Arduino Power Considerations

Model railroaders using Arduino boards must be careful to not burn out their boards.

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Keep in mind that while the maximum current on a pin might be rated at 40mA, that’s the absolute maximum. And as the datasheet says, operating at the absolute maximum can be damaging. It is generally recommended to limit to <35mA.

The UNO is the first board many of us encounter and is certainly up to the task of managing 5 turnouts and a control panel, with capacity to spare. There are other Arduino boards suitable for model railroading use; but the UNO is cost-effective and easy to work with.

That said, the issue you have to contend with eventually is the number of connections required to support all the devices and LEDS that will be attached to the microcontroller.

It is essential in early planning to determine all the devices to be connected to the microcontroller and the type of connection each requires to determine what connection issues you will need to resolve. In some cases, going to the UNO’s bigger cousin, the MEGA, will solve connection limits. But even the MEGA has limits. In some cases it makes sense to use pin-multiplying techniques using external chips to drive banks of LEDS, servos or other devices, even when you otherwise have enough pins.
A Connection Plan

The UNO has 14 digital connections, numbered 0 to 13, of which 6 (pins 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, and 11 ) are PWM. It also has 6 analog connections that can be used as digital connections with digitalRead() and digitalWrite() when referenced in the sketch as A0 through A5. That is a grand total of 20 digital pins, of which 6 are PWM.

Of those, two pins are generally off limits on an UNO: digital pins 0 and 1. They are Serial RX and TX respectively, and should be avoided for other uses on any UNO where you expect to use the USB interface — that would be most of the time. On boards without the built-in USB, pins 0 and 1 are fair game.

For five servos we need five digital pins. Even though PWM is used to control servos, the Arduino servo library creates the necessary pulses on any digital pin. However, using the library disables PWM functionality on pins 9 & 10, so some of the UNO’s native PWM capacity is sacrificed in any case.

For the five turnout control buttons we need five basic digital pins. For the control panel indicators, assuming one LED for each leg of each turnout, we need 10 basic digital pins.

That means we need 20 connections; but with pins 0 & 1 reserved for the USB interface, we’re short 2 connections. Many would want to use bi-color red/green LEDS so the state of each leg is continuously shown. That would require 10 additional basic digital connections.

Both inputs and outputs can be multiplied with external chips and boards; multiplying the basic digital outputs is far and away the easiest to implement, because the circuits are simple and the compiler includes native software support without add-on libraries.

Use shift registers to control all the control panel indicators. That reduces the connection load on the UNO to just 3 connections for all LED indicators, no matter how many you end up with. With that, and the 10 pins needed to read the buttons and control the servos, the total digital pins requirement is 13. That leaves 5 available pins, one analog and up to three digital PWM, for other uses.

There is a great tutorial on controlling LEDs with shift registers, and chaining multiple registers together, on the Arduino website. That tutorial is mandatory if you are unfamiliar with shift registers; the circuit(s) shown are what you will be using for control panel LED indicators. The balance of this post assumes the basic knowledge contained in that tutorial.

The power handling capability of an UNO is limited to 40 mA per pin and 400 mA for the entire board. LEDs typically draw between 20 and 30 mA.  So if you are directly powering 20 LEDs from an UNO, you are exceeding its power handling capacity and will burn out the board.

In the example given in the post, no more than half the LEDs well be lit at any one time so we are unlikely to exceed the 400 mA limit overall. A few more lit LEDS, though, would put it over the top. Shift registers duck the problem altogether because each register is powered—and supplies power to connected devices—independently. Other than the total load on your power supply, adding devices/lights to shift registers or even adding additional registers, puts no significant power load on the UNO.

An independent power supply is needed to run servos. From a “best practices” perspective, one should always power external devices with an independent power supply. Arduino’s current handling limits are tight; always using external power supplies avoids that problem.

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