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Info on Lionel Z and ZW transformers
Copied from Newsgroups: rec.models.railroad
Written by Dr. Robert M. Blackson ,

Dr. Robert Blackson,

When I learned that LTI was not going to reissue the ZW due to their problems with the UL, I decided that it was time to take the plunge into the murky waters of buying a used power supply. On my layout I was using four PowerMaster Transformers (6-4090) from the late 1970's, and with an expansion of the layout I needed more power. I decided to go to two 275W ZWs, and I have, since then, bought more than two because I plan another expansion that will require a third, and I want to have a "backup" to set in place should one need repaired. So I have some recent experience in buying 275W ZWs, and I admit to being "burned" on my first purchase. I, perhaps, can prevent someone else from such a disappointing experience.

I live in an area where there are train meets within a half-hour drive six times a year. I bought all but one at trains meets in Allentown and Hamburg, Pa., paying $250 to $300. Two of them were in the original box (watch for people using the repro box) with the original spacers and the instruction sheets and one had coiled pieces of wire and the slip of paper "inspected by" # whatever it was. The first of these cost me $250(the price on the post-it note was $275) and the other, the one with the wire and inspection slip, cost me $300, and $300 was the asking price. In a shop in Lansdale, Pa., I paid $200 for one without a box but in LN condition, and the first one I bought was $300 in less than LN shape. The trick is patience. The first time out I acted too quickly and had not learned that it was better to wait. The second one was the one in the shop that looked like a bargain compared to what I had paid for the first one. So take your time at the meets and wait, shop around, look at as many 275W examples as you can, but when you then see one that is head and shoulders above the rest standing on its own quality, buy it.

After my first experience and talking to the man in the shop about what to look for, I went to meets armed with a Phillips screw driver (the seller will never have one to open the top) and a Radio Shack pocket meter. Ask the seller to open the top with your screw driver and look inside for general condition--any rust and I pass on it. Look at the rollers and the windings. Have the rollers been replaced with globs of solder rather than rivets, pass one it. Are the windings scored (from someone having the roller break off but continue to use the control arm and cutting or scoring the windings, any scoring and I pass on it. Look to see that the two arms on the two sides pass. Look for signs of sloppy repair work--possible by someone who did not know what they were doing. Check the connections to the terminals. If anything looks suspicious, pass on it. All but one of mine are clean as a whistle inside, but I have seen a lot of rust and gunk and scored windings. I don't worry about the cord because cord replacement is job one. Feel the handles, how is the tension? Watch for the right handle because it gets the most wear from right handed people. If it feels sloppy, let it go. Check the springiness in the whistle/direction controller. After a couple meets you will get the feel of both this controller and the preferred snugness of the control handles. When you are satisfied with the inside, it is time to have the seller replace the cover and plug it in. Check the pilot light. Use the screw driver to short it out and see that the circuit breaker and red light operate. Check to hear that it is not "a hummer." Some ZWs hummm like mad, and the only way to reduce it is with wedges inside, and that does not really prove satisfactory. I'm keeping my hummer as the backup because it is so annoying.

Now take your meter and check the output of each terminal A through D from the off position to full to make sure that you are getting full power when there is no load on any of the other terminals. Also, go _very_ slowly as you move up to make sure that there is continuity, just move the handle as you feel the roller going over every winding wire by wire as you move up. On the one where I got"burned" there was a gap in continuity that I did not notice with the old mechanical Lionel e-units, but a relative brought a K-Line diesel to run on my layout and it kept dropping into neutral as it accelerated, and it turned out that the electronic e-unit in the K-Line was so sensitive that when the ZW monentarily interrupted continuity the electronic e-unit dropped into neutral. That's how I learned the need to use a meter in testing and to go very slowly, because the cut-out was just at one place,the same place every time, and it showed on a meter.

Check all four terminals, and, of course, if there is a break in the winding, you will get no power above the point of the break. Make sure that all of the terminals are tight. If there is a tender handy, check the whistle controller with a whistle--depending on the sophistication of your meter. I did not mention the cosmetics of the piece, but I am figuring that you would not have stopped to look at it if it had scratches and a look of wear. Even if it looks good on the top, turn it over (don't be alarmed if you hear the core when you turn it over) and look for rust on the bottom or a lot of scratched off paint where the plate is fastened (suggesting careless repairs). Because of the material from which the ZWs were made, you are not going to find mirror finishes unless someone has been buffing them, but you can pretty much tell after you look closely at a dozen what is a nice looking piece.

One advantage to going to meets is that you get to see a larger selection than in a shop where there may be only three or four. When you're satisfied that the piece is good enough to place on your layout and in your home, start to talk price. If you're to convinced that it meets your standards, no price is good enough to buy it. And I would buy only the 275W model--you're going to pay just as much for the one with less power because the seller sees it as a ZW. At a meet you can ask if the seller "has to have that much," but in a store generally you pay what the tag shows--yet at a Saturday meet the same store owner might well be willing to let it go for less. I'd never buy one through the mail-- ever priced the shipping costs _to return_ something as heavy as a ZW? That's just money out of your pocket, unless the seller is going to pay shipping for the return if you don't like it.

After I bought my ZWs I took them to a shop that I trust which is a Lionel authorized service center with someone old enough to have worked on ZWs when they were first in service. The shop has a device to measure where the circuit breaker kicks in, and I have new 6 amp diodes installed as well as new cord and a circuit breaker if needed as well as going over the whole thing. For a testing of the circuit breaker, looking over the whole inside, installing new diodes, installing a new cord, and giving it a slight buffing I paid $38.75. Of course, installing another circuit breaker can add a little more, but the peace of mind is worth it.

Finally, I have my ZWs phased in a Radio Shack outlet strip that has a red pilot light, and I always unplug the outlet strip as soon as I have finished running the trains. I keep a fire extinguisher handy under the layout. When we built the house I had the back of the family room wired separately and specifically for the trains with a heavier circuit breaker.

As for operation, I love the ZW power and would not trade down to190W. I also get multiple fixed-voltage use from the B and C terminals by using little red stick-on arrow heads to mark good voltages. For example, one controller has both Louie the oil drum loader and the log loader attached to it with a red arrow head for each. Because I am not going to run both of those at once, when I use Louie the loader I move the controller to the lower setting, and when I use the log loader I move it to the arrow head pointer stuck to the ZW marking the upper setting. I do the same with the operating water tower. Then also, one is set for the fixed voltage for the 022 switches and another for the fixed voltage to the uncoupling tracks. The beautiful thing is that you can set your own levels for fixed voltages.

I think that these are advantages over the MTH transformer, and if I feel the need for meters, I'll install them on the control panel. But when I've needed a meter reading to trouble shoot, I've just reached into the tool box. I hope that my experience will help some of you looking for ZWs, which by the way can be used with Lionel's new command system should you decide to go that route in the future. But for me, I love the ZW feel and power.

Bob Blackson


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