Sunday, March 23, 2014

An Expensive Failure of Judgement

So remember when I precariously perched a moderately encased rangefinder above my sump pump well? It was kinda wedged in between the cover and the well wall, and I thought there wasn't enough play in the line leading to the rangefinder as to let it drop in. Well... all my hackery finally caught up to me and a very expensive sensor ended up taking a swim. Current remained running through it the entire time so for several hours it swam in well water, slowly accreting minerals. No amount of drying out would save it.

I wasn't going to replace it with another expensive sensor... so I went the completely opposite direction and built an unbelievably primitive water detector. Here two plates of aluminum foil were hot-glued to construction paper and the bare end of my infamous telephone wire, then isolated in electrical tape. If water bridged the two aluminum plates, a connection would be made - at least enough of a connection to be considered a "high" signal.

The other end of the two wires were sent to the NPN transistor that was originally intended to work as a UART logic inverter. Now it was a simple logic gate; once the water closed the circuit the NPN shut off the current headed to a GPIO pin. If the pin was live, no water was detected. If the pin was dead, you had a problem.

The web front-end that I created for this whole rigamarole was updated to reflect this hack, and now just reports the binary status of the water detector. I'm not thrilled with the setup, but I also wasn't too keen on the idea of plopping any more money down on a solution.

So... lesson learned. Don't dangle water sensitive components over a well of water.

I do have a need for another security camera, so this whole setup may just be ditched in favor of another Motion rig. I really dig the I2C temperature and humidity breakout board however, and I'd like to keep using it. Maybe I'll save up my allowance and get a CC3000 WiFi board and pair it up with the temp/humidity board... that would be a pretty nifty & tiny package.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

It's a Basement, not a Swimming Pool

Second up on my paranoia list is my basement slowly filling with water. My paranoia is founded in a rich history of failed sump pumps, broken water mains and power outages. I can mitigate some of my worries by installing a backup, non-electric Venturi aspirator and a die-cast primary sump pump - however anything mechanical can break. I believe in nothing anymore.

A Raspberry Pi can help satiate most of my neurosis, including this one. Using a Honeywell HumidIcon Digital Humidity/Temperature Sensor and a Maxbotix Ultrasonic Range Finder I can monitor basement humidity, temperature and sump well levels.

My first component to integrate was the range finder. The Maxbotix LV-EZ4 can operate in one of two modes - either providing an ASCII representation of the range using RS232 serial communication or using an analog voltage. I dorked around with two possible ways of using this - feeding an analog signal through an Adafruit Trinket and have the values translated into an I2C signal. However - I had a 5v Trinket - and even with constructing voltage dividers I couldn't quite coordinate the right voltages to negotiate with the Pi. I punted and used the serial port from the LV-EZ4, however the Pi uses UART and so I had to create a logic inverter using a recycled NPN transistor. Once I inverted the signals from the range finder, the Pi was able to read the inbound ASCII representation of the range.

After I had the range finder working, I used Sparkfun's Honeywell breakout board via I2C to communicate temperature and humidity to the Pi. Both the range finder and the breakout board fit nicely on a mini breadboard, sharing voltage and ground while splitting out I2C data, clock and RS232 data feeds. Once permissions were correctly set and kernel modules loaded, things appeared to be working nicely.

I wanted to save the range finder from water splashes, or at least slow its eventual decay. I re-used the case from the SD card I purchased for the Raspberry Pi, cutting out holes for the extrusions in the range finder board. Corners were then covered in electrical tape, and the seams were covered in hot glue. No, it's not pretty. No, it may not add to the LV-EZ4's lifespan. It was at least worth a shot however, and I've added a bit of crush/drop protection.

Everything is hooked into a Raspberry Pi Model A, just to save a few bucks. For an enclosure I ripped apart an old Netgear wireless access point, which easily housed the mini breadboard and the Pi. I decided to try things out but stumbled upon an unsettling fact... there are no power outlets near the sump pump well. Undeterred, I went looking for any long length of wire and found twenty feet of RJ11 telephone cable. It had four total wires - which would be more than enough to carry voltage, ground and signal wires. I sloppily spliced the wire, soldered it onto three jumpers, attached one side to the breadboard and another to the range finder. To my surprise - it actually worked. I was able to string the range finder all the way across the room, which also made ambient humidity readings more accurate.

In much the same way as I created the Bottle application for the garage door security monitor, I created a Bottle app to host REST APIs and display the well depth, temperature and humidity as well as allow Jabber (e.g. Google Talk) clients to request the status of the well and the climate. It all is working well so far, however I still need to tweak the Honeywell I2C code to make sure the component re-samples conditions at every request. Right now it is just fetching the currently stored values.

Right now the range finder is resting atop the sump pump well and is just waiting for the upcoming rains. My eventual goal is to create a home dashboard that aggregates all sensor data from around the house: sump pump well depth, basement temperature and humidity from the Basement Monitor APIs, ground-level temperature and humidity from a Nest thermostat, garage door state and camera feeds from the Garage Security APIs and maybe even power data from an attached APC UPS. The Bottle apps would then work to expose sensor data as REST APIs, and a more powerful Play application would serve the user interface, archive historical data, provide alerts and indicate trends.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

A Systems Language

A Pattern Language is an interesting book to pick up, and that's not just a joke about the size of the volume. Its web site betrays how old the book actually is; it was published in 1977 based on research that had been ongoing for several years. It's scope is pretty large and covers everything from the layout of an office building to the composition of an entire town. Much attention is focused on how to build communities within these spaces, and a lot of research provides evidence on optimal ways of building and tearing down boundaries.

Of particular interest to me were chapters concerning self-governing workshops and offices. The book stresses that no one enjoys their work if they are a cog in a machine. Instead, "work is a form of living, with its own intrinsic rewards; any way of organizing work which is at odds with this idea, which treats work instrumentally, as a means only to other ends, is inhuman." This is a fairly strongly worded assertion that means that employees must feel empowered in order to construct meaningful product.

Just as Thinking in Patterns postulated that groups should autonomously self-organize in order to realize their greatest efficiency, A Pattern Language encourages the formation of self-governing workshops and offices of 5 to 20 workers. A chapter is dedicated to the federation of these workgroups to produce complex artifacts - such as several independent workshops working in concert to build much larger things.

A Pattern Language also encourages keeping service departments small (less than 12 members) and ensuring that they can work without having to fight red tape. This applies to many shared services departments in both government as well as public sector organizations; departments and public services don't work if they are too large as the human qualities vanish. One must fight the urge to make an "idiot-proof system," since this can cause the system to devolve to the point that only idiots will run it.

The book is largely about physical space of course, so it has many recommendations on how offices should be connected. The authors specifically studied what isolated groups within a company, and even what we might consider small physical distances amounted to big interruptions in communication. If two parts of an office are too far apart, people will not move between them as often as they need to. If they are a floor apart, they sometimes will not speak at all.

Ultimately A Pattern Language has a lot of common sense to offer up about how to build a work community, backed by a fair amount of research that bucked many trends in the 70's. It had points that should not be glossed over even now, including:
  • You spend 8 hours at work - there is no reason it should be any less of a community
  • Workplaces must not be too scattered, nor too agglomerated, but clustered in groups of 15
  • Workplaces should be decentralized, not reliant on a central hub
  • Mix manual jobs, desk jobs, craft jobs, selling, etc. within a community
  • There should always be a common piece of land (or a courtyard) within the work community which ties offices together
  • The work community is interlaced with the larger community they operate within

    Workspace efficiency and community engagement is definitely not a new practice, however we always tend to think it is. If we can remember the lessons learned thirty-seven years ago, we may be in a better place to make a better workplace today.