IMPROVE CONDUCTIVITY IN OUTDOOR TRACK
Nature can wreak havoc with the electricity powering our trains
BY RUSS REINBERG
EVENTUALLY MOST OF us will have to deal with the problem of improving electrical conductivity between sections of our outdoor track. The vast majority of us use sectional track and the problem is dirt, corrosion, oxidation, or all three building up in the joints between those sections. The result is erratic locomotive performance or outright stalls. In other words, when electrons don't flow, locos don't go.
The four most common ways to deal with areas of poor conductivity are the use of dielectric paste; adding clamping devices such as "Bond-Rs", "Rail Clamps", and "Conductors"; drilling and tapping rail joiners and installing machine screws; and soldering rails or jumper wires.
Here is a rundown of each with the pros and cons:
The simplest method would seem to be to apply an electrically conductive goop called dielectric paste. LGB markets one (5101 Graphite Lubricant). It takes absolutely no skill whatsoever to put on. It is invisible. And it involves virtually no labor: Just squeeze some into each rail joiner and slip together the rails. What could be simpler?
But it seems nothing is without compromise. Over time the paste may dry out, break down, and leave you with dirtier jail joints than if you had used nothing. If that should happen, cleaning the paste out of the rail joiners would be a nightmare.
The next easiest solution is adding clamps to the rail joints. Of the three kinds now on the market, Bond-Rs and Rail Clamps are almost invisible; Conductors are definitely visible. Each applies the same principle, pressure, to a different part of the rail joiner. Bond-Rs and Rail Clamps squeeze from the side; Conductors bear down from above, pressing the top of the joiner onto the base of the rail.
Both Bond-Rs and Rail Clamps offer versions to eliminate the need for joiners altogether because they, themselves, act as a high-pressure joiner.
All clamps are more effective if you install them when the rail is new or, in the case of older track with areas of low voltage, after you have pulled apart the sections and cleaned the joints thoroughly. Since clamps are add-on mechanical devices, you may unscrew and remove them if you want to change your track plan.
One last note: Rail Clamp manufactures a third product to fit Garich Light Transport Code 250 (.250-inch high) rail--the only such product currently available for rail smaller than the standard Code 332 (.332-inch high).
Now the downside:
First, price. Clamping devices are relatively expensive to produce, particularly the machined brass/stainless steel Allen head screw variety. They may add anywhere from three to four dollars to the cost of a track section, depending on the quantity you buy.
Second, indeterminate long-term performance. Detractors claim dirt, corrosion, and oxidation will build up even in clamped joints and cause problems anyway--it just takes longer. How long is "longer"? Maybe longer than you'll keep the layout; both the hobby and the products are too new for anyone to have anything resembling a substantive answer.
Finally, possible damage to track. If you fasten your track to a sub-roadbed such as concrete and allow insufficient latitude for expansion and contraction, clamped tracks may buckle. We have received reports from hobbyists even in regions with very moderate climates claiming their track buckled between winter and summer. At least one had to rebuild his entire railroad for that reason. In fairness, other methods can cause the same problem and you may minimize it by allowing gaps for rail expansion every ten or twelve feet.
DRILLING AND TAPPING FOR SCREWS
Drilling and tapping the rail and joiners for machine screws is actually a variation of the clamping method. The track Aristocraft (formerly REA) markets comes drilled and tapped and includes screws. But the screws are steel, not brass, and they rust. Of course, brass screws will oxidize but brass suffers less deterioration outdoors. Either way, the idea is to create an uninterrupted electrical path from one rail section to the next.
Advantages? Good appearance and the ability to disassemble the track.
Disadvantages? Drilling, tapping, and installing screws in LGB or smaller size track is slow, tedious work. And when you have finished, you may still have the same possibility of oxidation or buckling as with the clamping method (assuming those to be actual possibilities).
Some people also run a copper wire from one screw to the other. Those using electrified aluminum rails use aluminum wire and stainless steel or aluminum screws. Some even secure the connection with solder.
And that brings up the final method for improving electrical conductivity.
Many variations of the soldering system exist: Some solder a jumper wire directly to the outside of the rail. Some drill through the web of the rail, slip in a U-shaped 12- or 16-gauge copper wire, and solder everything into a single electro-mechanical unit. Others solder rail ends together (butt-solder) and install jumpers only every twelve feet or so to allow for expansion and contraction. Some prefer solid jumpers, other stranded. Some use insulated wire, others bare.
On the positive side, many insist it is, overall, the most reliable and enduring method. It is also inexpensive.
On the negative side, soldered jumper wires are visible, at least in close-up photographs. Perhaps more importantly, the work is slow, tedious, and sometimes quite awkward, especially if your railroad is at ground level. And some detractors claim heat and cold eventually may cause a few soldered joints to deteriorate.
Hint: If you do solder you'll need a fairly powerful iron--about 200 watts. And a good flux will save you many headaches. If you can find it, Glasflux by GlaStar Corporation, Chatsworth, CA 91311 (distributed by Bibo Mercantile, Mountain View, CA 94040) has worked exceptionally well for many people. It is a product for stained glass window soldering jobs.
Clearly no ideal solution exists. Until recently LGB has ignored the entire problem of electrical deterioration at rail joints and officially has endorsed no method. I have used clamps and soldered jumper wires; neither satisfies me entirely. Overall, the soldering jumper wires to the rails seems to have worked best on my own layout even though some people swear by other methods. After all, nearly all aspects of outdoor railroading involve concessions and each of us must choose those we find most bearable.
The alternative, of course, would be to move our layouts indoors.