scale train set for Christmas, even built a very nice 4' x 8' base I think? Used it for a bit after the holidays, and stopped with it. Still has the base and trains. Then he started liking the pictures I was posting about my 2' x 4' work, asking questions about DCC, etc... even 3D printed me a bunch of N Scale 3D stuff, which he also liked himself, and decided to go N Scale. A few month's back I send him some DC locomotives, cheap rolling stock, and an OLD Bachmann F7 DCC and one with a decoder I fried.

    I just told him, look you are starting brand NEW since you were a kid. Decide now DC or DCC. So for Christmas he is getting a surprise NCE Power Cab Starter Set, ( he bought it, Santa wants it under the tree ), one of those Atlas Track Starter Kits, so he is on his way to an N Scale DCC layout!

    All I can say is for me, DCC is what I always wanted, and made me actually enjoy the hobby now! Running multiple locomotives, and I did it for years with 2 wires connected to the track :) It's a dream come true for me. Luckily over the 20-30 years all my DC locomotives were old ( maybe had 6 total ), not working properly, etc... but had gotten a ton of Atlas N Scale track, which I really like! More than I need!

    And last, if you take care of say an NCE, or Digitrax, or whatever controller, and DCC locomotives, you should be able to sell them for a good price if you don't like DCC?

    I also bought most of my DCC stuff on the Swap Meet really cheap compared to new items, still do, once in awhile!

    Good luck, do what is best for you!
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2021
  16. minesweeper

    minesweeper TrainBoard Member

    Drums, I put here my two cents.
    I selected DCC for my HO layout for the single reason that being switching intensive, (and being me hating wiring) I used DCC to run the locos from an engineer point of view and save on wiring complexity.
    - having 60+ locomotive, of which more than 40 are not DCC equipped, nor wired for it, the complexity of converting these, far overtook the additional wiring I would have done on the layout (also since I put feeder wires on ALL pieces of track, wiring under my modules is anyway quite extensive)
    - cost was also a factor, but being a long term plan I was able to secure basic DCC decoders for all the locomotives I want converted

    These also are some of the reasons why both my older HO and younger kid's mini layout (that one in Z) stay in pure DC.
    Both these layouts are small, there is no need to run TWO trains at the same time since it is single track mainline, and since both use older stock and I am pretty sure both kids will migrate to young girls in a few years, there was no need to create more complications.
    However, there are DC solutions to run TWO locomotives on the same DC layout independently (one is the two cab wiring) and with whay you said in the initial post I respectfully suggest You to stick to DC. It will get you to a working layout faster and cheaper.
    Then, you will also have more time to "complete" it as you wish.

    With hindsight I would also have stayed in DC.
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  17. sidney

    sidney TrainBoard Member

    id say if you already have everything in dc and tight budgets then stay with dc. to convert many locos is going to cost a lot . The dcc main part ( ie ) the brain is not to bad price wise. but you did say tight budget retired and what not. there is nothing wrong with old school . if it makes you happy then use what you already have. my 2 cents witch is worth not much :D
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  18. Shortround

    Shortround TrainBoard Member

    Because of less space I feel that going N and maybe DCC is what I should do. I still have HO cars and two Steam engines both DCC and DC Bachman that I felt I may be able to use on a small switching layout. But what is necessary for them to work with DC for now. They don't function with DCC other than the 2-6-0 slowly chuffs. No movement.

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  19. COverton

    COverton TrainBoard Member

    None of us can answer your question. We would need to understand what about the many aspects of the hobby appeals most to you. From there, we might be able to append the concept of DCC ops to what you desire most and help you to make up your own mind. We don't know that, so it's hard to flesh out a cogent answer.

    DCC offers simpler ops, provided you have good construction, clean and well connected rails, and provided you aren't a geek who actually enjoys the complexity of DC ops with all the blocks operating to keep things moving. There is a fellow over on MR forums, Atlantic Central (his name is Sheldon) who is highly skilled at many things hands-on, and who operates highly sophisticated DC systems with pretty much all the control that DCC offers. This might be something for you to ask about and to help to obviate having to convert all your DC locomotives to DCC.

    In your circumstances, I would try to keep the fun in it to the extent possible. You have physical limitations, and financial ones as well. Your time is precious, and you'd probably want to get up and running maybe the real dream layout...finally. If I were you, I'd look for the easy route, but one that builds excitement AND CAPABILITY as you go. DCC would only possibly add that for you, but the time and expense would be draconian. A more sophisticated DC experience that allows you all that DCC offers, but that also lets you enjoy what you have, would probably help to give you a big spark, if not a steep learning curve (which DCC will impose on you as well).

    By now, you know what will keep you interested and having fun for years. Do that. If that includes some growth, take your pick...both will challenge you, but you may find it more rewarding to limit your learning and to get to the fun part sooner rather than later.
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  20. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member

    DCC is what got me back into model railroading.

    I had a DC N scale Unitrack layout (of sorts, unscenic'd on a hollow core door) in the early 2000's, but boxed it all up when the space was needed for other reasons. I dismantled and stored it all away until early last year, after I retired. I never had multiple power packs, wiring blocks etc. just sidings that were shut off by the switch that led to them (that was the extent of my 'running' multiple trains non-simultaneously).

    After I retired a couple of years ago, I became interested in DCC when I discovered JMRI, and all it could do (both things that DC does not do well, and things that DCC requires (e.g. programming decoders). When I found a DCC system that ran as a hat on a Raspberry Pi computer (running Linux and JMRI), I was intrigued. When I found I could use my smart phone as a hand-held throttle, for multiple trains, and throw switches, I was hooked!

    Now I've planned and begun mocking up a layout that essentially requires DCC to be practical and interesting, due to complexity and limited space. Even if it is a bit of a spaghetti bowl.

    DCC can allow layouts to be more engaging and easier to enjoy than if DC powered, whether operated alone or with friends.
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