Choosing a DCC system that’s right for you

by Ron Newby

Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2004 edition of “The Interchange” the newsletter of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders and updated on November 16, 2010

What prompted me to switch from conventional DC to DCC was when I started calculating the cost of wiring my new layout. I had always thought that the cost of a DCC system was expensive and that I could not justify the expense to myself or to the finance department. The cost of toggle switches, rotary switches, power supplies and throttles for a walk around system that I would meet my needs soon indicated otherwise. The cost for the yard at Depot Harbour alone would pay for the major part of a DCC system. So, without further ado, here is my story.

I got my start in DCC a few years ago the hard way. The first DCC system I owned I built myself using an old computer and plans off the Internet. Using this system on my test layout (a circle or track) turned out to be a fun and an interesting endeavour. I also had bragging rights, I built it myself. I finally got the nerve to start building my dream layout, so I designed a trackplan and started construction, but that’s another story.

What the system I had built was capable of, and what my needs were going to be on my new layout differed somewhat. In order to get this system to do what I would like required some serious R&D and my understanding of electronic circuitry leaves a lot to be desired.

I’m real good at following directions, but designing something electronically is another matter. My talents lie elsewhere, give me a screwdriver and a fuse box and I can get zapped with the best of them. It was time to go with plan “B”, choosing a commercial system. With so many choices, which one is the best system out there? I started asking around. Talking to people led me to believe that the best DCC system in the world was the one they were using. Ok, I may be exaggerating a bit there, but you get the picture, confusion city, here I come. At one point I thought about tossing a coin, start eliminating the losers of the coin toss one at a time and go with the last system standing. As you can see the coin toss wasn’t really a smart way to go, so it was on to plan “C”.

The first step in going about choosing which DCC system is right for you is to make a list of what you want to do with your DCC system:

  • How many locomotives will you like or need to run at the same time?
  • How many operators could be running at the same time?
  • How many throttles will be required?
  • What features you would like now?
  • What features do you think you might use in the future?Other things to consider are:
  • Initial cost of the system
  • Availability
  • Support: local, the Internet through user groups and manufacturer websites.
  • Expansion capabilities
  • Ease of use and learning curve
  • Availability of third party equipment or software
  • Cost for additional accessories such as boosters, reversing sections etc.
  • WarrantyOnce your wish list is completed, it is time to do some research. There is a lot of information out there. There are DCC systems made by a variety of manufacturers as well as different capabilities. There are systems made by Digitrax, Lenz, NCE (formally North Cost Engineering), MRC (Prodigy), EasyDCC, Zino and a few others.All of these systems have their advantages and disadvantages. First thing to check out is the manufacturer’s websites, the major players have quite extensive websites with tons of information. Another good source are the user forums. have a forum for each system and also some generic groups that are open to any system (these are usually scale specific). Ask your friends why they choose the system they use and what they don’t like about it. I’ve learned more using this approach, as anyone who is happy with their system is more than willing to tell you how great it is. Try to operate at layouts that use different DCC system and see what you like or dislike about the systems in use. Local availability will probably be the major factor in purchasing your system, but there are options. You can buy your system second hand on eBay (I did), order accessories or complete systems though the internet (done that), or find a person who is using the system you plan to use. Chances are, they can tell you who to contact locally who can get components for you (did that too).I haven’t touched on decoders here as there are companies that manufacture only decoders. About 99.9% of the decoders built today are made to the NMRA DCC standards and recommendations and they can be used with any system.

    In the end, the system you choose will be your own personal preference based on your needs and likes. Doing your homework in advance will allow you to make an informed choice and let you purchase a system you will be happy with. One thing I would suggest is that you don’t buy a system that is too small to meet your needs as a compromise. You will soon be either disappointed in that the system doesn’t do what you would like and/or you will by buying a bigger system in the near future.

    So, what system did I chose? I’m not saying as I don’t want to influence anybody and besides, I bought the best system out there.

    Manufacturer Web Sites:

  • Digitrax:
  • EasyDCC:
  • Lenz:
  • MRC:
  • NCE: Groups
    (note: you must join the yahoo community to be able to join these groups, sign up is simple and free, just follow the instructions when you select the “sign up” button)
  • Digitrax:
  • EasyDCC:
  • Lenz:
  • MRC:
  • NCE:
  • N Scale DCC: