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Tutorials, Tips & Tricks -->>

Tutorials, Tips & Tricks -->>


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How To Test A Decoder Installation

Test Tracks and Programming Tracks


So, you have just finished a decoder installation and are getting ready for the moment of truth…  will the smoke stay in or will you set it free?         


Rest assured, everyone has released the smoke for a decoder at least once.  It happens.  Don’t be intimidated by it.  But, there are a few steps you can take along the way to minimize this experience and validate your work.


Before discussing the process, I would like to describe my physical setup.  After about the six smoking decoder, I started looking for a better a way.  Errors happen.  Hidden shorts are, well, hidden.  Sometimes you miss things. 


The best practice for working with DCC is to set up a test and/or programming track.


What is a test track?  Simply put, it is a dedicated track for testing engines separate from your main layout.  Do you need one?  It just depends.  If you have a basement sized layout with hundreds of locos, yes.  If you have a 2x4 N-trak module with a couple of locos, probably not.


What is a programming track?  Simply put, it is a 100% isolated section of track that is connected to a special set of outputs on the command station to be used for the purpose of programming DCC decoders.  Do you need one? Yes, if you plan to use DCC regardless of the size of your layout or the number of locomotives you own.


Almost every DCC Command Station produced today has the ability to establish an isolated programming track.  There are two modes you can use to program a decoder, Program On Main (POM) or Program Track.  When you use Program On Main mode, you have to specify the address of the decoder you want to program and then the CV you want to change.  Every decoder on the track that has that address will be changed accordingly.  When you use Program Track mode, only the decoder(s) on the Program Track will be changed.  It will be changed regardless of the address or any other CV value.  This is particularly important if you have forgotten the address or entered a value that has the board locked up.  It is also handy for doing resets and complete reprogramming.


Here is a schematic of how I have wired the test track.  I have many additional devices connected to my track at input “A” since I works with many different decoders.  The devices include a Soundtraxx PTB-100, a LokProgrammer, a LokTester, a QSI Decoder programmer, and a Digitrax PR3.  I will undoubtedly have more as time goes by and new products are introduced. 


Subsequently, I use the Digitrax PR3 as my interface to a PC (and JMRI/Decoder Pro) at this connection.  This connection is only necessary as you develop a need for the device.



I use a DPDT – Center Off toggle switch to toggle between DC and DCC.  This is handy for testing checking DC locomotives before conversion.


I use a DPDT toggle switch to toggle between Program and Ops mode on the same dedicated test track.


I also use a DPDT switch to connect the many auxiliary  devices to the track.


Finally, I have a pair of alligator clips wired in series on a SPDT switch that I use to connect a LED, a 33-ohm resistor, and an Amp Meter to the test track.


The LED is handy to verify that power is present to the rail.  The resistor is used at the recommendation of some DCC Decoder manufactures.  The alligator clips are just plain handy.  They can be used to quickly connect a set of multi-meter leads to measure amperage or stall current. 


I also have a set of alligator clips attached to each rail to quickly measure voltage.  They are also extremely convenient for connecting a decoder or decoder tester to the


One neat trick I found along the way is to install a ¾ amp AGC fuse holder and fuse in series with one leg of the connection to my dedicated test track.  I have nearly eliminated the problem of smoking decoders.


Here is a picture of the fuse.  I have found it so successful, I now offer them to my customers as a Test Track Fuse Kit and Test Track Fuses – 5 pk.




Testing A Decoder Installation


The process of testing the install is pretty straight forward and will work with any decoder that supports read-back.


Step 1 – Place the locomotive on an isolated programming track and read the address in programming mode.  ( Note: Some sound decoders may require additional hardware to read the CVs) 


  • If you can read the address, proceed to step 2. 
  • If you cannot read the address, verify the installation.  There is a problem with continuity of the power pick up or a problem with a short on the motor circuit.
  • Inspect.  Correct.  Retest.


Step 2 – Place the locomotive on a main track and power up the decoder.  Test the FWD and REV headlights. 

Now test motion control. 


If everything works… celebrate with a few laps to warm it up then do the final programming like function mapping, speed matching and consist control definitions.


Happy Programming