November, 2015

I originally dreamed up the wiring plan for the simpit back in 2009.  During construction in 2010 I started realizing that I was going to have some problems.  You see, I was hard wiring switches from the panel all the way back to the Hagstrom Electronics KE-USB108 control boards.  What that meant was that if I ever had to repair or replace a switch, I had no option but to do the soldering work right there in the pit.  Because the boards ended up living in a cabinet behind the pit (no room inside the pit for three control boards, several breakout boards, and all the wiring and junk that goes with them), if I ever had to move the pit, I was going to have to unwire/rewire the whole thing.  Not good.

So, I decided in early 2015 when I was sitting in the pit soldering a replacement toggle switch into place, trying not to burn up me or the pit, that it was time to fix this problem.  I spent a couple of months thinking about better ways of doing it, and allowing for lots of flexibility.  Because I had a bunch of 66 blocks laying around, and I didn't want to spend more money on additional breakout boards from Hagstrom, I decided on the idea you will see below.

You Have to Start Somewhere

So this was the mess I started with.  Yes, I created the mess.  We'll call it a proof of concept.  What you see are actually two different ways of connecting the Hagstroms to the pit switches.  At that time the pit required two of the KE-USB108 boards to function.  Each board will handle 108 inputs, along with 4 axis, 2 rotaries, and a trackball input.  I had about 170 inputs at that time, so I needed two boards.

On the left under all the grey ribbon cables is the first 108 board.  The three square breakout boards connected to the 108 via ribbon cables are some cool boards with screw connections for your switch inputs... means no soldering on this end.  The rectangular board is a board to add 5 addtional rotaries to the mix.

On the right is the second 108 board, but instead of the square breakout boards, I used some 66 blocks.  Same concept, but because I had the 66 blocks already, I didn't have to spend any additional money on the Hagstrom breakout boards.  That's always a big plus.

In Order to Bake a Cake...

Prepping to cut the pit like a fish and start installing the new wiring.  I had used some old phone cable I already owned for the first wiring job.  The new one would use Cat-5 cables to connect the switches to the 66 blocks via a patch panel.  That meant I had to rip out all of the existing wiring, desoldering all of my current switches along the way.

Yes, that was as fun as a root canal.

You Have to Break a Few Eggs

My wife walking in at about this point, shook her head, and just walked away.

Always knew she was smarter than I was...

Out With the Old and In With the New

The Cat-5 cables are starting to go in.  Thankfully, between eBay and, I was able to get all of my cables for only a buck or two a piece.  The shortest ones a 3 meter, the longest are 6 meter.  

The Brain Box

So I built a new place to house the patch panel, punch down blocks, and Hagstrom boards.  I wanted to ensure that I could stand up to do all of the final wiring, but I didn't want it to take up to much floor space.  So the white tray rotates up when you need to do some work or add a new switch, but folds down out of the way when you are in normal operation.  The only thing I didn't think about was that I ended up on my back under the tray chasing down some mis-punched wires on the back of the patch panel.  Ooops.  Oh well... they are all done now.

The Switch End

Now came the really labor intensive part... getting the switches wired up.  Remember that one of my goals was to not have to every take my soldering gun into the pit to work on something again.  So I picked up a bunch of these RC battery m/f connector sets.  They were perfect and really cheap on eBay.  I think I ended up getting 400 sets for $30 or $40.

Each switch position gets one female connector soldered to it.   So a 2 position toggle would get two connectors.  A simple push button would get a single connector, etc.   I put heatshrink on all of the solder connections just to minimize chances of a problem later.

The Next Connection

Next up was connecting the switches to the Cat-5 cables.  Each Cat-5 cable will carry 7 inputs, plus one common ground for the group.  So the male ends of the connector set go from Cat-5 keystone jack to the female switch ends.  I then build a single ground string using small butt connectors I found online (the little white things connected on the black wires).  They work perfectly and don't require any soldering.

Each blue Cat-5 keystone jack then snaps into a wall plate just to keep things orgainzed.  I also ensure I label any special connections like axis pots or rotary encoders so I make sure I handle them correctly at the other end.

Ready to Install

Here is what the panel looks like with some wire management in place, the backlighting cold cathode tube attached, and the wall plate labeled.

Each panel in the pit is numbered (7A in this example), and then each wire is given a unique number.  This gets important on the other end.

Installed and Wired Up

Here is the same planel installed in the pit and the Cat-5 cables connected.  This particular panel happens to sit on the console that also houses one of the surge protectors for minor stuff, the powered USB hubs for all the various periphials, and a network hub.

To the Patch Panel

Next up on our tour is the patch panel.  You can see the Cat-5 cables snaking in from the wall side and going to the front of the patch panel.  All of the ports on the patch panel are labeled to match the wall jack ports on the switch end.  This is critical so that when we move and I have to take the pit apart, all I have to do is take the Cat-5 cables out and everything is disconnected.  Reconnection is just as simple.

From the back of the patch panel are wires that go from each jack on the patch panel up to the punch down blocks above.

Blocks and Boards

The final stop on this journey has finally arrived.  

The wires coming up from the patch panel terminate to the right side of each block.  The left side of each block is wired to a 40 pin header, that plugs directly into the Hagstrom KEUSB108 board, three headers per board.

To enable a switch, I just install a jumper on the pins between the right and left side of the block.  The connection is complete, and when you close the contact on the switch, the Hagstrom board will see it, and send whatever keystroke or button press you have programmed in to the software on to the PC/game.

The white jumpers are for normal switches, while the red jumpers are reserved for potentiometers and rotary encoders.  Being that the board handles them differently, I thought I would too.

The Commands

I have to mention the software that comes with the Hagstrom boards.  It really is powerful and easy to use for this type of work.  I actually considered using it to drive my Collective project, and the only reason I didn't was that I didn't want to have to rewire the switches inside the collective grip.  

The software makes it easy to create different command sets that you can easily load by desktop shortcut when you change sims, or even aircraft within sims.  I was lucky enough to do some user testing on the newest version they released in 2015, and they just keep making the software interface better.

I highly recommend the the KEUSB108 boards.

Was it Worth It?

Was all the work to rewire the pit worth it? All in, I probably spent 200 hours on the rewire project, so that's a big question... but I think so. 

My switches work much more reliably, it is now very easy to troubleshoot any problems (which are thankfully rare since the rewire), and adding a new switch only takes a few minutes.  As a matter of fact, my next project already in the works is a new car dash, and I don't anticipate it taking long at all to install and connect up once I have it built.

The work will really pay off when I have to take the whole thing apart in order to move to a new house in three or four years.  Then I'll be very happy I did it.