Claudius Veit

Z-gauge and driving digital, is this really possible?
How can I get started? What do I need for a startup? How much does it cost?

These and many other questions coming up in the beginning of thinking about digitizing a Z-gauge modelrailway. Often the first ambitions are not very high. Often it is just a success, driving the first two trains independently on the same track. However, the ambitions are growing together with the growing of the layout and the amount of trains.
And with every new step into the digital world, it is a step full of improvements, about technical solutions and, of course, having fun.
Meanwhile many digital beginners are experts. And they nearly can’t remember the time, playing with analog trains, contrary to the opinion of many traders and model railroaders, who still believe: Z and digital - impossibe.

Which digital systems are available?

What is the difference between these three systems?

What is minimum required for the digital startup?

How much does it cost to get started?

What if nothing works?

Please remove all capacitors of the feeding tracks!

What is a booster and what is it good for?

Will VELMO decoders be available for steamlocos?

Which digital systems are available?
First of all, you have to decide, which digital system or format you want to use.
Three formats are available: DCC, SelecTRIX* and MM (Märklin* Motorola*).
DCC is a standard, which is most commonly used all over the world. For the DCC standard the most equipment is available from many different suppliers.
SelecTRIX* is often used in Germany and the countries around. The reason is a thing of the past: The first available decoders, being small enough for Z-locos, came from suppliers of the SelecTRIX* standard.
Meanwhile, there’s no more a difference between the size of the decoders, comparing the different systems.
MM comes from Märklin* as one of the first digital systems and was developed first to digitize H0 gauge locomotives. This system can also be used for Z-gauge, asince the decoders became small enough and are working as well as all other systems. We don’t offer any decoders for the MM system.

What is the difference between these three systems?
The main difference of these three systems is tha protocol, which contains the information for the communication between the digital central and the decoders inside the locos, at the turnouts and the signal lights. This protocol is like a language, that is being sent via the tracks and wires. Each system uses its own language. The difference between these languages is similar to cars, driving with gasoline and diesel: Both are driving by using a combution engine, but each can’t use the fuel from the other one.
Now there are digital centrals available, that are working with two or more different protocols simultaniously, (e.g. DCC and SelecTRIX* but these centrals are more expensive like e.g. pure DCC centrals.

What is minimum required for the digital startup?
For a small layout, being at the beginning of digitizing, I would propose the following: Just have a short look into the internet, at your local trader or at a tradeshow for a cheap DCC digital central. Don’t hesitate to have a look at your collegues of the H0 or N gauge. Often there are some cheap central stations available, coming from a digital starter set.
If you already own an analog Märklin* transformer, you possibly might use it to supply the digital central. For more informationen about this please refer our homepage under the heading
track voltage.
Furthermore you need a decoder for each loco. You can buy it from us, if you want to digitize a diesel- or electric-locomotive. The installation of our decoders is very easy. It’s not necessary to solder, to mill or to break lines and you can switch the locomotive back to it’s original condition anytime. With a little practice, you can digitize a locomotive within less than 10 minutes. You only have to change the printed circuit board against the decoder and, if necessary, change some screws of the locomotive. You just need a small screwdriver for the installation, that’s all.
Which decoder fits into your loco is shown on our
product pages.
That’s all you need to drive digital.
The turnouts and signal lights can still be used as usual, using switches or buttons.
A you can see, it is not necessary to digitize everything at one time. And a PC is also not necessary, like some people guess. It is only necessary, if you want to automize your layout or if you want to realize a railway control center.

How much does it cost to get started?
Cheap digital centarals are available for less than 100,- EUR, VELMO decoders are  available from 69,- EUR. With a little luck, the digital fun starts for two locos and a digital central for less than 200,- EUR.
To digitize bigger model railway layouts, it might makes sense to get a more expensive digital central, that includes more features. What kind of features the central should have, depends on the reqirements of the user.
Do you only want to use your central to drive your trains or do you want to switch turnouts and signals as well? Should it be a central with textdisplay or with a dot matrix display? May be even colored to display the layout , turnouts and signal lights? How many trains do you want to access at the same time? Do you want to connect a PC? And so on. All in all, the are many different suppliers for digital centrals: ESU*, Lenz*, Märklin*, MÜT*, Rautenhaus*, ROCO*, Tams*, Trix*, Uhlenbrock* and so on.
Please remember: It is important to make a decition for the right digital system. The system or format (DCC, SelecTRIX* etc.) must be the same at all used components and the track voltage of has to be adjusted to the right value of 12V.

What if nothing works?
Sometimes, the devil is in the details and nothing works. Even in the beginning, when each component is new and everything is just finish wired, nothing works. What might be the mistake and how can it be found? Is the digital central initialized correctly? Is the decoder installed correctly? Is there a problem with the track voltage? Is everything connected correctly?
Then just write an Email to me. All our customers finally succeeded and solved all problems to got startet with their first digital experiences.

Please remove all capacitors of the feeding tracks!
A very important tip for the startup:
Please remove all capacitors of all feeding tracks of your layout. Please look also for feeding tracks, that might be anywhere in your layout, but are not used for feeding.
Of course, this has to be done at your programming track, too.
These capacitors disturb the digital signal in such a way, that nothing works correctly!

What is a booster and what is it good for?
In the beginning, when using only a few trains at the same time, the described method (Märklin transformer supplies digital central) works pretty good. But as soon as more than 4 trains are used at the same time, the power supply and the power stage of the digital central might stop working and detects a short.
Then it is the time to rework the layout and share it into segments. Each segment has to be supplied by its own booster. Each booster is connected to the digital central. As a result, the whole layout is supplied with the same digital information, shared into segments with own powersupplies.
My own layout, for example, is shared into two different circular courses, a train station and a depot. So I have to supply these four segments with four boosters and four power supplies (transformers). Each booster has to be adjusted to 12V track voltage. Theoretically it would be possible to supply the whole layout just with one big booster, but I strictly advise against doing this. In case of a short anywhere in the layout or even in a loco, a powerful booster might not detect the short and the loco or the tracks might get damaged.
Several boosters with a current limit of 2 Amperes each detect a short inside the layout fast and save, disconnect the power from the tracks and nothing gets “roasted”.

Will VELMO decoders be available for steamlocos?
Meanwhile, many requests about decoders for steamlocos reached us.
Our solution for the Z gauge locos is to replace the analog circuit boards of the locos by decoder circuit boards with identical dimensions and contacts at the right positions. Unfortunately, steamlocos don’t have any analog circuit boards to replace. So our solution is not working at steamlocos.
With our experiences in developing decoders, we will start finding some solutions for steamlocos in future as well. But at the moment, we can’s exactly say, when this will be. Actually, westill have to develop many decoders for locomotives and trains to be able to supply all available diesel locos, electric locos and motor train sets. Therefore it might takes some years, until we reach the steamlocos.
Today, digitizing a steamloco is not possible without milling and soldering. But there are many specialists and companies doing this work, if you don’t want to do it yourself. But the day might come and you try to digitize your first steamloco on your own. And finally, you are proud when you get it running.

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*) ESU, Lenz, Märklin, Motorola, MÜT, Rautenhaus, ROCO, Selectrix, Tams, Trix, Uhlenbrock:
All these companies and names are registered trademarks or companynames. These names are owned and copyrighted by the companies or the owner of the rights.