Picking the Right Sensors for Home Automation

Imagine that you’re starting a project where you need to measure temperature and humidity. That sounds easy in the abstract, but choosing a real device out of many involves digging into seemingly infinite details and trade-offs that come with them. If it’s a low-stakes monitoring project, picking the first sensor that comes to mind might suffice. But when the project aims to control an AC system in an office of temperature-sensitive coders, it pays to take a hard look at the source of all information: the sensor.

Continuing a previous article I would like to use that same BMaC project from that article as a way to illustrate how even a couple of greenhorns can figure out how to pick everything from environmental sensors to various actuators, integrating it into a coherent system that in the end actually does what it should.

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A Network Attached Radiation Monitor

It started as a joke, as sometimes these things do. [Marek Więcek] thought building a personal radiation detector would not only give him something to work on, but it would be like having a gadget out of the Fallout games. He would check the data from time to time and have a bit of a laugh. But then things got real. When he started seeing rumors on social media that a nearby nuclear reactor had suffered some kind of radiation leak, his “joke” radiation detector suddenly became serious business.

With the realization that having his own source of detailed environmental data might not be such a bad idea after all, [Marek] has developed a more refined version of his original detector (Google Translate). This small device includes a Geiger counter as well as sensors for more mundane data points such as temperature and barometric pressure. Since it’s intended to be a stationary monitoring device, he even designed it to be directly plugged into an Ethernet network so that it can be polled over TCP/IP.

[Marek] based the design around a Soviet-era STS-5 Geiger tube, and outfitted his board with the high voltage electronics to provide it with the required 400 volts. Temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity are read with the popular Bosch BME280 sensor. If there’s no Ethernet network available, data from the sensors can be stored on either the built-in SPI flash chip or a standard USB flash drive.

The monitor is powered by a PIC32MX270F256B microcontroller with an Ethernet interface provided by the ENC28J60 chip. In practice, [Marek] has a central Raspberry Pi that’s polling the monitors over the network and collecting their data and putting it into a web-based dashboard. He’s happy with this setup, but mentions he has plans to add an LCD display to the board so the values can be read directly off of the device. He also says that a future version might add WiFi for easier deployment in remote areas.

Over the years we’ve seen a fair number of radiation monitors, from solar-powered WiFi-connected units to the incredible work [Radu Motisan] has done building his global network of radiation detectors. It seems hackers would rather not take somebody else’s word for it when it comes to the dangers of radiation.

Monitoring Air Quality, One Sleepy Meeting At A Time

To those of us in the corporate world, the conference room is where hope goes to die. Crammed into a space too small for the number of invitees, the room soon glows with radiated body heat and the aromas of humans as the time from their last shower gradually increases. To say it’s not a recipe for productivity is an understatement at best.

Having suffered through too many of these soporific situations, [Charles Ouweland] took matters into his own hands and built this portable air quality meter for meetings. With an OLED display on top and sensors inside, it displays not only the temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, but also the CO₂ concentration and the levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC), noxious substances sometimes off-gassed from building materials, furniture upholstery, and coworkers alike.

The monitor quantifies his meeting misery, which we’re sure wins him points with his colleagues. For our part, though, what we find interesting is his design process. He started where many of us would, with an Arduino Uno. The sensor modules, a CCS811 for VOC and CO₂ as well as a BME280 for temperature, humidity, and pressure, both needed 3.3 volts, so he added a regulator to knock the Arduino’s 5-volt supply into range and some MOSFETs for level matching. Things were getting bulky, though, so he set about reducing the component count. The Uno went by stripping out its already programmed MCU. That killed the need for the regulator and MOSFETs, since everything would be happy with 3.3 volts. A few more rounds of optimization led to the final product, compact enough to run on a pair of AA batteries.

This is a great lesson in going from prototype to product. And it’s so compact, it could even ride on top of a Roomba to map the conference room’s floor-level air quality.

Humidity Sensor Shootout

If you want to measure humidity (and temperature, and maybe even barometric pressure) in a device that you’re building, have a look at this comprehensive test of seven different options. We’re going to summarize the results here, but you’ll really want to read up on the testing methodology — it’s great science hacking. Did you know about using saturated salt solutions to produce constant humidity levels for calibration? We didn’t.

The eBay hacker favorite, the so-called DHT22 module, doesn’t fare all that well, with one of six that [Robert] tested being basically horrible, and three of them breaking within two years of use. The one that works well, however, is pretty good. Feeling lucky?

The Bosch BME280 looks great. It costs a bit more as a bare part, and a few times more than that when it is mounted on a friendly module, but it seems to be very reliable. And you get a barometer thrown in for the extra work. Indeed, it performed so well that Hackaday contributor [Nava Whiteford] put the part under a scanning electron microscope to figure out what’s going on.

The other sensors were fine, with the HTU21D and SHT71 being standouts for their ultra-fast response. For the full details, go click on that link at the top. Having just installed a sextet of DHT22s in our house last year, we’re left with that sinking feeling that we may have gotten what we paid for, which wasn’t much. At least they’re all still running.

Thanks to [Dodutils] and [mac012345] via comments in another thread.