Athearn electrical insanity (kinda long)

I've been struggling with my Athearn since I converted it to DCC. I replaced most of the friction type electricals with solder and connectors.
I still have the "black" rail pickup going thru the truck/chasis pivot though. And this is where the problem seems to be. It seems to develop a high resistance after a while of running. This makes the engine jerk and surge, it also ends up getting to the point that the engine finally stops from electron starvation.
I had been trying different lubricants and was always lubricating the bronze(?) bushings that surrounds the axles as well as the truck/chasis joint. I figured the oils were causing my electrical issues and I tried silver conductive grease on the axle bushings and chasis/truck pivot the last time I took it all apart. This ended up working even worse than not using the conductive grease.
I mean all of these methods seemed to work for a while, but would start to act up after a few hours of running, the silver grease being the quickest to develop symptoms. This weekend I took it all apart, cleaned out the lubricants, and just gave the gears a smidgen of oil (with no oil on the pivot or axle bushings). This worked pretty well for a couple of hours then it started acting up again. :-(
Looking around the net, I've found where one guy placed a brash shim between the truck and the chasis. He claims it solved the conductivity problem between the truck and chasis on an Athearn. His theory is that it has something to do with the dissimilar metals. I'm going to nab some thin brass as soon as I can. Nothing to lose that's for sure. I'm trying to avoid soldering to the brass rivets in the truck, but I'm ready to resort to anything that will work for more than a couple of hours.
Anyone have any other ideas for me to try? The decoder wiring is all soldered and there are no problems with it, the main problem seems to be that juice just doesn't want to flow between the stamped steel in the truck and the pot-metal chasis.
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I know you don't want to but I find the you get the best results when you solder the leads to the metal frame of the power truck. I solder to the top edge of the frame right above where the wheel bearing. To protect the plastic I wedge a small wad of wet tissue in where the metal joins the plastic. Tin both surfaces first, then add a little extra solder when you attach the wire.
J. Bright
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On 1/21/2008 9:35 PM Jim Bright spake thus:

I was going to say something along these lines. Forget about that half-assed way Athearn and similar locos have of transmitting the juice from the tracks to the motor. It's a lousy system that's bound to fail.
On all my Athearn (and similar, like Stewart) locos, I completely scrapped the power wiring, including the chassis being one of the conductors. Disassemble both trucks and solder wires to both halves; pretty easy to do when apart, using reasonable care not to melt the plastic. You'll end up with a very reliable wiring scheme. You can even rig up some kind of quick-disconnect to allow you to take the loco apart without breaking wires; I used male and female pins intended for D-connectors, and there are other connectors available.
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FYI: Athearn trucks haven't been Zamac for 30 years. The "new" Athearn trucks have the sheet metal sides which are quite solderable. I, too, have drilled and tapped a screw into Athearn frames from time to time. Although I usually solder to the screw head, rather than use a ring lug.
Paul A. Cutler III ************* Weather Or No Go New Haven *************
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Jim Bright wrote:

Ok, the graphite seems to be working, but I may end up doing something like this anyway.
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Also, try "2-26" electrical lubricant. You can get it in a spray can from Lowe's in the electrical aisle. There are some folks on the MR Forum that also use it on the Athearn motor brushes and report improvements in performance WRT noise and amperage requirements (just make sure you let it dry overnight...it's flammable).
Paul A. Cutler III ************* Weather Or No Go New Haven *************
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Pac Man wrote:

Thanks, I'll keep that in mind.
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David Starr wrote:

I took the trucks off, wiped off the contacts and applied some graphite. Seemed to help, but still not right. Then I carefully put some on the little bronze bushings that the axles go thru and viola, smooth as a silk so far. :-)

I'm still trying to figure out what Athearn was thinking with their electrical pickup techniques. It seems obvious that phospher-bronze pickups that rub the backside of the wheel are a _much_ better way than the bronze bushing over the axle. I'm curious to see how the DCC ready Athearns are wired.
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<snip>

pickups
What Athearn was thinking was ease of assembly, which equals a cheaper price. Athearns, once they're working properly, also tend to last a real long time with minimal maintenance (I have my father's Athearn GP30 from the early 1960's that still runs). They also tend to survive trips to the concrete floor (don't ask how I know this...it's a painful memory). BTW, wire wipers on the wheel backs are not a "much better" way than a bushing. Overland (and several other brass importers) uses this method, and quite frankly...it sucks. The wires can get mis-aligned easily. They tend to pick up scenery "fluff" and jam up. They also can get dirty themselves (and are a real PITA to clean without damaging them). I have a Railworks NH "Comet" 3-car train (brass model), and it has the wheel wipers. I ran it for a couple years, then it started shorting out occasionally. Why? Because the wire wipers had somehow started contacting the truck frame and grounding out. To me, it's no surprise that most (if not all) of the major manufacturers of today's high quality plastic models use bearing pickups, not wipers. Atlas, Kato, P2K, Athearn, etc.
Paul A. Cutler III ************* Weather Or No Go New Haven *************
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Pac Man wrote:

After a couple hours of running last night, it started its old tricks of jerking when running over insulated frogs from poor power pickup then finally stopped after another half hour or so. This morning, I applied a bit more graphite to the axle bushings and sure enough it's running smooth again. I'm willing to accept that I may be responsible for my own problems by experimeting with different lubricants in the bushings, but I have cleaned them out pretty well since then.
Running them dry doesn't seem to be an option either. It seems that with dry joints, some kind of insulating black film starts building up on the surface. After a couple of hours running, the train is barely able to run. This crud wipes right off with a paper towel, so I believe that means that something needs to be applied to keep air from reaching the surface of the metal. I'm going to try the highly praised Conducta-Lube, maybe that's the answer. Am I expecting too much by wanting my train to run around the track for more than a couple of hours without maintenance?
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