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Sean,

It's interesting that both of the previous posts have suggested buying transformers that are seriously expensive.  If you're new to the hobby looking at these price tags may turn you off to it immediately.

To avoid losing you let's look at two other options:

  1. A medium priced traditional transformer -- there are several that are moderately priced, such as MTH's reasonable Z-1000, or Lionel's more expensive and more powerful GW-180.  Both of these are separable between the throttle controller and the power supply.  To use them for command control you can unplug the power supply from the throttle unit and connect it directly to the track, providing a constant 18 volts A.C.  But it's just as easy to leave them connected and turn the throttle up to it's maximum position, which effectively gives the same result.
  2. A command control set -- for remote walk-around operation going to command control introduces a hand-held controller, or alternatively a smartphone with an appropriate app, and an interface to the track that plugs in between the transformer, or as mentioned above it's power supply, and the track (MTH, TIU), or attaches an antenna lead to the outside rail (Lionel, Command Base).  Both of these need a constant 18 volt A.C. supply, applied to the track as mentioned above, or in the case of MTH's TIU most often through the TIU to the track.  The MTH version of this allows conventional control by varying the track track voltage using the handheld or phone, Lionel's version also requires what's called a PowerMaster to be installed between the  transformer, or as mentioned above it's power supply, and the track in order to do the same.

These two scenarios will both give you conventional control, and with number (2) you also get command.

Most importantly either will cost less than either a ZW-L or a Z-4000.

Mike

@ADCX Rob posted:

That one is are seriously expensive for what you get(more that twice as expensive per watt than the ZW-L). The Z-1000 is much better for the price.

Rob,

Fair enough, but you apparently have only one choice.  I like to give alternatives.  The nice thing about the GW-180 is that its power supply is a PH-180.  Because of this your comments imply that the throttle unit is much more expensive than it should be.  Probably, but it is a second choice, it is cheaper than either a ZW-L or a Z-4000, and it does give you a desirable PH-180 brick.

Do you have a second suggestion for a newbie?

Mike

@Mellow Hudson Mike posted:

Do you have a second suggestion for a newbie?

A postwar ZW will fit the bill perfectly for the OP question. 10-14 amps total output, 4 variable outputs for flexibility and accessories, 2 of those with whistle controls.  AND all of the transient voltage suppression for protecting modern electronics that your recommendations have(none). You can buy three of these in good working condition for the price of just one GW-180.

(Circuit breakers are for overloads, not for protecting against damaging, cumulative, voltage spikes which are ongoing... even in the absence of an overload/short/derailment)

Last edited by ADCX Rob

Maybe I'm bit old fashioned and frugal but, for over 20 years I used 4 Lionel LW transformers phased and connected to a grounded power strip. #1) set at a constant voltage to power switch machines; #2) set at two different constant voltages for lights, signals, etc.; #3&4) each powering 2 separate power districts with a TVS on each. I noticed these still can be found at less than $50 each in good condition often with new power cords. They always provided enough power to run 2 lighted passenger trains (6 to 8 cars each) and a third freight train simultaneously over my layout with 4.17% grades. In my opinion the Lionel LW is one of the most reliable, not abused, and often overlooked transformers out there. I only switched to two PH180 bricks about 5 years ago as I wanted the faster circuit breaker protection these offered, and I longer ran anything conventional.

In the new product category, the MTH Z4000 is my favorite two-throttle-controlled, high-wattage transformer. Priced at around $650, it is hundreds less than a new Lionel ZW. It also produces a sinewave output which may have some benefits running some postwar engines a bit smoother at lower voltages. It has accessory outputs but if you are going to have many accessories and switches, you may need additional power sources.

The MTH Z1000 (with brick and controller) at $140.00 is the most cost-effective, single-throttle choice to handle smaller layouts. You can start with the Z1000 and later graduate to a Z4000 while using the Z1000 for auxiliary power needs.

For a used transformer, the postwar Lionel ZW is the solid choice but must be used with an external circuit breaker.  It also is a great for auxiliary power applications. As with any used product, look for a reliable seller to ensure the transformer is in tip-top condition.

For only command-control applications, the Lionel PH-180 is by far the best choice.

Last edited by Bruce Brown

Sean,

It's interesting that both of the previous posts have suggested buying transformers that are seriously expensive.  If you're new to the hobby looking at these price tags may turn you off to it immediately.

To avoid losing you let's look at two other options:

  1. A medium priced traditional transformer -- there are several that are moderately priced, such as MTH's reasonable Z-1000, or Lionel's more expensive and more powerful GW-180.  Both of these are separable between the throttle controller and the power supply.  To use them for command control you can unplug the power supply from the throttle unit and connect it directly to the track, providing a constant 18 volts A.C.  But it's just as easy to leave them connected and turn the throttle up to it's maximum position, which effectively gives the same result.
  2. A command control set -- for remote walk-around operation going to command control introduces a hand-held controller, or alternatively a smartphone with an appropriate app, and an interface to the track that plugs in between the transformer, or as mentioned above it's power supply, and the track (MTH, TIU), or attaches an antenna lead to the outside rail (Lionel, Command Base).  Both of these need a constant 18 volt A.C. supply, applied to the track as mentioned above, or in the case of MTH's TIU most often through the TIU to the track.  The MTH version of this allows conventional control by varying the track track voltage using the handheld or phone, Lionel's version also requires what's called a PowerMaster to be installed between the  transformer, or as mentioned above it's power supply, and the track in order to do the same.

These two scenarios will both give you conventional control, and with number (2) you also get command.

Most importantly either will cost less than either a ZW-L or a Z-4000.

Mike

The poster mentioned nothing about available funds. Perhaps that’s not an issue to him. The ZWL would certainly take him well into the future with his enjoyment of the hobby.

@romiller49 posted:

The poster mentioned nothing about available funds. Perhaps that’s not an issue to him. The ZWL would certainly take him well into the future with his enjoyment of the hobby.

Rod,

I didn't say that it wouldn't.

Sorry for my mistake in assessing Sean's situation though.  You're absolutely right.

You, the original poster, and all the folks posting behind me with additional suggestions on ways to be thrifty, please feel free to ignore my previous suggestions because they may not be appropriate to Sean's interests.

My apologies.

Mike

Rod,

I didn't say that it wouldn't.

Sorry for my mistake in assessing Sean's situation though.  You're absolutely right.

You, the original poster, and all the folks posting behind me with additional suggestions on ways to be thrifty, please feel free to ignore my previous suggestions because they may not be appropriate to Sean's interests.

My apologies.

Mike

Your right the new ZW is well worth the price and can be fully controlled all four channels with TMCC. Allowing non TMCC engines to run by remote.

There are a lot of options with transformers, and people have already mentioned a lot of choices.  The nice part is you really aren't stuck with any option, you can always switch/upgrade. A lot of people have the transformer/power supply to run the trains, then use other transformers to power switches/lights/accessories. A lot depends on what layout you have at the time (and obviously if your layout grows, your needs can change. If you are running multiple trains at the same time, that draws more power. If you are only running a single train at a time, a Z-1000 would work for you, though if you also have a lot of accessories/switches, that would be underpowered).

One thing modern transformers (like the ZW-l, Z-4000) have in their favor is that they have built in circuit breakers that are fast blow. Older transformers as people have noted require fast blow breakers added on the outputs to the track (wouldn't hurt for auxiliary power like switches) since the breaker internally was designed to protect the transformer (Post war engines are built like bricks and are not sensitive to much; modern engines with circuit boards/components are somewhat fragile).

Almost every transformer could use a TVS (a kind of diode) across every track power (between the power/common output) to protect against power spikes (it is basically the same thing as power strips have for surges/spikes for electrical gear). 

Again, this is by no means complete:

1)Lionel Post War transformers, like ZW/KW.  These are the old standard bearers, they have fairly large outputs (the ZW is rated at like 275, but it is a lot less; KW was 190, again to track is a lot less). Advantage to these is they are rugged, they are pretty easily fixed since they are relatively simple, and you can get them fixed if you don't want to do it.

Another is they are affordable, unless it is some delusional person trying to fawn off a ZW as 'rare', you can get one that has been redone for around 100 bucks these days. ZW's if not used for track power, are really good for powering accessories and the like.

If you want to run conventional engines using a command control system (like legacy/tmcc), you can add a Powermaster between the transformer and the track, the powermaster will vary track voltage on command from the legacy/tmcc unit,allows remote control of conventional engines. Depending which variant you get (power output), they are like 100-140 bucks last I checked.

2)Lionel Modern transformers (CW, ZW variants except the new ZW-1). Advantage is they are modern, have good transformers, and are a lot cheaper than buying a new one. Disadvantage is they may not be easy to fix if they break, some of them also can have issues running conventional because the output is not true sine wave.

3)ZW-l. Lionel's current top end transformer. Has about as much power as you wish (well over 600 watts, have heard arguments about its real output). Looks like a postwar ZW but is entirely modern. Besides the power capability, it features the ability to control the variable output on all 4 channels via legacy/tmcc, so you don't have to buy powermasters (if you wanted variable control on all 4 channels, that would cost you at least 400 bucks if using powermasters). Has meters showing power status to the tracks, and to me is kind of cool looking. The downside is the price is really expensive, new they were well over 900 dollars, I saw a used one at York that was 800.  The ZW-L from what I know doesn't produce "pure' sine wave, which can cause issues with performance with some post war engines (have heard people tell me they have never seen a problem, I have never had one, so I don't know).

4)MTH Z-4000. Modern transformer, has the built in protection, has plenty of power. Produces I believe pure sine wave, also has good circuit protection. They used to offer a remote that allowed using it to remotely control conventional engines (similar to the way the ZW-L does), but that hasn't been offered in a while. Z-4000's are just coming back into production (I don't know when the new ones will be available or if they are, the supply chain hurt MTH and the others a lot). As a result used ones are not cheap, and the new ones are well over 600.

To control conventional engines using this your best bet is get a MTH DCS setup, w TIU. The variable output on the TIU can control up to 2 engines plus of course allows command control of MTH PS 2 and 3 engines.

5)MRC transformers. They had (I don't know if they still make them) transformers for the 3 rail AC user. I have seen them used, and they are generally cheap.  The downside on them (and again, just my impression) is from grumbling I have heard they don't work well with more than a few post war engines, and I think their largest output is much smaller than even the Lionel PW ZW.

The really important thing is deciding what kind of equipment you are going to run. If you are only going to run command control then you simply need a power supply that can provide 18v to the track or DCS TIU, and then have something that can run your accessories and the like. Almost any of the transformers as a power supply would work, or things like the power bricks that have been produced. Even if you want to run conventional, a DCS TIU can do variable output for conventional engines or a combination of a transformer with Lionel Powermasters and a legacy/TMCC control base can do the same thing.

In the end it comes down to budget and what you desire, there are tradeoffs with cost and how much work you need to do. Keep in mind the command control systems are not cheap (whenever they become available!), both of them are close to 600 bucks if not more these days on preorder, and thanks to scarcity legacy and DCS old generation systems are going for a fortune. 

Again the nice part is any decision you make is not going to be wrong, all the choices can be made to work and if you upgrade it isn't hard to swap out a transformer. With command control systems currently not available (I don't know if Lionel started shipping the new base 3.0 yet, the legacy 'upgrade'), you could wire the layout for conventional block control and run it 'off the handles', then when those systems become available it isn't hard to add them to the system (really just a bit of rewiring).   

Figure out what your wants and needs are, figure out the budget and that will likely guide you to what you need. If I had my desire, I would wire the layout using a ZW-L, get the new DCS and Base 3.0, use the DCS TIU for conventional remote control, and be done (I could save some money, buy the ZW-L and the base 3.0, for around 1400+, but still steep for me). However, at current prices that will be like 2k or more, so isn't in my budget, so I likely will wire for conventional control using my postwar ZW, and do it so adding DCS and Cab 3.0 later will be easy do do (for example, wiring the power to the track where there is only 1 power feeder per district/block), that can then be used for DCS signal as well as track power).

Others will have much more direct thoughts, these are just mine.

@bigkid posted:

There are a lot of options with transformers, and people have already mentioned a lot of choices.  The nice part is you really aren't stuck with any option, you can always switch/upgrade. ..........................................

You did a really great job with the detailed choices you laid out, but in the above statement the part in bold is dependent upon availability and one's tolerance for price gouging.

The biggest problem for two years now in this hobby has been buying control systems.  Second to none.  That doesn't look like it is going to change anytime soon.

John

My transformer of choice is Lionel's 180W Powerhouse Brick attached to a 180W Legacy Powermaster. For more power, Lionel makes a 360W Powermaster that can be powered by 2 180W Bricks. The 180W Brick is perfect for my setup because I just need the raw power, and I use Legacy to run all my trains.

With my current setup, I can run my Legacy locos with my Legacy remote, and I can operate my conventional steam loco with the Legacy system as well (just not at the same time). Plus, the prices (even with inflation) are not so bad, especially if you look on Amazon or at a good Lionel dealer like I did. You can always use a smaller transformer (CW80, Z1000, etc.; I have a CW80 from my original train set) for powering switches and accessories.

@Craftech posted:

You did a really great job with the detailed choices you laid out, but in the above statement the part in bold is dependent upon availability and one's tolerance for price gouging.

The biggest problem for two years now in this hobby has been buying control systems.  Second to none.  That doesn't look like it is going to change anytime soon.

John

I mentioned about the lack of availability with command control systems and as an alternative said someone could wire for conventional block control, then late on when command bases become available, fairly easily set them up. It is a great point, though, and one sadly we have to worry about



"In the end it comes down to budget and what you desire, there are tradeoffs with cost and how much work you need to do. Keep in mind the command control systems are not cheap (whenever they become available!), both of them are close to 600 bucks if not more these days on preorder, and thanks to scarcity legacy and DCS old generation systems are going for a fortune.

Again the nice part is any decision you make is not going to be wrong, all the choices can be made to work and if you upgrade it isn't hard to swap out a transformer. With command control systems currently not available (I don't know if Lionel started shipping the new base 3.0 yet, the legacy 'upgrade'), you could wire the layout for conventional block control and run it 'off the handles', then when those systems become available it isn't hard to add them to the system (really just a bit of rewiring). " 

@bigkid posted:
Almost every transformer could use a TVS

TVS mandatory, breakers optional.  Transient Voltage spikes occur mostly in the absence of a circuit overload, the damage is cumulative on electronic components.

When a short occurs, there is little or no current flowing to the modern circuitry, but you want to clamp any spikes resulting from derailments and breakers tripping(a major cause of transients).

It doesn't matter the type of engine, TMCC or legacy engines respond to the command base, doesn't really care as far as I know what kind of transformer it is. About the only thing I can think of is if you decide to operate them in conventional mode, if they somehow might have trouble with a clipped versus pure sine wave (and that I can't answer), but in command mode all it cares about is the 18v being on the track (TMCC/legacy base units don't handle power, other than what they need to power up, unlike DCS where the power for the track passes through the TIU unit).   What would matter more I think is how much power you need to run engines&car lighting, and then for switches/accessories/etc. You could easily power your track with one transformer (like a ZW) and have another dedicated to accessories and not break the bank. On the other hand a modern ZW-1 or Z4000 likely could handle it all given their power ratings, really would come down to your own personal preference/budget.

@seank941 posted:

Hello. I'm working on a new layout and I need a new transformer. I want to start using command control, but I also want the ability to run conventional. I also want to make sure I have enough power for switches and accessories. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Expensive, but a couple of things I like about the MTH Z-4000 are that, A) it is a two-handle transformer, so that I can operate a conventional loop with one handle wired to that loop, while simultaneously operating a command control loop set to 18v for command engine operation with the other handle wired to that loop at the same time, and B) it has separate taps for both 14 vac and 10 vac to operate many accessories without the potential need for another/additional transformer, and C) it has plenty of power to do all of the above for most layouts.   

In terms of the likelihood of available future service/parts, you are better off with Lionel equipment in my view at this time, particularly if you have only TMCC and Legacy locos.  Simply put, the future existence of Lionel is a better bet than that of other companies who make power supplies.

If you like conventional control, the ZW-L makes sense,  if cost isn't a big issue.  On a per watt basis, it's no more expensive than other power supplies that give you conventional control.  You could also just go with Lionel Powerhouses alone, as the least expensive way to control these locos, if you are going command mode only.

If you want both conventional and command you could go with Lionel Powerhouses and Legacy Powermasters.  A bit more money.

The ZW-L also has the capacity to control locos in conventional mode by remote if you have a cab-1L or Legacy cab-2.  So while more expensive than the Powerhouse plus Powermaster combos, it also has some features that go beyond that (handles, aesthetics, meters, etc.)

If you are comfortable with electronics, a reconditioned postwar ZW or other transformers, with TVS(s) installed, is also economical for both conventional and command as has been suggested. 

Last edited by Landsteiner
@Landsteiner posted:
On a per watt basis, (ZW-L) is no more expensive than other power supplies that give you conventional control.

The ZW-L cannot compete with a good working postwar ZW at the current $0.50 - $0.75 per watt based on a 200 watt(continuously rated) output(250-275 input).

6 ZWs for the price of one ZW-L, 1200 watts, 12 handles w/ whistle controls, & 12 variable accessory taps, instead of 620 watts, four handles.

"The ZW-L cannot compete with a good working postwar ZW at the current $0.50 - $0.75 per watt based on a 200 watt(continuously rated) output(250-275 input).

6 ZWs for the price of one ZW-L, 1200 watts, 12 handles w/ whistle controls, & 12 variable accessory taps, instead of 620 watts, four handles."

Point taken and quite correct.  I was thinking of currently manufactured products, such as the Z4000 vs. the ZW-L, which meet current (pun intended) standards for safety for the consumer and the locomotives.

The ZWs (and I have one) are great if reconditioned by those who know what they are doing,  and used by those who also have some idea what they are doing as well .

@Landsteiner posted:
standards for safety for the consumer and the locomotives...

Aside from UL listings for household use, there aren't any standards for locomotive "safety".  The closest you can come is the TIU which actually has Transient Voltage Suppression components on-board, and the earliest versions of the TPC PowerMasters which were so undersized they are prone to shorting or exploding.

Transient Voltage Suppression is a burden(slight) placed on the owner/operator, The newest ZW-L has nothing that the original 1948 ZW doesn't have in this protection aspect.

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