DCC Stay-Alive – is it as good as it sounds?

I’m sure I’m not alone in being frustrated by model locomotives not running well.  Getting constant power to a model’s motor is an all too common  problem.   There is a lot that we can do to help this – keeping the track, wheels and power wipers clean and of course having good well-laid track are vital.  There are also ways that model manufacturers can help to make smooth running easier.  If the motor has a flywheel it can provide momentum for temporary blips in power and having pick-ups on as many wheels as possible helps a lot, as does the quality of the pick-ups (some have a habit of not staying in place as they should).   Bachmann is a little guilty of not having many power pick-ups and their model of the  Standard 5MT is no exception, lacking power pick-ups on the tender.  When track gets a little dirty it is prone to stalling at points.

For this reason, I decided to try a DCC Concepts “Stay Alive” DCC-S4SAP DCC decoder to see if it would help.  The “stay alive” is simply a capacitor that is capable of effectively storing power to allow for a more constant electrical current to the motor.  Although there is nothing new in the technology; it has started to become a common feature on DCC chips.  It adds about £10 to the price tag of a decoder and I wanted to see how much of a difference it makes.

The first comment to make is that the extra capacitor needs more space.  So thoughts of adding these “stay alive” DCC chips to smaller shunters that (due to a short wheel base) are prone to stalling and could really benefit from this; immediately become null and void, as you’ll never find enough space in a small model.  The second thing I found was unimpressive build quality of the decoder a chip.  After just gently putting the 8 pin plug into the model’s socket, two wires popped out of the plug.   No better than a Hornby chip!  So some soldering was needed to re-fix the cables straight away.  On the subject of soldering; you will need to solder the capacitor into place; which is my third comment – so much for plug and play!  I’m glad the soldering iron was still warm!

The next stage was testing the decoder to see how well it works – and it was not nearly as exciting as I hoped.  The 5MT was more reliable and after running for some time the wheels didn’t need cleaning quite as soon as normal.  But it was not quite the hoped for miracle-cure.  There was still an occasional temporary stall; although interestingly the model did not need to be touched to start moving again.  I’m not sure if there is a lag between the capacitor and the motor or whether something else is at work (or not!) here.  I did double check all the connections but was unable to find a cause.  I also found that it did not work when reversing the model (another nail in the coffin of improving shunters!)  Interestingly I’ve also read elsewhere that they do stop lights from flickering either; so DCC diesel/electric model operators should take note.  My final comment is that the chip seemed a little less-than-happy with my Hornby Select; but that’s nothing new – the Hornby Select has “issues” with many non-Hornby chips!

So overall; what is the verdict?  Build quality and soldering aside; the “stay alive” chip is handy without being revolutionary.  The times you could really use some “stay alive” power are in smaller models with short wheel-bases.  You need a lot of extra space and therefore the tested “stay alive” capacitor can only be fitted to a larger locomotive – which will usually have a longer wheel-base and not need it anyway.  In terms of performance the stay alive capacitor is reasonable and I could imagine if you had a large layout it could helpful as it gives you a little more time between cleaning track.  It is not a cure for this though only a delay of the inevitable need to clean the track.  For those with lights and quite possibly those with sound; I’m not sure if this will help you much.  I do not have any plans to purchase another just yet; as I’ve few other models that both need it and have space to fit it.  Finally a message to model manufacturers – this does NOT mean you should have stop producing all-wheel pick-ups! Not at all!  Good quality all wheel-pick-ups; clean and well-laid track are still far more critical!

P.S. Unfortunately today’s post lacks pictures of the installation!  My excuse is that I’m still suffering somewhat from man-flu and the pictures were too poor for publishing!