How To Projects Adding water and smoke to an O scale garden railway

Adding water and smoke to an O scale garden railway

By Nancy Norris | May 8, 2023

A sunken pump and smoke machine provide a dramatic scene on the G&O

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Adding water and smoke to an O scale garden railway

While picking up my supply of filtered water, I was “amazed and mystified” by the counter display—a faucet floating in mid air, spouting a stream of water that never quite filled a bucket. When the owner showed me the clear plastic tube that had been inserted into the spout-end of the faucet and held vertically while hooked to a fountain pump, a light bulb turned on over my head. Because I happened to own an 0-scale-size tin helicopter, I had already spent some time trying to figure out how to use it in my garden railway. At last I saw its purpose—a hovering fire engine dowsing flames over an 0-scale burning house.

Public garden railway

San Leandro Historical Railway Society (SLHRS) has a model of the Southern Pacific in HO-scale, within its century-old SP depot in San Leandro, California. It’s also home to a two-scale outdoor railway behind the depot. The G&O (both a club and the railroad it operates) runs large-scale trains around the lower outside of the raised planter box, while 0-scale trains run higher and inside.

We club members wanted to pack some magic into an area between a set of interesting bridges crossing a canyon on one side and the highly detailed children’s area on the other. This would help to distribute guests evenly around the walkway. SLHRS hosts many open houses throughout the year and this is the only public garden railway in northern California. The club’s mission is to promote model railroading as well as railroad safety for children through Operation Lifesaver (“Stop, Look, Listen, and Live.”)

The big dig

Once the finish grade was identified (marked stake), I dug out enough space for a 20-gallon HDPE (high-density polyethelene) pond liner (a tub about 2′ deep x 2′ in diameter), plus 2″ deeper for a layer of sand to level it. Inside the tub, the pump (second-smallest Beckett) was placed on a brick so that the dirtiest water would not enter the filter. By gluing up a framework of 3/4″ schedule-40 PVC pipe, I made a manifold that pressed against the sides of the tub to hold everything in place. I adapted the pump outlet with a T-fitting to have two outlets.

drawing of a sunken water feature that creates smoke and water
Nancy Norris illustration

The main pipe rises vertically from the center of the tub (and a hole in the roof of the house) and the other is fitted with an adaptor to a compression fitting for 2′ of black 1/2″ poly tubing (for drip irrigation). I sealed the end with a figure-eight closure. In two places on that 1/2″ tubing I inserted barbed couplers for 2′ lengths of 1/4″ poly tubing (for drip irrigation). Each of these ends was fastened to the top end of a 3/8″ rebar post, just outside the edge of the tub, to support two little firemen holding their fire hoses. Their nozzles are 1/4″ barbed couplers.

smoking house on a garden railway
In front of the left fire hose, sweet allysum (Lobularia maritima ‘Easter basket’, annual or Zones 9-11) smolders in rose flowers. Enveloped in smoke, the fireman on the right hose keeps the homeowner on the ladder from burning. To his right, red-leaved thrift (Armeria maritima ‘Rubrifolia’, Zones 4-8) hangs on to a few dark-rose flowers. Adding height is red barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Rocket’, Zones 5-7). Looking wet and burnt, bugleweed (Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’, Zones 3-9) covers the foreground. Nancy Norris photo

The center pipe was fastened with glue to a clear plastic tube. The top of the tube was notched to allow water to escape, and a black plastic spice-bottle top was glued to that for the “Bambi basket,” which would seemingly spill the water. I attached the helicopter to the top of the spice-jar cap with wire and epoxy. To be sure that we didn’t run the pump dry, I made room while building the manifold for a short float valve (Watts Flippen 3/8″), so city water could refill the tub as needed. This also has its own shut-off ball valve nearby to turn off the filler valve when not in use.

Smoke out

Scene of smoking house with helicopter dropping water on garden railway
O-scale trains decked in holiday color rush by as a full crew of fire fighters do their best. Trees are still smoking, most of the house is a total loss but the firemen will continue their duties until the open house is over at the G&O outdoor railway in San Leandro, California. Nancy Norris photo

Behind the G&O display, members built a staging area of Hardibacker board that stretches along the backside, with a yard for members to set up trains or steam up engines. Underneath that, our electrician installed a waterproof electrical quad box for plugging in the pump and the smoke unit. The smoke unit (a Visual Effects V915 400-watt Fog Machine) rests on a shelf under the track table. I fastened PVC pipe to the smoke outlet but the “smoke” will condense and drip back into the unit, so I drilled a hole for the oil to escape prior to reentering the unit. The drawing shows where smoke is diverted: two pipes on either side of the ceramic house and one pipe inside, so smoke comes out of the windows. The rest is left to the viewer’s imagination, but black, red, and orange plants help to tell the story.

woman sitting on stone pavers next to house

Nancy Norris dedicates this report to fellow G&O member, Edward Van Pelt, who “gophered” for her from his wheelchair while she built this water feature. Joe Barker photo
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