Weather and air quality monitoring station with ESP8266 and Home Assistant

I’ve always wanted a weather/air quality station. So I built one. Here it is.

The weather/air quality station laid out before connections. Rain sensor not pictured.

I’ll basically detect whatever I can get. Here’s the parts list so far (expected to expand):

  • PIR Motion sensor because maybe I want to know when people walk by the sensor box
  • Si1145 Sunlight sensor for Infrared, Visible, and Ultraviolet light. Conveniently using this Grove library to interface.
  • LIS3DHTR 3-axis accelerometer. I read that this one might have the noise and sensitivity characteristics needed to try to measure some seismic activity (I live in Seattle, after all)! Notably I did not research this very seriously so we will see. Note: this chip has three analog-to-digital inputs but they are not available in the Grove package that I got. Prefer Adafruit)!
  • BME680 gas sensor for Temperature, Humidity, Air Pressure and Volatile Organic Compounds (a rough measure of air quality)
  • HM3301 Laser PM 2.5 Air quality sensor for measuring particulates in the air at sizes PM1, PM2.5, and PM10. This will be really useful to have one outside and one inside during fire season so I can see how dangerous the air is outside and how well my air filters are doing inside.
  • Grove Loudness Sensor for keeping up with traffic noise, fireworks, landscaping, air traffic, etc.
  • The ESP8266 Microcontroller. I absolutely love the ESP8266 for being the brains of things like this. I had used one for my doorbell sensor, my mom’s boiler controller, and various other things. Programming this to read all these sensors is a major part of this project.
  • MH-Z14A NDIR carbon dioxide sensor (up to 5000 ppm). This is more interesting on the indoor unit than the outdoor unit, but fun nonetheless
  • Geiger Counter with USB interface. I had to reverse engineer the protocol coming out of this USB port and was able to do it using pyusb but that’s another post in itself. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can actually read this USB port too easily on the ESP8266 so I might have to slap a Raspberry Pi in here, or some other USB interface. This is a big TBD.
  • (Not pictured, see below or rain sensor post): Infrared rain sensor from Hydreon in MN. This is actually a sweet sensor. It shoots IR light around the dome and when water hits it, refraction of IR changes and the response at the receiver can pick up even a single raindrop. Garsh-darned epic!

As you can maybe see, I got most of these sensors with I2C interfaces from Grove, which has a really nice ecosystem with easily-interconnectable sensors. This is my first experience with the Grove ecosystem, and I love it. Very clean. Note, however, that I2C is not good for off-board sensors (so maybe not a great choice for the sunlight sensor which should be placed higher up).

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Reading a TUF-2000M Ultrasonic Flow Meter with an Arduino or ESP8266

I had a flood in the garage the other day and realized how great of an investment my flood sensor had been, saving me literally weeks of time and thousands of dollars in repairs. As I considered buying more flood sensors to cover more parts of the house, the thought to put a flow meter on the main water inlet to the house popped into my mind. It’s not quite as clear of a signal as a flood sensor, but if I detect flow when everyone is asleep or when on vacation, I can be sure that something is going wrong and have Home Assistant give me an alert.

I didn’t want to cut into my water main and put a in-line flow meter in, so when I saw a reasonably priced clamp-on ultrasonic flow meter called the TUF-2000M, I had to bite.

The TUF-2000M Ultrasonic Clamp-on Flow meter
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Connecting a Hydreon Infrared Rain Sensor to a ESP8266 (or Arduino or Raspberry Pi)

I’ve been working on a home-brew weather station and was looking into rain sensors when I discovered that you can get infrared (IR) rain detectors. A company in Minnesota sells one called the Hydreon RG-11. They shoot pulses of IR light around a plastic dome and monitor them on the other end. When rain hits the dome, the refraction changes and the pulses received are perturbed. This is nice because it’s very simple and has no moving parts. I figured I’d be able to find a way to read it into my weather station.

The RG-11 rain sensor with a NodeMCU for scale. (It’s actually bigger than I thought)
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Don’t use push-to-connect (“sharkbite-style”) fittings on high-temperature hydronic heating systems

I had a bad experience with push-to-connect pipe fittings between my hot water heater and my hydronic heating system and wanted to share with you what happened.

On Saturday morning at 4:19 am I was fast asleep. But then I jolted awake as the bedroom lights flashed on and a slightly robotic voice proclaimed:

“FLOOD ALERT! FLOOD ALERT. IN THE GARAGE! FLOOD!”

“Huh!”, I thought. “I wonder why that thing is going off?”

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Video showing the clear fluid rise in a Galileo thermometer

Some friend of a friend was over a few months ago (before the quarantine) and saw my Galileo Thermometer and explained to everyone how he thought it worked. He was wrong. So I figured, ok the world needs a better explanation of how these these things work. So I made this video.

The force balance on each float is gravity down, buoyancy up. The mass and volume (and therefore the density) of each float does not change as a function of temperature. The density of the clear surrounding fluid does go down with temperature. Because of this, the mass of clear fluid displaced does go down with temperature, and so the buoyant force does decrease as it heats up. When the upward force decreases, the floats drop down as gravity takes over.

To prove it, I made this video where you can clearly see the clear fluid rising as the thermometer heats up.

A live polar sun path chart (plus Moon and some planets)

I happened upon a polar sun path chart a while back and really thought it was a great graphic. It shows where the sun goes each day as a function of the seasons. Behold:

The polar Sun path chart for Seattle, WA

For Seattle, you can see at the top that the sun rises in the SE, peaks at 20° above the horizon, and then sets at 4:30pm on the winter solstice. Ugh. But in the summer, it’s up from before 4am to after 8pm, and peaks above 60° . You can make one of these plots for your area over at the University of Oregon’s Solar Radiation Monitoring Lab.

I liked this plot so much that I wanted to take it to the next level and see where the sun is live. In my experience with Python, I’ve grown to expect there to be sweet libraries that can compute stuff like that. Sure enough, there are a few. First, I found pysolar, which is really straightforward, fast, and simple. A few lines of code and I was up and running.

My first polar solar plot, showing an analemma at different times of day from my location.
Continue reading A live polar sun path chart (plus Moon and some planets)

Adding temperature sensors to a hot water heater

A igniter with a layer of white oxide powder all over it.
The bad igniter

I’ve got one of those hydronic home heating systems where hot water from the hot water heater gets pumped to radiators around the house in addition to heating up water for faucets. A few days ago it died on me and threw an error code indicating something was wrong with ignition. I took a look at the igniter and found that it was full of an oxide layer.

After sandpapering it, it worked great, but I ordered a spare for when this inevitably happens again. Along the way, it occurred to me that it’d be kind of fun to have instrumentation on my hot water heater. I just got it up and running.

Way back in my first post about hot tubs, I used OneWire sensors called Dallas 18B20s (datasheet) with an Arduino 2009. They worked great at hot water temperature, so I decided to try them out again. This time, rather than using an Arduino, I’m using a ESP8266 microcontroller. These are cheap and have Wi-Fi, so I can easily get the data into my home assistant setup, just like I did with my mom’s furnace, my doorbell, and other stuff.

Step one is to solder a bunch of sensors together. I wanted to get readings on all the different pipes going into and out of my hot water heater. I went down there and measured how much space I’d need between each sensor. Then I soldered them up. Notably 18B20s can work in “parasite mode” with just two wires, but there are problems with parasite mode on ESP8266’s, and in prototype testing I was unable to get that mode to work. So I just wired them up to 3 wires. This tutorial is a good one for wiring up these sensors.

A sensor with three wires soldered to it.
One Dallas18B20 soldered into my wire-o-sensors. Black goes to GND on the ESP, red goes to +5V on the ESP, and clear goes to GPIO 2, which is also jumpered to +5V with a 4.7 kOhm resistor
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Making my analog doorbell smart by simply attaching a $7 sensor to it

My doorbell, which I want to make smarter

I live in tall and skinny house with a loft on the upper floor. I can’t hear the doorbell going off when I’m up there, especially if I have music playing. This post is about how I extended the range of my doorbell by hooking a sensor up to it that communicates over Wifi to my smart-home, which then plays a doorbell tone over my speakers throughout the house.

I already have a reasonably capable smart home based on Home Assistant, so I challenged myself to do this in the cheapest, least intrusive way possible. In the end, I did this with a $7 part and without changing any of the wiring in my existing doorbell (I just had to connect 2 extra wires to the existing transformer).

Here’s a preview of it working:

Here’s the demo of it working. The 2nd ring is through the stereo.
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Some fun or spooky Halloween automations with Home Assistant

It’s that spooky time of year again, but this time it can be extra spooky with the help of home automation.

Motion-activated jumpscare on TV

One classic spooky thing to do is have a TV do something scary when people walk by. This is easier than ever on any TV now that everyone has Raspberry Pi with HDMI output and z-wave (or other) motion sensors everywhere. Check this out:

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Multi-room audio over Wi-Fi with PulseAudio and Raspberry Pi(s)

NOTE/UPDATE: After an update this kind of stopped working and I struggled with it a lot. Now I actually recommend using snapcast instead of this solution. It works better!

I moved to a new place and it has more than one room. Naturally, I hooked up the stereo in the living room and tested it like my dad taught me: by playing “Money For Nothing” really loudly. It worked. But wait a minute, there’s an upstairs now… how will I get it playing up there? I could always use the wifi network and raspberry pis to beam audio around. Yeah, let’s do that!

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The Hero Jr. personal robot from HeathKit: a 1984 product way ahead of its time

One of my first memories is a vision of lying near my dad in the basement in the mid-1980s while he endlessly soldered away at some big project. Later, I spent a lot of my childhood messing around with the product he was assembling: a Hero Jr. robot. This was a educational personal robot, intended to be your “friend, companion, and security guard.” Here he is:

Hero Jr. from 3 sides
My family’s Hero Jr.

Hero Jr. has a sonar, infrared motion sensor, light sensor, sound sensor, radio-frequency remote, drive motor, obstruction sensor, and a RS-232 serial port. His out-of-the-box features included a security guard mode, alarm clock, poetry, singing, and (my favorite) the ability to explore around the house, often while singing America, Daisy Bell, or Little Miss Muffet.

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Secure remote access to a camera DVR with VPN and VLANs on an OpenWRT router

If you have a digital video recorder (DVR) hooked up to some cameras and you want to access it remotely when something happens, you can set up remote access to review things from wherever. Here’s how to do it.

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Helping an artist with a Morse code protest chant installation in Denmark

A few months ago, I got an email from a Sweden-based artist and teacher named MC Coble asking if my Morse code laser post could be helpful for an art installation they were working on. MC used Morse code in previous installations like one in Toronto where they sent coded light from a giant dome to people below who then relayed signals with flashlights. As a part of a new project, MC wanted people to be able to enter protest chants into a website and then have a system convert the message to code and flash a light in a gallery window. Did I want to help? You bet I did!

I got super excited about the prospect of helping with this and knew that with a combination of things I’ve used before it would be really doable. The plan was to have a webserver accept messages from a form and transmit them to a Raspberry Pi (cheap mini-computer), which would then flip pins on a relay to blink the light, like this:

A diagram showing the flow from user input through a webserver through MQTT to a raspberry pi and into a relay connected to a light.
The parts of the planned system working together

After many emails and some ups and downs, everything worked! This really feels like how the internet is supposed to work.

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A fancy Home Assistant automation that checks the weather and figures out when to turn on your heater

So in the continuing saga with my mom’s home-automated furnace, it got extra cold recently and I noticed it wasn’t getting up to temperature in time for her to wake up. I figured I could come up with a formula to compute the time needed to come to temperature and turn on the furnace at a dynamic time in the morning so it’d be just right.

Graph of temperatures inside and outside
Temperatures at my mom’s house over a few days

Continue reading A fancy Home Assistant automation that checks the weather and figures out when to turn on your heater

Downloading files from an Amcrest security camera with Python

I got a few Amcrest Wifi security cameras for my mom’s house at her request. They’re pretty nice overall (My only complaint is that the web-interface doesn’t fully support Linux). I set one up to save a jpg snapshot to memory every minute and then flew across the country. When I wanted to access them, I couldn’t just put the SD-card in a computer or anything, and clicking all 14,000 of them seemed like a pain, so I decided to figure out how to get them with a Python script.

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Reading data from a DXL360 digital level onto your computer

There are some digital levels on the market that are really nice tools to have for a variety of purposes. I grabbed a DXL360 and am really happy with it so far. When I wanted to do an angle vs. time calibration measurement of my Barn Door Startracker over 10s of minutes, I really wanted to get the data from the level into a computer so I could plot and process it a bit.

The level has a USB port but the manual suggests that an optional attachment is required to get it into a computer, at least for this model. However, the manual also states that data comes out of it in RS232 format. I bet I could read that data with some more generic equipment that I have sitting around. And it turned out to be easy. This post shows how I did it.

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Making a cheap and simple barn-door star tracker with software tangent correction for astrophotography

I like to mix hobbies, so naturally I’ve been eying astrophotography for a while. I’ve taken a time-lapse here and a moon picture there but, inspired by the folks over at /r/astrophotography,  I wanted to take it to the next level. Since the Earth is spinning, any long exposure of the night sky has star trails, so you have to make your camera counter-spin if you want clear shots. In this post, you can read about how I made a simple barn door sky tracker to do this.

Barn door sky trackers have been made at home by lots of people for a long time. There are a variety of designs with different levels of complexity and precision required. I thought I’d make the simplest-to-construct one, a Haig mount. To correct he tangent error, I decided to use a cheap microcontroller (MCU) and have it speed up appropriately via software. Fun!

With/without tracker

The Math

The math behind this is fun mostly because it’s straight out of high school and you finally at long last get to use it. Here’s the basic design:

Cartoon of barn door tracker

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The Infopanel: a simple MQTT-connected display system for weather, traffic, pictures, animations…anything!

I got one of those RGB LED matrix things for my birthday and wasn’t sure what to do with it. Then I found this awesome library which has Python bindings and can control it nicely even from a Raspberry Pi. Conveniently I had a spare Raspberry Pi 1 B+  sitting around so I hooked it up. After playing around for a while, I got the demos working.

UPDATE: Full documentation of infopanel is now available.

But I needed to connect it to home-assistant to really make it valuable to myself. So I wrote a little program called Infopanel (available for free on github) that lets you do some things:

  • Get data directly from a MQTT broker for getting live data (e.g. travel times in traffic, weather conditions) and for command and control. This allows me to connect the screen to my home-assistant home automation system.
  • Assemble various built-in elements like giraffes, animated text, rainbow text, pictures, animated gifs into various scenes that rotate through on the screen to display the information in various fun and/or useful ways.
  • There are Temperature and Duration sprites that you can define high and low values of so they’re red when they’re bad and green when they’re good, and anywhere in between.

You can set the scenes to be just random or you can control them through MQTT.

It’s intended to be very configurable but since it’s brand new some extra development is needed to make everything perfect. Send in your ideas and requests and code changes!

A relatively complete example configuration file is in the repo. That demonstrates using MQTT, connecting MQTT topics to various sprites, building your own frames of animation by hand, and adding in gifs and images from file paths. Note that you have to set an environmental variable or two to get the fonts right and whatnot.

Getting live alerts when your website is visited with Apache, MQTT, and home-assistant

I have a website or two and sometime wish I could get notifications whenever someone visited them, just for fun. Well I did it, and now I can get beeps in my home whenever anyone visits. It’s kind of cool to hear it go off, though normally it will be annoying, so we need a switch for it.

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Enlighten your old furnace with a Raspberry Pi, Home Assistant, an ESP8266, and some relays.

My mom has one of those on/off furnaces (EDIT: actually it’s a boiler) that heats up water and circulates it through pipes around the house that have little radiator fins. She wants it to turn on before she wakes up so it’s not so cold in the morning. In this post, I explain how to turn a normal furnace into a smart furnace controlled by Home Assistant for only a few bucks.

Furnace controls in Home Assistant

Continue reading Enlighten your old furnace with a Raspberry Pi, Home Assistant, an ESP8266, and some relays.