Tam Valley Depot wireless on-board DCC receiver

A wireless receiver for use with any DCC decoder
Kevin Strong
Wireless on-board DCC receiver
Tam Valley Depot
4541 Hidalgo Ave.
San Diego CA 92117
Price: $119.95
Website: www.tamvalleydepot.com

Wireless DCC receiver (DRS1 Hi-Power) for use with any generic DCC decoder (compatible with Airwire throttles); 28V; 3-amp continuous capacity; 5-amp peak capacity

Pros: Works with any DCC-compatible decoder, including factory-installed units; current and voltage capacity sufficient for most large-scale locomotives; small size

Cons: Only one frequency available (Airwire channel 16)
I’m a sound junkie, and love a good locomotive sound system. The latest generations of DCC decoders offering fantastic options for sound, motor, and light control. That’s all well and good if you’re running track-powered DCC. Unfortunately, it often leaves those of us running battery power somewhat in the lurch, unable to take advantage of these control boards. What we need is a wireless receiver that we can pair with any of these DCC decoders, so we can use them without the need for track power.

Enter Tam Valley Depot and their family of “Dead Rail System” products. “Dead Rail” means no power to the track. Tam Valley Depot got its start offering wireless transmitters and receivers for small-scale modelers wanting to get away from having to clean their rails. The idea is that there’s a small transmitter that connects to the output of any commercial DCC command station, which then broadcasts the DCC commands to these small on-board receivers. That allows the modeler to use any DCC command control system (even using it with track power as well) but run locomotives without needing track pickups, provided there’s an on-board battery. Intended for the small scales, these are low-current, low-voltage receivers. The company also makes a booster board that can handle higher voltages and current. It didn’t take too much thought to combine these two products into one small board, creating a receiver suitable for the voltages and current usually associated with large-scale trains: the DRS1 Hi-Power.

This is a wireless receiver that’s compatible with any DCC-compliant decoder. The circuit board measures 1.2" x .5" x  2.7" and has a short (about 5") wire antenna. The antenna is tuned to the wavelength of the radio frequency so, while you can bend it to fit the installation, you shouldn’t cut it.

Installation of the board is straightforward. You simply connect the battery power to the board, and the DCC decoder to its output terminals. The battery input is labeled for positive and negative but if you accidentally get it backward you won’t harm the board—it just won’t turn on. The maximum voltage the board can handle is 28V, which is typically well in excess of what most battery operators are using, so I don’t think you need to worry about exceeding that. The board can handle a continuous current of 3 amps and peaks of up to 5 amps, which should be more than enough for all but the most power-hungry locomotives.

If you’re installing this receiver in a locomotive that does not have any dedicated command-control electronics, you’d wire the output of the receiver to the input of the particular DCC decoder you want to use, then hook the motor, lights, speakers, etc. up to the DCC decoder per its instructions. Be sure to disconnect any power pickups from the rails.

If you’re installing this receiver in a locomotive that has a factory-installed DCC decoder, you simple need to find the power coming from the rails to the DCC decoder, then, instead, connect the output of the receiver to that decoder input. Again, be sure to disconnect the on-board electronics from the track pickups so as not to backfeed power to the rails.

Now you’ve got a wireless receiver in the locomotive. What do you use as a transmitter? If you have a DCC command station already, you can use that. Simply connect Tam Valley’s DRS1 transmitter to the output terminals of the commands station and it will broadcast that signal to the on-board receiver.

If you don’t have a DCC command station (and most battery R/C large scalers do not), the system is compatible with Airwire’s line of handheld throttles. However, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. First, the receiver uses Airwire’s channel 16 and this cannot be changed. This does not impact the DCC decoder address (0 – 9999). It means that if you have multiple locomotives running with this receiver installed, they will all be receiving the same radio frequency. If you’re the sole operator, this is not a big deal. You can run multiple locomotives with one transmitter, as each receiver listens specifically for commands addressed to its unique DCC address. However, if there are multiple operators, each running a locomotive equipped with this receiver, you may experience interference issues with multiple transmitters broadcasting on the same channel. (Airwire’s latest throttles allow you to dial back the signal strength of each transmitter to accommodate multiple operators. The trade-off is that the range of the system becomes limited.)

On that note, because this receiver works only on channel 16, you must have a transmitter that can transmit on that channel. Airwire’s T-5000 and older T-9000 throttles can. Their original RF-1300 throttle cannot so it can’t be used with this receiver. Also, the G-wire transmitter (compatible with Airwire) only goes up to channel 8, so it, too, cannot be used with this receiver. (Note: on the T-9000 throttle, the code for channel 16 is “54.”)

I tested the receiver with a QSI “Titan” decoder. While QSI normally produces a dedicated wireless receiver for this decoder, the product has been temporarily taken off the market pending upgrades.

I had a project on the bench with the QSI decoder installed that needed some way of sending it signals. This worked out well for the purposes of this review, as I’ve used the Titan with QSI’s receiver in other locomotives, so this gave me something to which I could compare this new receiver.

Installation was easy. As soon as I turned on the locomotive and transmitter, and set the transmitter to channel 16, the decoder came to life. A quick tap of some of the function buttons, and I heard the horn, bell, and other sounds I had programmed on the decoder. I turned the knob, and the locomotive revved up and started moving. It performed every bit as well as any other locomotive I have regarding response time and control.

I did find that every now and then the horn would get stuck “on,” though I’ve also had that happen with one other locomotive with the same QSI decoder with QSI receiver (though less frequently). I don’t know whether to chalk that one up to the receiver, transmitter, decoder, or perhaps a combination of all three. I could perform both “Service mode” and “Operations mode” programming for the CVs with the transmitter.

Tam Valley Depot claims a range of upward of 300' in what they call “ideal conditions.” I have yet to get 300' range from anything I run with an Airwire throttle, so apparently my conditions are far from “ideal.” I can typically get around 50' or so consistently with a locomotive being run off of my Airwire transmitter, and this one seemed to fit that pattern. The antenna placement figures prominently into that equation and reception on any of my locomotives is seldom (if ever) a perfect circular reception pattern.

The DRS1 receiver fit that pattern well. There were a few specific orientations between the transmitter and receiver where the locomotive’s effective range was limited to around 20' but moving just a few feet in any direction caused the range to increase again. Since the locomotive is typically always moving, these “deaf spots” are usually transient and short lived.

Overall, I found the performance of this receiver to be every bit as good as other Airwire-compatible wireless receivers I’ve used. I really like the fact that this receiver gives me a generic DCC output that can be used with any DCC-compliant decoder from any manufacturer. The only drawback that I can see is that it’s limited to only one frequency but it’s not really that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. I do wish that they might have chosen a frequency in the channel 0–8 range that’s supported by the original Airwire and G-wire throttles, if only to give additional options for controllers if you had them on hand already.

I’m looking forward to playing with more DCC sound decoders now that I can finally control them in a battery-powered environment.


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