LAST UPDATED: 15 July 2024

Chip Timing Systems: Buy, Rent or Build Your Own?

So you've decided to do your own race timing. Here's what you need to consider before buying, renting or building your own chip timing system.

Chip Timing Systems: Buy, Rent or Build Your Own?

One of the most common questions we get in our race directors group from race directors looking to go into race timing is: What is best, buying, renting or building your own timing system?

That's what we're here to find out, with a close look at the pros and cons of each of those options.

Want to hire a professional race timer instead? Check out our searchable directory of race timing companies.

Buying a chip timing system

Buying an off-the-shelf chip timing system is a good option if you want to start lowering the costs of your race timing straight away without having to go very deep into understanding and picking individual RFID components.

Essentially when you're buying a race timing system from a manufacturer, you're getting a box with all the necessary timing components connected under the hood. These are most often components you would find in the open market, if you wanted to build a similar system from scratch, that have been picked, assembled and tested for you by the manufacturer.

But there's a fairly big catch...

Most chip timing systems (with some exceptions) come with some sort of coding which means they can only read RFID tags encoded by the same manufacturer. So instead of being able to go out to the open market and purchase RFID tags for a few cents, you are locked in to purchasing encoded RFID tags from the manufacturer only for a multiple of the open-market price.

Race result decoder and mat antennaRACE RESULT decoder box plus mat antenna. All very easy to roll out on race day.

Why do manufacturers do this? Well, the obvious answer is "money". Although a typical system will cost several thousands of dollars to purchase, the cost of disposable chips for the lifetime of the system will often exceed that - by a very long way. So it makes sense for the manufacturer to want to capture that recurring revenue.

Most manufacturers will not tell you that, of course. Instead they will say that the cost of encoded tags reflects the after-sales service and ongoing development that goes into supporting your hardware. Or they will offer you their timing software (which is not typically included when you purchase your timing system) free, making the cost of the encoded tags something like an ongoing licence/support fee.

So, if saving money on your tags is an important consideration, make sure to ask whether a system you're buying can read any compatible RIFD tag (usually means any UHF Gen 2 tags) or only system-specific tags you will have to buy from the system manufacturer.

Where can I buy my chip timing system?

Start with a look at all available chip timing systems on our directory. There you can also find reviews left by fellow race directors and professional race timers.

How about timing software?

Some chip timing systems are sold with software from the manufacturer. In other cases, the manufacturer will offer their own timing software at a price. Pretty much all systems will be compatible with a number of third-party timing software, and that might be your best option.

Pros of buying

  • No fuss solution, as components have been pre-assembled and tested
  • Easy to deploy on race day
  • Expect to get support from the manufacturer

Cons of buying

  • Higher ongoing costs as in most cases you're locked into buying coded tags or have to pay to "unlock" your system
  • Cannot easily upgrade/replace faulty components

Chip timing system rental

Renting a chip timing system is an option you'd want to consider if:

  • You own a race timing system already and want to add to it in a few occasions to increase its performance or redundancy (e.g. when timing a larger race than you would usually time)
  • You need a short-term system replacement due to a fault in a system you own
  • You want to try a specific race timing system before purchasing
  • You want the convenience of an off-the-shelf system without having to pay the full purchase price upfront

Depending on your needs, you may decide to rent a standalone system (e.g. if you're replacing an existing system) or get a full package of system rental plus the RFID tags to go with it.

In terms of the economics of renting, you are basically looking at the cost of hiring a chip timing company without paying the costs for the crew that would come with it, which is a good saving since travel and accommodation is a big part of the race timer fee.

Where can I rent a timing system from?

You can rent your chip timing system either direct from the manufacturer, through a regional distributor or sometimes even race timing companies (although the latter would probably try to steer you towards getting the full timing service from them).

In the UK, you can rent the following systems:

  • Macsha: From Race Timing Solutions who are also the official UK reseller for Macsha systems
  • RACE RESULT: You can rent a system direct from RACE RESULT online or from Event Race Timing with a few more options and integrations available (such as GPS race tracking).

In the US, you can rent the following systems:

  • Macsha: From official Macsha US distributors RaceTime
  • RACE RESULT: You can rent your system direct from RACE RESULT here

Pros of renting

  • No long term commitment; try systems before you buy
  • Peace of mind; rent the latest system and get faulty systems replaced
  • (Often) get good support from vendors

Cons of renting

  • Costly as a long-term solution

Building your own race timing system

Building your own RFID race timing system is the option that offers you the biggest cost savings and flexibility, but also the one that requires most from you in terms of your understanding of RFID timing systems.

Basically, when you build your own system, you will have to make your own choices about every component of the system, from the reader to the antenna and tags, and even things like cables and power supplies. You'll also need to think about storing, transporting, handling and setting up all of these components on race day.

That said, many race directors choose to do this to gain better control over their race timing (and save a ton of money) and it's hardly rocket science.

DIY race timing systemA DIY timing system in the making: cheaper than a ready-built system but no less powerful

If you're thinking about building your own system, you can do so either with an RFID development kit or a single reader/antenna pair and a few spare tags to get a feel for how it all comes together. Once you get more comfortable, you can add more components to expand the power and functionality of your system.

We'd also recommend reading our guide to building an RFID timing system and joining our race timing group for great tips and support as you go through the process.

Pros of building

  • Most cost efficient option, both in terms of upfront spend and ongoing fees for tags etc
  • Very versatile; can combine different components to match varying race types/conditions
  • Easily upgrade/switch/replace components

Cons of building

  • Steepest learning curve with little support (except here)
  • More cumbersome to set up on race day than an all-in-a-box system

Related articles

A Guide to Live Race Tracking & Race Day Apps
A Guide to Live Race Tracking & Race Day Apps

Races are reaping the benefits of live tracking with improved safety and increased social engagement. We look at the technologies making it possible.

4 Alternatives to Chip Timing
4 Alternatives to Chip Timing

Need an alternative to chip timing for your race? We looked at the options and bring you the best for any type of race.

How to Build an RFID Race Timing System
How to Build an RFID Race Timing System

Everything you need to get started on your race timing journey, from choosing the right tools for the job to working through common race timing challenges.

Finisher T-Shirts: A Buyer's Guide
Finisher T-Shirts: A Buyer's Guide

Everything you need to know about ordering your race finisher T-shirts, from picking fabrics and printing methods to ordering smart and ahead of time.

Race Sponsorship: The Complete Guide
Race Sponsorship: The Complete Guide

How to find, approach and negotiate with sponsors. If you struggle with sponsorship, this is the guide for you.

6 Things to Do When Not Putting on Races
6 Things to Do When Not Putting on Races

Have you been forced to cancel or postpone your race? Here's a few things to do from home to prepare you for when things get back to normal.

Related podcasts

Building an RFID Race Timing System
Building an RFID Race Timing System

Timing software developer and DIY race timing expert, Brian Agee, on building and operating an open RFID race timing system.

Bluetooth Timing
Bluetooth Timing

Is Bluetooth a viable alternative to RFID for automated mass timing of races at a fraction of the cost? We hear from Bluetooth timing pioneer Jean-Louis Lafayeedney.

Race Merchandise
Race Merchandise

How do you get started selling race merchandise? Merchandising pro Kim Bilancio on picking items that sell and managing inventory wisely.

Managing Participant Flows
Managing Participant Flows

MMU's Marcel Altenburg walks us through the golden rules for efficient race starts: from waves and start line widths to start pen participant densities.

Selling Sponsorships
Selling Sponsorships

Ben Pickel of Life Time Events on finding and approaching sponsors, writing effective sponsorship proposals, and negotiating and closing sponsorships deals.

Trail Race Safety
Trail Race Safety

In the wake of the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon tragedy, race director, first aider and former Chair of the UK Trail Running Association, Lindley Chambers, discusses making trail races safer.