Monday, December 6, 2010


On the electronics front....
I finally got around to connecting my NCE DCC system to a computer.   Like most of us I had at least a half dozen old PCs sitting around.  The only reason I hadn't tossed them was that I wanted to take out the hard drives first.  Turns out these older systems are just fine, if not better for connecting to the NCE system since you do so by a Serial bus, which most newer systems don't have anymore.  NCE sells an converter for USB but it's a few bucks and like I said, not needed if you use an older machine.  
Why hook up a computer to your model railroad?  -  Basically, to run JMRI.  I think it stands for Java Model Railroad Interface or something along those lines.  It is free, available online for downloading.  Which I did.  It took about a half hour or so to download into my computer - actually first I did a complete dump on the computer hard drive and reinstalled windows, and just a few drivers needed to run the machine, but otherwise I wanted a stripped down unit - it's sole purpose is to interface with my layout.  In case you are wondering - I used an old Dell desktop machine with a 4ghz Celeron processor and 256mb of RAM and Windows XP - JMRI will run on a lot slower machine and earlier versions of Windows.   I will probably hook up a printer for operations and also probably Itunes for sound effects.    The machine has no wireless internet connection  - to connect solely for downloading JMRI and anything in the future I just temporarily pull a long Cat 5 cable from the basement to my router - no big deal.
JMRI loaded fine and worked with the NCE system from the start with no troubleshooting or tweaking needed.  At the basic level, JMRI's Decoder Pro is an easy way to program decoders and even easier to change CVs - no working with the NCE controller - just change the values on a computer screen and press enter.  There are also many options to keeping track of locomotives,..etc.   I programed an Atlas RS5 right off the bat as a test - no problems - then even cooler I used an on screen throttle to run the locomotive.  The potential for automated operations and other things are in this system, its just a matter of learning to program using it.  Also with JMRI is Panel Pro - this allows you to create an on-screen control panel - when you link this to decoder operated switches and a detection and signal system you can run your railroad like the pros.  Again, I'm excited about this feature and plan to use it for my mainline, but I need to learn to set it up first.   There is also an operations feature that I dabbled in for a bit that looks real promising as far as generating switchlists, ..etc. 

Getting back to the old computers - I did end up finally taking the hard drive out of another one while I was setting up JMRI.  But, before you toss the rest of the machine it pays to take it apart - there are a number of very useful components -  I got three motors and a bunch of gears, belts, and other mechanical items that might be useful for layout animation in the future from the CD Drive.  There is a nice 12v fan that might be useful - maybe even on my boat.  The real prize however, is the power supply.  This bad boy puts out five different voltages, most useful to some extent on the layout.  It also has it's own cooling fan and metal case.  It took a few minutes to figure out what everything does - fortunately the circuit board was labeled so that made it pretty easy.  The hardest thing is that this unit won't power up by just plugging it in as there was a separate switch on the computer case for this.  The switch connects to the mother board so it's pretty much impossible to trace back from there - what I did was eliminate all the other wires as having a purpose, and there are a lot, until I was left with a grey and a green -  obviously the switch leg.  I tied them together and plugged in the unit and it powered up.   On my power supply here is the color code (it might be different for your computer)
Blue - -12V (yes that's minus - probably wont use this)
Orange +3.3 volts - think LEDs
Red +5 Volts
Yellow +12 Volts
Black - Ground
Purple +5 volts filtered or something - much lower amp rating
Grey - switch leg
Green - switch leg
Brown - single wire, smaller gauge - some sort of supply 
Pink - same as brown.

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