Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fixing Lionel TMCC ground plane issue without ruining layout cosmetics

Installed ground cover in the yard area and telephone poles carrying a wire to solve the Lionel TMCC ground plane issue where engines to not respond and lights blink.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

More disappointment from Lionel - Yet another bad ES44AC!

My excitement of receiving my third replacement BNSF ES44AC from Lionel quickly changed to disappointment and disgust.  Upon opening the box, I could tell by the packaging that it had been previously opened by someone else, just like the last defective replacement they sent me.  In both cases, the packs of silica gel were wedged in so the loco shifted in shipping and ripped the small packets open allowing little silica beads to be all over the inside of the foam and box.  Also, all 3 locomotives had broken steps on the pilots needing glued back on.  I know how to carefully open and handle these by now, and I am very cautious to see how they come "out of the box".  They can't even be packaged and shipped without damage.

In any case, everything seemed to work and I thought this saga was finally over.  Then, as I started playing with the idle and power save sounds and volume, I realized this banshee squeal through the sound system and speaker that I've only heard before on a Radio Shack 100-in-1 Electronic Kit Project.

I'm done with this nonsense.  A bad Lionel Genset Switcher and (3) bad Lionel ES44AC Hybrids in a row is more than enough for me to see there are major problems here.  Each of the problem locos has had a list of 5 or more things wrong with it, except this last one which only really had 3 problems.  I've tried to be patient, but for now I need to see what can be done to remedy this situation…hopefully in the form of a refund.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

It's getting laughable with Lionel

I received my replacement BNSF ES44AC diesel engine from Lionel and carefully but eagerly unpacked it for a test run.  Initial inspection revealed 3 loose or broken pilot steps which I was able to glue back on.  The cab windows had small scratches and fingerprints, and overall the loco didn't look "brand new in the box."  Further investigation revealed a covered shipping label where it went to some other guy's residence in Michigan in January 2011.

After an initial lube and oil of the gearing, I gave it a test run.  Since my Legacy remote system is still at Lionel for repairs, I had to use my older TMCC remote.  The engine didn't respond consistently to commands, lurched when running, and exhibited the infamous "smoking coupler" as seen in this video:

Feature reset commands didn't help the situation with the antenna or signal issue.  The chain detail on the trucks had excessive slack, and the contact circuit board under the rear hatch had a stripped screw. Lastly, several contacts, circuit boards, and solder points had the appearance of corrosion of some sort.  Ultimately, it went back to Lionel for the 2nd time after spending a full 11 hours in the house.

I am now waiting for a 3rd replacement from Chesterfield, MI, and of course today my supposedly repaired Legacy remote showed up…and I have no Legacy engines to run with it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

BNSF ES44AC loco and Legacy Remote gets returned to Lionel for Repairs

I decided there were too many issues with the BNSF ES44AC Lemon, er, uh, Loco so I returned it to Lionel for a repair. They agreed that there were too many separate issues and are sending me a replacement. I pushed for a replacement and appreciate Lionel's concern and willingness to try to satisfy me.

Also my Legacy remote has never fully charged so it was returned for repair as well.  Supposedly a known issue that requires some hardware upgrades/mods.

Not much going on with trains during the summer so good time for me and Lionel service.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Giving up on Lionel?

In previous posts I have documented my experience with opening up the Lionel Legacy BNSF ES44AC and related build quality and wiring issues inside.

After re-assembling from the last repair, the engine ran OK for a few short sessions and then the rear coupler would no longer fire.  I took it apart and found a broken wire going to the rear coil coupler.  I was able to manipulate the coupler free from the pilot, unwind the tape, re-solder the wire and put it all back together.  During this process I found ALL the wires going to the coil couplers were installed too tightly in the guide slots in the pilot, not allowing the couplers to sway from side to side without putting too much pressure on the wires and eventually tearing them from the coupler.  Simply removing these wires from the slots they were in to add slack proved to be more difficult than first thought, resulting in torn wire insulation that needed repaired.

After fixing all this up and reinstalling the shell, the ground lights did not work.  I opened it up again to find one of the the tiny wires going to the ground lights had broken off…re-soldering this was not fun.  Now after reinstalling the shell the front pilot did not swing smoothly.  I had to monkey with the tightness of the screws holding the shell on.

I’ve only had this for three months but I am reluctant to return for repair because I hear many stories of stuff coming back from Lionel repair with other problems.  And truthfully I see why this happens; things inside are so fragile that every time you remove and reinstall the shell to make a repair you break something else.  Furthermore, my 3-month old Legacy remote never fully charges and I understand I need to return that for service.  Also I still continue to have intermittent ground plane problems with Legacy/TMCC which makes consistent reliable running of command Lionel products on my layout nearly impossible. I love the heft, detail, and sounds of the ES44AC…otherwise everything that says Lionel on it would be sold right now.

And to add insult to injury, my MTH’s just keep on going.  The only problems I ever had with DCS was electrical interference from Lionel engines.  Now I run TMCC and DCS on electrically separate mains and DCS is flawless.  All this without any modification to my current layout wiring or magic light bulbs.

Is it time to just give up on Lionel completely until they take a few years to get their act straightened out?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I just wanna know where the gray wire goes...

In a previous post, I explained how I opened my Lionel Legacy ES44AC and found a loose small gray wire.  I determined it was coming from the radio board with another gray wire which went to a side handrail for the TMCC antenna.  But where should this second loose gray wire go?  It was a mystery for a while, but I had to dig deep.

Photo 1 - On the "good side" of the shell, I removed the 2 silver screws and the orange plastic side panel came off easily

Photo 2 - Once the side panel was removed, clearly the gray wire is attached to the screw at the bottom of the handrail post.  Note that testing continuity with my meter between the gray wire and any part of the screw, post, handrail did NOT show conductivity.  Maybe because it is painted?

Photo 3 - Notice the other side of the shell is different…2 smaller black screws need removed, and a much larger section of orange body comes off as seen in Photo 4

Photo 4 - A mess of wires jammed in this removable shell section in an attempt to keep them away from the motor flywheel. This section of body is a bit fragile in that it is attached to the handrail.

Photo 5 - I looked everywhere for a place where the other gray wire might have been originally attached…the only thing that even came close was the actual bottom of a handrail post inserted through the orange shell that went to an upper handrail on that side of the engine.  See where I marked it with the red arrow.

Photo 6 - This stood out because it was the only post that seemed to have the black covering removed and appear shiny. I attempted to tack the gray wire to this post with solder and it just wouldn't take.  I stuck the wire under the crossed posts and tried to solder.  When I went to put the shell back on it popped off.

Later, a Lionel service station tech told me that this indeed was the correct location for the wire to be attached but it needed high heat and flux to attach successfully.

In the process of all this playing around, the main gray wire broke loose from the radio board.  I had to get in there and re-attach it and shrink tube that.  While working on this, I couldn't get the excess gray wires to lay anywhere away from the flywheel so I decided to remove the second unknown gray wire completely since it would have been capped anyway and just taking up space and didn't seem to affect antenna performance.

Another note is that there are tiny plastic standoffs at the top of each handrail post insulating the handrail/antenna.  These had worked loose and would not stay in position, so a tiny spot of superglue from a toothpick on each solved this problem.

I put everything back together without putting in the 8 screws to the body and did a test run.  Everything worked except the squealing brake sounds. I removed the shell again and reseated the top circuit board and moved some wires around to better positions and re-assembled, assuming I would have to RMA it with Lionel.  I fired it up and it worked fine, squealing brakes and all, for 20 minutes as I put it through the paces.

Working...for now.

Lionel Legacy BNSF ES44AC internal wiring build quality issues

While troubleshooting Legacy/TMCC signal issues, I decided to open the shell on my Legacy ES44AC.  Note that this is essentially a Vision Line Evo Hybrid diesel without the charging lights and without the Vision Line coat-of-arms; and therefore, not being an "official" Vision Line product, I am apparently allowed to open it up for repair without voiding the warranty.

In any case, what I found inside as far as assembly and build quality was not quite up to par.  This subject has been beaten to death on my thread on the OGR forum, but I will summarize the standout assembly quality issues here.
  1. An amazing nine (9) ground wires were twisted together under one small gray wire nut, which would not fit over and bite into that size mass of wires.  At least one of the wires had pulled loose from the bundle and the wire nut was laying inside the chassis. Why these weren't shorting against the chassis or inside of the shell is a mystery, although maybe they were and since it was ground it didn't do much harm.

  2. Three (3) small gray wires coming from the radio board were twisted together but not soldered under a small gray wire nut which was too large and fell off when I touched it.

  3. Furthermore, the one small gray wire coming out of the bundle (which apparently had once gone to the side handrail for antenna) was loose in the engine and shorting against whatever it could hit.  This could explain some of my signal quality issues.  My quest to determine the exact location of where this wire is supposed to attach is the subject of another blog post.

  4. A component I believe to be some type of rectifier is attached to the bottom of the chassis for heat sink purposes. The radio board is mounted above it, crooked, and resting on the bent wires attached to the rectifier.  Although the wires are covered with shrink tubing and it shouldn't affect performance, it would not have taken any additional effort to do this right the first time.  It's just sloppy workmanship.

  5. The small wires going to the electrocouplers were pulled too tight in the channels on the chassis.  Luckily I reseated these to give more play in the wire before they broke loose due to use.

  6. Most of the tape holding the wires away from the motor flywheels inside is separated and pulled away from the shell, thus serving no purpose.

  7. Plug-in boards are loose and wobble.  At one point, everything on my loco worked except for the squealing brake sounds.  Reseating all the boards solved this issue.

  8. Exhaust fans on top are very noisy.  See picture as to where to place a small spot of oil on each post.

  9. Lastly, although not really needed for command use, both this loco and a previously returned Vision Line Genset Switcher have a small clip under the shell for a 9-volt backup battery for sound.  There is no way I could fit a standard 9-volt battery in these clips and still put the nose or hatch back on the locomotives flatly.
In conclusion, for a "Vision Line" locomotive and the associated cost, this is unacceptable workmanship.  Actually for any product this is unacceptable workmanship.

Lionel's CTO Jon Zahornacky caught wind of my thread on the OGR forum and has forwarded these photos and problems to the factory and necessary departments for review.

Lionel Legacy/TMCC Ground Plane Issue and other Miscommunications

My Lionel Legacy ES44AC was stopping at certain consistent points on the track at medium speeds only.  When powered up, the headlight on my 1990's-era TMCC GP7 would blink intermittently.  Both engines would not respond well to commands.  With much troubleshooting and some help from the OGR forums, I determined I had a "ground plane issue."  Not aware of this, I set out to research what this was all about.

Apparently, certain areal conditions like parallel tracks, metal structures, and overhead tracks can cause interference with the Lionel TMCC signal in a particular spot on a layout.  To test for this condition, you hold your hand over the moving locomotive in the problem area and if it works without problems then it is assumed that you are improving the "earth ground signal" in that area and you have a "ground plane issue."
My Lionel Legacy ES44AC diesel stopped at a consistent point on the track in this corner of my layout:

The commonly accepted solution to this ground place issue is to run a parallel wire along side or under the track in the affected area. One end or the wire will not be connected to anything and the other will be attached to an earth ground. NOT the common of the layout but earth ground, for example a nearby electrical outlet ground screw or box or a water pipe know to be earth ground. The wire can have insulation on it or not, but it is preferred to avoid shorts with other wires or track in the area. Gauge and type of wire does not seem critical.
I attached a solid 12-gauge wire to a nearby water pipe and haphazardly draped it over the corner of my layout. It worked! The engine ran many loops without stopping. Further investigation revealed that simply draping the wire over the corner of the layout WITHOUT attaching it to the water pipe worked just as well in this case.  So what about the non-responsive TMCC diesel with the blinking light in the yard? Laying a ground wire near that attached to a nearby water pipe fixed that too!

I was hoping there was a way to fix this problem without running ground wires all over the layout.  While reading more about the ground plane issue, I stumbled upon this passage posted by OGR forum contributor DaleH:

The signal that is sent down the track by the single wire IS NOT received by the antenna in the locomotive. That signal is conducted through the wheels of the locomotive to one "end" of the receiving circuit. The other "end" of the receiving circuit is connected to the antenna, and the antenna picks up an airborne radio signal that radiates from the wiring of the house.
The radiated signal starts as the "ground" side of the TMCC/Legacy Command Base's output, flows through the Base's power plug and cord to the wall wart, transfers from the cable to the U-ground pin on the wall wart to the safety ground wiring of your house, and then throughout the house. This signal, usually referred to here as the "earth ground signal", permeates the entire area, and the antenna on the locomotive can pick this up.
The receiver in the locomotive is activated by the DIFFERENCE in the signals at the two "ends" because in order for any current to flow (in the receiver or elsewhere), there must be a voltage difference.
The systems works very well unless there is too much of the track signal present, making the antenna signal very weak. Common causes are overhead tracks, nearby metal structures connected to the track common (either directly or through leakage paths}, wire screen tunnels, or several parallel closely spaced track such as a yard. Usually problems can be resolved by connecting metal to earth ground, or adding an "earth ground plane" (metal, foil or just wire) near the problem area.
The misconception that the antenna picks up the track signal has been a major stumbling block to the common understanding of how to best use TMCC. To the best of my knowledge, Lionel has never published a truly accurate description of how the system really works.

Wow!  Nice detailed explanation.  I started considering all the things that could have affected my earth ground signal and the paragraph I marked in bold above did it for me.  I realized that my Lionel Legacy base was plugged in through a surge protector power strip.  I wondered if somehow this affected the ground pin on the power plug.  Sure enough, bypassing the power strip and plugging the Legacy base directly into the wall outlet solved all TMCC and Legacy layout problems for all locomotives WITHOUT running any ground wires!

I will assume problem solved...for now.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Bobot's O-Gauge Layout Update (Gallery)

Update and photo gallery of the 12' x 12' basement layout in progress. Added ground cover to the south and east ends between the mainlines, more details around the switch tower, a floodlight tower area, a tank area, a mobile home corner scene, and some shots of Lionel and MTH diesels in action.