by Don Fiehmann
Reprinted Courtesy of Railroad Model Craftsman
Update, May 19, 2005:
The Zephyr can operate stationary decoders but does not provide for automated routing. The Hare™, PnP stationary decoder for the Tortoise™, has the “Smart Route” feature that will enable the Zephyr to operate routes.
Review of the new DCC Zephyr system from Digitrax
Mfd. by Digitrax, Inc., 450 Cemetery St. #206, Norcross, GA. 30071 (www.digitrax.com)
One of the reasons I did not get into DCC back in the 1990’s was the high cost of a start up system. Market competition and improved technology has changed that over the years. Prices continue to drop along with improved features. A lot of the low cost systems that have become available in the last few years were useable but lacked many of the features that were in the higher priced systems. The new Zephyr™ system from Digitrax is priced near what you would pay for a good d.c. power pack and has most of the features you would expected to find in higher priced systems. The Zephyr is designed to be a bridge between the old world of d.c. to the new universe DCC. This system is capable of expanding with added throttles (cabs) and boosters. To further entice d.c. modelers the Zephyr even has two “Jump™ Ports” that allow you to use your old power packs as additional throttles(cabs). You can even run a one locomotive without a DCC decoder along with locomotives with decoders installed. More on these features later in this review.
The Zephyr Starter Set includes a DCS50 Command Station/Booster, a PS315 Power Supply and the LT 1 LocoNet Cable and Decoder Tester. It also comes with a well illustrated and well written 56 page Zephyr Manual and a Digitrax Decoder Manual. (No decoders are supplied with the Zephyr system.) The Command Station/booster is a stationary “console” style unit. It has a large speed control knob, reversing switch, a four digit green half inch plus display with four status indicators, a track power, program and brake LEDs. The information in the display is shown decimal A 20 push button keypad is used for function switches and programming. Many of these switches have more than one use depending on the mode the unit is in. The front panel is marked to show the functions of the keypad switches. The PS315 power supply is a plug-in-the-wall transformer with a cord that plugs into the pack of the Command Station. There are two ports for LocoNet and a seven position wire connector. This connector connects the rails, program track, the two standard “jump”power packs and ground. The connections are made putting a stripped wire into a connector then tighten a screw. The PS 315 power supply is rated at 15volts a.c. at 3 amps and the Zephyr system output is rated at 2.5 amps. A second Zephyr can be easily programmed as a booster-only to expand the power. When the Zephyr is used as a booster it can also be set for auto reversing for use in reversing loops. (A reverse loop adapter may be a less expensive way to connect reversing loops.)
The Zephyr has two LocoNet connectors on the back. From these connectors LocoNet connections can be placed around the layout and so the Digitrax walk-around throttles (cabs)can be plugged in. LocoNet cable and connector are all low cost phone type that are easily available at any place that deals in phones or you can buy connector panels designed for the layout. This is all explained in the manual.
The LT1 LocoNet tester is supplied with instructions on how to check out LocoNet connectors and cables. The LT1 can also be used to test out decoders although the Zephyr has full program track abilities for this task.
The Zephyr can handle both 2 and 4 digit addressing, has a separate program track connection and is capable of reading back CVs on the program track. It also allows OPS on-the-main programming that lets you to change CVs on-the-fly. You can also set up MU’s, (multiple units) with the Zephyr. The keypad can control functions F0 to F8. This range of function keys allow control the standard functions and special functions like the Mars lights, and sound! Many low cost systems are limited in the number of functions they can control. The Zephyr will also operate up to 999 stationary (accessory) decoders.
I started this review by downloading the manual from the Digitrax website. Then had to wait for my Zephyr that I had ordered to finish this review. One of the reason I ordered the Zephyr was to have it to go with a portable layout I use to demonstrate DCC. This was the first affordable unit that had all of the features I needed for a complete DCC demonstrating.
The DCS 50 console is small it is only 7 inches wide by 1.75 inches high by 5 inches deep. Allow an inch or two to the depth for the power connector and wiring. The cabinet is make of plastic with silver painted knobs. The 20 buttons protrude about 1/8th of an inch from the front panel and are spaced a little on the close side but no problem for even my big fingers.
I started by powering the Zephyr without connecting to the layout to familiarize myself with the controls. There is a lot of capability packed into this little unit and it takes a little getting use to. Next the Zephyr was connected to my home layout in place of my one remaining d.c. throttle. I was able to operate my F7A&B with an NCE decoder in the A unit and a SoundTraxx decoder in the B unit. This let me test out the function keys. I was able to control “all the bells and whistles” in the B unit and the three different lights in the A unit. The two diesels have the same address for simple consisting. I checked out the program track function and it worked OK and was able to read and write the CVs in a number of different brand of decoders.
The direction switch is convenient for yard use. It has three positions, FORWARD, BRAKE and REVERSE. With this you can leave the throttle knob at a maximum speed and then do all the controlling with the direction switch.
The “jump” port is an interesting feature that uses a d.c. power pack as a throttle that can run DCC locomotives. With two “jump ports” and the Zephyr controls you can run three independent locomotive addresses. (More with the LocoNet connection.) The manual calls for a “Smooth DC Power Pack” to use with jump ports. By smooth I think they mean one that is not a pulse type power pack. A jump port gets a locomotive assignment from the Zephyr. Once assigned the power pack can only control speed and direction. Functions like lights can be turned on before they are assigned. I connect a small power pack to the “port” and found myself running two locomotives, one with each hand. The “port” concept worked very well.
Next I check out the MU feature. For MUing the Zephyr uses universal or basic consisting sometimes call “brut force” consisting. This is where the command station controls the commands to each locomotive in a consist. Three locomotives requires three commands for each instruction. I MUed a couple of diesels and they operated correctly. I have a pair of Doodlebugs that run back to back so they can operate between stations near the ends of the layout without turning them. Zephyr requires consisted units be facing the same physical direction.
Sure enough when they are consisted they both run the same way, but I need one to run in reverse. The solution was to change the “normal direction of travel” bit 0 of CV-29 in the “reverse” Doodlebug. Then the two were consisted and ran back-to-back just fine. A second way to reverse a unit in a consist is by changing CV-19. (CV-19 controls direction and consist address in Advance Consisting. See the August 2002 RMC page 57 for more on consisting.) I changed CV-19 by using the OPS (on-the-fly) programing feature of the Zephyr and this also worked. I did have to change CV-29 bit 0 back so only CV-19 controlled direction. If you do use CV-19 remember to set it to “0″ when removing the decoder from a consist.
The Zephyr can run a locomotive that does have not a decoder installed. It does this by using the “stretched zero” technique. This is part of the NMRA DCC specs. To run a non-DCC locomotive you select address “00″. To check this out I put an SD-40 on the layout and ran it with the Zephyr. Then I assigned the SD-40 to the jump port and ran it with the small power pack while operating the two Doodlebugs with the Zephyr. The top speed on the DS-40 was not as high as it would be on d.c., but acceptable. When sitting still the SD-40 had a low singing sound. My suggestion is not to try this with coreless motors.
The output voltage measured 13.6 volts. A load resistor was connected to the output to test the overload. The display started to indicate overload at over 1.5 amps and the output did not shutdown until over 2 amps.
There is a POWER push button on the keypad that controls the track power. When track power is on it lights an led marked TRACK STATUS. This switch can be used for an emergency off of the layout. To turn power off the whole Zephyr system you need to unplug the transformer or have a power strip with a switch that controls the power. When you unplug the Zephyr it remember the all the addresses and conditions so you can continue where you left off when you power on.
The Zephyr can control up to 999 accessory(stationary) decoders . There are a few DCC controlled turnouts on my layout. To operate these turnouts push the SWITCH button, this turns on the SWITCH mode indicator. Then put in the turnout address and finally push the “+” or “ – “ to throw the switch. The unit remember the last switch operations and indicates it in the display when you select the address of the decoder. The switch feature worked OK.
Even with many of the advance functions of higher priced systems there are just a few limitations. The 2 digit address range is the standard 1 to 127. Address 00 is used for a locomotive without a decoder. The 4 digit range is 0128 to 9983. The maximum number of active addresses that the Zephyr can handle at any one time is 10. The display will read “FuLL” if you try to exceed the 10 active addresses. This is something you may not have to worry about because the unit will purge locomotive addresses that have not been used for 200 seconds. There are some “switches” you can set to control this limit. It can be set to not purge, stop a locomotive when it does purge or purge unused locomotives every 600 seconds. The output voltage to the rails was rated at 13.8 volts and I did not find any provisions for adjusting the voltage. This is fine for HO and larger scales, but for N and Z a lower voltage is sometimes recommended. The output voltage could be lowered by using pairs of 3 amp silicon diodes connected back to back.
Digitrax has done a good job in displaying all of the messages needed on the four digit 7 segment display. Numbers are fine, but there is only a limited number of alpha characters that can be displayed. The manual does a good job in showing just how the display indicates the different messages and conditions. When you run the Zephyr keep the manual handy until you comprehend the messages. It would be nice to have a quick reference card (cheat sheet)that has the main messages on it.
The Zephyr is an ideal starter system for a home layout or a branch line of a larger layout. With the cost of decoder as low as they are it is easy to convert a few locomotives and start running DCC on your layout. Most locomotives today are either “DCC Ready” or already equipped with a decoder. With 2.5 amps this unit will run a number of locomotives in most small scales. It should handle anything from Z up to On3. It could even handle some of the newer O scale locomotives with low current motors. You can connect an 8 amp DB200 Digitrax booster over the LocoNet to the Zephyr if you need more current.
If you have an interest in seeing what DCC is all about the Zephyr is a way to get started with out spending a lot of money. Try adding sound to a locomotive and you will be hooked and may never go back to d.c.!
The Tortoise™, the Tortoise™ Logo and the Tortoise™ graphic are trademarks of Circuitron, Inc. of Romeoville, Il. They and all photos of the Tortoise™ are used with permission. The Hare™ is a product of DCC Specialties, which is in no way affiliated with Circuitron, Inc.