Join Date: Dec 2007
Location: Centennial, CO
RE: Battery/DCC Cost Question
For uber-basic control, Del's (G Scale Graphics) Pocket RailBoss pushbutton system works pretty well. We use his three-button system out at the Colorado RR museum line, but he's got a new 6-button system out now. The biggest drawback of this system is that there's no visual feedback on the transmitter letting you know what direction you're going, or how much throttle you're giving the locomotive. The lack of visual feedback is the biggest gripe I hear from operators out at the museum, especially new ones trying to figure out how to run their trains on the layout. Once you get the hang of it, it's fine, and I ran my trains using a similar pushbutton controller for more than 10 years just fine. Cordless Renovations has their "RailLinx" system which also uses pushbuttons. I'm not familiar enough with that to recommend it or not.
A step up from that would be the digital proportional systems from Del or Tony Walsham (RCS of Australia). These systems use common 2-stick 2.4gHz R/C transmitters and receivers. Still pretty basic, and relatively inexpensive. The 2-stick controllers can get a bit bulky to carry around, but that's what I started using when I first went battery power, and what I use now to run my live steamers. I prefer smaller controllers you can hold in one hand, but at the same time, I carry mine around for an hour or so at a time when running my steamers, so what's the gripe?
Next up the function food chain would be Aristo's Revolution control system. The transmitter (in my opinion) is superior to basic pushbutton controllers in that there's an LCD screen that tells you direction and throttle settings. Motor control is very good, and the receivers come with sound built in, so whether you use it or not, you've got some semblance of basic sound.
The cost per loco on all of these systems will be about the same (average $90-ish per loco) depending on which system you choose and who you buy it from. The transmitters vary in cost. The key fob transmitters Del uses run from $50 to $90; the 2.4 gHz controllers can be had from as low as $25 to $150. The Aristo controller comes in a transmitter/receiver set that will set you back around $270 - $300 or so (around $190 for the transmitter). The transmitter is a one-time cost if you're only going to have one person running. If multiple operators are desired, multiple transmitters are needed.
The top of the food chain goes to Airwire and QSI in terms of the level of control for motor and sound (and--not surprisingly--also cost.) The Airwire receivers will set you back around $140 give or take (motor and light control only), and while the G-wire receiver that works with the QSI decoder is only $100, the QSI decoder is an additional $200. (But you get motor, light and very good sound control.) The Airwire boards will give you very nice motor and sound control, but you've then got to add sound (Phoenix is most common, for an additional $160 or so.) So, both of these systems will set you back about triple the price per loco for wireless receiver, motor and sound control. It's far from "basic," though, so it's worth it if you want that level of control, it's not worth it if you don't care about it.
Batteries will run you around $40 per locomotive for a 14.8volt, 2.6 amp/hour Lithium Ion battery pack. That should be sufficient to run your locos for around 3 - 4 hours on a charge. If the locos are small, you may have to get a bit "creative' in terms of where to put the batteries, or go with a dedicated trail car if there's absolutely no room. (They'll fit in most cabs, but you'll be able to see them.) That's a per-loco charge if you cannot make the batteries removable, or maybe buy two or three packs for your whole fleet if you can remove them and never run more than one or two locos at once. The charger is a one-time expense, but $25 will get you an appropriate charger than can charge these packs in about 90 minutes. You can buy two and not break the bank.
You're going to need probably about $10 worth of electronic components--charge jack, power switch, fuse, battery connectors) for each loco you do.
In terms of ongoing maintenance of battery power, the only thing is that you will likely have to replace your battery packs once in a while. "They" say you can expect Li-Ion packs to last about 5 years. I've got three packs that are getting close to that point, but still give me stellar performance. Ask me this time next year how they're doing. But--again--if you've only got a few locos or a few battery packs, that's a manageable cost. Quite honestly, I was changing battery chemistries once every 6 or 7 years anyway (and replacing batteries once every 2 - 3 years as well), so it's actually less of a cost concern now than it was before.
Hopefully that gives you some direction to at least start looking. Feel free to come back with any questions. It's mind-boggling at first, but once you're able to get a better handle on how you want to run your trains, and what--specifically--you want to control, it gets easier to pare down the list of options. The amount of physical work to install the most basic vs. the most complex system doesn't change all that much, except perhaps for wiring the bells, whistles, and lights.