Heater Joins The Internet Of Things With ESP32 Board

The wood-burning heater [g3gg0] has at home works perfectly, except for one flaw: the pellet reservoir needs to be manually refilled every few days. Humans being notoriously unreliable creatures, this critical task is sometimes overlooked, which naturally leads to literally chilling results.

With automatic fill systems expensive and difficult to install, [g3gg0] wanted to find some kind of way for the heater to notify its caretakers about any potential fault conditions. Not just the fact that it was out of fuel (though that would naturally be the most common alert), but any other issue which would potentially keep the heater from doing it’s job. In short, the heater was going to get a one-way ticket to the Internet of Things.

As it turns out, this task was not quite as difficult as you might expect. The Windhager heater already had upgrade bays where the user could insert additional modules and sensors, as well as a rudimentary data bus over RS-485. All [g3gg0] had to do was tap into this bus, decode what the packets contained, and use the information to generate alerts over the network. The ESP32 was more than up to the task, it just needed a custom PCB and 3D printed enclosure that would allow it to slot into the heater like an official expansion module.

When an interesting message flashes across the bus, the ESP32 captures it and relays the appropriate message to an MQTT broker. From there, the automation possibilities are nearly endless. In this case, the heater’s status information is being visualized with tools like Grafana, and important alerts are sent out to mobile devices with PushingBox. With a setup like this, the Windhager will never go hungry again.

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Reverse Engineering An Old Bus Display

When his makerspace was gifted a pair of Luminator LED signs of the sort you might see on the front of a bus, [PWalsh] decided to pull one apart to see what made it tick. Along the way, he managed to reverse engineer its control protocol and replace its original control board with a WiFi-connected Raspberry Pi. Now they can use the LED signs to show whatever they want; no bus required.

As they were designed for automotive use, the signs were wired for 12 volts DC. So the first order of business was fitting it with an AC/DC converter so it could be plugged into the wall. After he measured the display’s current consumption, [PWalsh] estimated it’s maximum energy consumption and determined an old ATX computer power supply was more than up to the task.

With the sign happily running battery-free, he could begin figuring out how to talk to it. Noticing a MAX485 RS-485 converter on the PCB, gave a pretty good idea of what language it was speaking, and with the aid of his trusty oscilloscope, he was able to suss out the baud rate. A cheap USB to RS-485 converter was then wired in between the sign and its control board so he could sniff the data passing over the line.

From there, the final piece of the puzzle was studying the captured data and figuring out the protocol. [PWalsh] was able to identify packet headers and ASCII characters, and pretty soon knew enough about how the sign communicated that he was able to remove the control board entirely and just push text and images to it right from the Pi. He’s even made his framework available for anyone else who might have a similar piece of bus-signage laying around.

Even if you’re not looking to add one of these signs to your lab, this project is a fantastic example of protocol reverse engineering with low-cost tools and simple techniques. We always love to see the process broken down step by step like this, and our hat’s off to [PWalsh] for delivering the goods in a big way.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen these sort of LED signs get the “Internet of Things” treatment, and if you’re content with a somewhat scaled down version, you could always just build your own display rather than waiting on the local public transit vehicle to get parted out.

Flip-Dot Display Brought Out Of Retirement By New Drivers

LED matrix displays and flat-screen monitors have largely supplanted old-school electromechanical models for public signage. We think that’s a shame, but it’s also a boon for the tinkerer, as old displays can be had for a song these days in the online markets.

Such was the case for [John Whittington] and his flip-dot display salvaged from an old bus. He wanted to put the old sign back to work, but without a decent driver, he did what one does in these situations — he tore it down and reverse engineered the thing. Like most such displays, his Hannover Display 7 x 56-pixel flip-dot sign is electromechanically interesting; each pixel is a card straddling the poles of a small electromagnet. Pulse the magnet and the card flips over, changing the pixel from black to fluorescent green. [John] used an existing driver for the sign and a logic analyzer to determine the protocol used by the internal electronics to drive the pixels, and came up with a much-improved method of sending characters and graphics. With a Raspberry Pi and power supply now resident inside the case, a web-based GUI lets him display messages easily. The video below has lots of details, and the code is freely available.

You may recall [John] from a recent edge-lit Nixie-like display. Looks like he’s got a thing for eye-catching displays, and we’re fine with that.

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RS-485 Node Control For Arduino


Wanting to control a split flap display that was not near a computer [Tom] looked to a common solution for communicating over distances not practical for I2C or SPI. He developed his own hardware and packet format using the RS-485 protocol.

This is part of a larger project he has been working on to feed data to a split flap display that he plans to hang on the wall. RS-485 is designed to work over long distances and overcome noise issues. The core of the communications system is the board seen on the left. It uses a MAX1483 chip, a pair of RJ45 jacks for Ethernet cables, and two terminal blocks for power and communications. There are a few nice things about this. The board acts as a pass-through making it easy to chain nodes together, and the data structure is completely independent of the hardware itself. Because of this [Tom] developed his own packet format that will be a bit more resilient than the Arduino networking scheme we looked at the other day.

Halloween Light Show Gets An Upgrade

This is [Dave]’s second year of putting on a Halloween light show (cache), and his latest production has received some upgrades over last year’s Christmas show. He’s switched from Christmas style bulb lights to high brightness LEDs, and upgraded to 48 channels of control.

The controllers are from Light-O-Rama, and each provides 16 output channels. They communicate over RS-485; the same type of network used for controlling professional theater lights with the DMX512 protocol. The whole thing is powered by a 20 A DC supply from some Chinese retailer.

[Dave]’s show features light up pumpkins, tombstones, and faces mounted on his house. The lights are coordinated to a list of songs that he plays over an FM transmitter, allowing for cars to tune into the music that’s synced up with the lights.

If  you happen to be in Estacada, OR, you might want to head over to [Dave]’s and check out the show in person. Otherwise, there’s two videos of the light show after the break.

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USB To RS-232 Adapter Hacked To Use RS485 Instead

[André Sarmento] needed to connect a computer to an RS-485 bus. A simple converter can be sourced online, but the only thing he could find locally that was even close was a USB to RS-232 converter. He used that component to craft his own USB to RS-485 bridge.

RS-485 is often used for remote sensors as it provides a method of connecting electronics over long distances. The converter which he started with seems to be encased in a hot-glue-like substance. A bit of time with a torch and he was able to get to the components on the board. There are two stages, one which converts RS-232 to TTL, and the other converts TTL to USB. [André] removed the RS-232 chip and patched his own board (shown on the left) into its TTL lines. He was also able to add a few more configuration options, like using an external power source, and having a few jumper-selected resistor options.

Controllable LEDs Spice Up The Living Room

[Sprite_tm] brings us another great hack by lighting up the living room. Unsatisfied with just replacing incandescent bulbs with an LED alternative he went with strips of LEDs to illuminate the length of a wall. Starting with a seven-meter strip of the lights, he cut it down to fourteen pieces in order to make the RGB devices individually controllable. [Sprite_tm] whipped up a design for controller boards using RS-485 to communicate with each, and sourcing an ATtiny2313 for the PWM necessary to generate any color. As you can see in the video above, the finished project is brilliant. Oh, and the Lounge Music as a background is nice too.