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Arduino in the workplace

Motorola Advisor II connected to an AdaFruit protoboard shield on an Arduino.

Motorola Advisor II connected to an Adafruit protoboard shield on an Arduino.

Recently I was faced with an interesting challenge at work. How could I monitor our paging infrastructure (pagers, yes pagers, I work in healthcare) to ensure it was up and running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? I had the ability to monitor certain portions of the system but no way to automate the monitoring of the end-to-end system, all the way out to the pager, keep in mind this technology is a one-way technology. My experience in the electronics hobby and having a developer background gave me an idea, I could attach the pager to an Arduino and write a Microsoft Windows service that would receive heartbeats and page received alerts via serial over USB and log those to a file that our enterprise monitoring system could watch. In fact, our enterprise monitoring system could send an email which gets converted to TAP via some SMTP-to-TAP software we have in use already.

So, the enterprise monitoring tool will send a page to our test pager, once the pager receives the page it'll notify the windows service using serial communications, which will in turn write the event to a log file (I could have used the event log). The Arduino will also send a heartbeat message every minute which also gets written to the log file. This will allow our monitoring tool to raise an event if the Arduino goes offline. We'll add some additional business logic in the monitoring software to page several times before opening up an incident but yes, I think this will indeed work and work quite well. How else is a company that is dependent on 1970 open-loop technology monitor it without something like this? I'm curious if others have solved a problem like this and how?

It didn't take me long to get a simple windows service built that listens on the specified COM port for serial messages from the Arduino. There are lots of examples of this being done, just google it. Hooking the pager up to the Arduino was also super simple, I just used the existing connection to the vibration motor on the pager and tied that to an analog pin on the Arduino. I also didn't want to have to bother with batteries for the pager so I hooked up a LM317 adjustable voltage regulator to supply the 1.5V the pager was expecting from the 5V on the USB line. After hooking everything up, I must say the system works quite nicely, we'll see how well it behaves long term but this project proves how useful a simple Arduino can be in the workplace. As always all the project files are attached to this post for everyone.

Till next time...

Title: PagerMonitorProjectFiles (642 clicks)
Size: 91 KB

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Healthy Habitats For Home Labs

iStock_000015238547XSmallI've slowly been able to expand my home lab to include the type of equipment that allows me to continually improve my technical skills as well as experiment with home automation and DIY electronics. As my home lab has grown so has the need to ensure it's kept healthy. One way to ensure it stays healthy is to make sure it's got a nice  comfortable habitat in which to work and live.

My first feeble attempt to monitor the environment where I keep my server rack was to buy a cheap-o temp and humidity meter from eBay.  It worked in so much as I could tell what the temperature and humidity was if I bothered to go down to the basement and look. I'm lazy, heck I have IP KVMs so I don't have to go downstairs to reboot a server, I'm not going to go down there to check the environmental conditions. Something better had to be implemented....

I started looking for environmental monitors/sensors on eBay thinking I could pick something up cheap from one of the numerous companies that sell used computer equipment. Data centers are always upgrading such things and I was confident I'd get something to meet my needs for less than $100USD. Wow, I was ever so wrong. I found some things around the $100USD range but they typically required other pieces or sensors that costs as much or more. This was starting to suck.

Not sure why it took so long, but I finally remembered I had purchased a temperature and humidity sensor from many months back for a project I hadn't completed. I also remembered I had an Ethernet shield and I always have a few Arduinos on hand. I had struck gold, I'll build my on networked environmental sensor and I can do it for FREE (as I already owned all the pieces).

Thanks to's learning site, I was able to get my DHT22 temperature and humidity sensor working in just a few minutes but I needed some way to get to the data remotely over the network. I hooked up my Ethernet shield and started messing about with building a HTTP client and after a bit realized there had to be someone who had done this already. I found this article which leveraged the Ethernet shield to log the data to a cloud service which had a nice user interface for making sense of the data points I was capturing. Exosite was going to be a great, no fantastic solution! I downloaded the Arduino library for Exosite and I was done in about 30 minutes.

20130213-164324.jpgThis is why I love Arduinos and the community of Arduino users. I was able to build an environmental sensor that was networked, captured historical data points and even has alerting features (via email) in about an hour and for about $75USD in parts.

Check out my Exosite portal here.

Now I've just got find a nice way to mount this in my rack and add a display for local viewing of the temperature and humidity for those times I actually am standing in front of the rack. But I'll save that for another post....

My example code and high resolution pictures can be downloaded below.

Title: LabSensor (1165 clicks)
Size: 2 MB


Great read for battery powered projects!

iStock_000015833126XSmallI've had many a project lately that needed to use batteries rather than being powered from the mains. I've been reading lots lately about saving power in AVR chips and general concepts for power conservation in my projects. It's made me a better engineer in general and I think all my future projects will benefit from the knowledge regardless of their power source. During all my research I did stumble upon this article that I thought would be useful to the masses and thought I'd share it with everyone.






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I <3 Raspberry Pi

I finally got my shipment of Raspberry Pis today and I am stoked! I didn't pay the crazy prices on eBay and so I now have a $36 computer. I've allocated both of my PIs as XBMC boxes to power my basement and living room TVs. I had been running a BoxeeBox and while I initially loved it, I've grown to HATE it. They should rename it "FlakeyBox"; a $200 box of crap.

Anyhow, I spent about 30 minutes working on it and I have my first Pi up and running and streaming 1080 video to my TV without issue. If you are in the market for a Pi allow me to suggest Adafruit. If you want information on how you too can use a Raspberry Pi as a media center, check this site out. There are several different firmwares available for XBMC but I've settled on Raspbmc for now, it's fast enough for daily use and seems very stable.


Update (2/11/2013):

Make sure you use a powered USB hub and pick up one of these power supplies for your PI, otherwise it'll be very unstable. I learned this the hard way. These power supplies from AdaFruit supply 5.25V to the PI which helps with it's rather shoddy power design which will allow the board to become under powered and reset.


Does this B.O.B make me look like a prepper?

Image courtesy of

It's funny to me that it takes a show about a zombie apocalypse to get folks thinking about something as simple as preparedness. I was a cub scout and then a boy scout and I never forgot the motto of "always be prepared" or was that MacGyver that said that, I forget. Regardless, the concept of being prepared or as I like to say "better prepared" for the curve balls mother nature or mankind can throw at us is something I've always considered common sense.

I've been reading, researching and prepping for things that happen to folks that seem unlikely to happen to my family or myself for more than 10 years. Does that make me sound like the paranoid "prepper" the media makes a person like me out to be? Seriously, I find it quite ironic that the media would have folks believe that boy scouts are paranoid anti-government terrorist. But that's exactly the same concept boy scouts are taught, be better prepared for when the unforeseen occurs. Oddly and thankfully even our government is telling you that you should be more prepared!

Anyhow, I digress, this post is meant for my family and friends (or blog followers) that after watching the previously mentioned zombie apocalypse are interested in a B.O.B (Bug Out Bag or 72-Kit). I've attempted to distill the years of research into an easily consumable blog post on exactly what it is that you need to build a B.O.B and some fundamental knowledge you should acquire whilst building your bag.

First, let's start with what you need to know. You must realize right now that the most crucial and powerful force multiplier you can have in a survival or general emergency situation is KNOWLEDGE. That's right it weighs nothing, takes up no room in your bag and will be there to save your hide when all your equipment has forsaken you. Knowledge is also the one thing most folks will never take the time to acquire as it does require a time investment and let's face it; most of the folks reading this blog want the B.O.B checklist so they can sleep better knowing that they have some knick-knacks safely stowed away in their vehicle. But its knowledge that I would urge everyone to truly invest in. Learn CPR, take a class for free; learn how to weld; teach your family how to get out of the house in case of a fire; show your children how to grow vegetables in the back garden. Expand your knowledge of self-sufficiency every single day.

Secondly, you need to realize that a B.O.B is a tool and you must understand its strengths and its limitations in any given situation. I'll focus the rest of the blog post on building a general purpose 72-hr kit most commonly referred to as a bug out bag. The name bug out bag came from military aviators that had to keep a kit on-board in case their plane went down. The concept was to have a compact survival bag that could keep their butts alive until they got rescued. That concept applies with most preppers as well, the B.O.B is meant to be a bag that you can quickly grab and hit the road, giving you 3 days' of provisions and tools to get to a more secure and better supplied shelter. Remember this, your B.O.B is not meant to sustain you and your loved ones for more than 72 hours, its primary purpose is to get you home or to your bug out location safely.

I subscribe to the basic concept that a B.O.B is a tool to get me home or to my bug out shelter as well, but I've built my B.O.B to also serve me equally well when I may need to help someone that has been in a car accident or if I find myself with a flat tire at 2AM coming home from the family vacation. I think the equipment I carry can help me with a zombie apocalypse or a flat tire equally well. Will I sale you one? Absolutely NOT. The journey of building your bug out bag serves to enhance your knowledge (and save you money) of its contents and their many possible uses in an emergency. Don't fool yourself into feeling comfortable just going out and buying a bug out bag.


The "God, please help me through this" B.O.B Build Guide:

 1. The Bag. What? You thought I'd say a gun?

The bag is probably the most critical component of your bug out bag. Seriously, you don't need to spend a small fortune on the bag but don't skimp here. The bag needs to be double-stitched on the seams and ready to carry all your equipment for the long hike to wherever you are going. Nothing like busting a seam on the bag and not having any way to carry your equipment to ruin your day. I purchased my bag from an online retailer; I found a great back-to-school deal on a quality made backpack. Those bags specifically marketed as bug out bags usually carry a 2000% mark-up and are made in the same Chinese factory as my backpack. Something like this will do you nicely and won't break the bank. If you really have extra cash burning a hole in your pocket, I LOVE the Condor 3 day assault bag.

 2. The rule of 3's (remember that knowledge is key)

Now that you have a decent bag, let's start with the basics. The rule of 3's is PARAMOUNT to survival and you better go read about it right now if you have no idea what this is! Let's assume you have clean air to breath and move on to shelter. I prefer a tarp for shelter normally and given the idea that we are most likely going to be on the move whilst using the B.O.B, I think it's worth the weight and space it takes up. I recommend you get an all-weather tarp like this one which is large enough to make into a lean-to and light enough to not consume too much space. As a secondary to this tarp I also recommend a Mylar blanket for each person in your family per B.O.B., you can pick them up at Wal-Mart in the camping section or buy them online for about $1/each. If you are like me and "paranoid" you can pick up some cheap rain ponchos as well. I keep 3 in my bag.

Now that we have the first two covered, let's move on to the more pressing concern, Water. Water is heavy just over 8lbs per gallon so it's going to be the biggest consumer of weight in our bag. I opted to go with emergency drinking water pouches as it would pack better and provided redundancy in case my bag got punctured by a zombie with a spear. I got mine at Sportsman's Warehouse locally for under $1 each but you can buy a box online easily enough. Those in the survival world know you need at least a gallon per person per day (not including grey water for washing, etc.) but I've elected to only carry 4 pouches per person per day in my bag. I will leverage a water filter like this to acquire additional water as required.

Finally on to our last rule of 3's need which is food. While food could really be left out of your B.O.B (it is only supposed to support you for 72 hours), I've elected to carry some anyhow. I feel the added weight and bulk is offset by the increase in morale and "HOPE" it will bring. Plus I get mighty grumpy when I'm hungry. I recommend mayday bars, they last a long time and fill the caloric intake requirements but they taste like crap.

3. Health & Hygiene

This category of items is far too often overlooked by those building a bug out bag but it's just as important as any other category of items. Yeah, everyone packs a small first aid kit, I recommend this one, but who carries tampons? Yep, tampons. Probably the most useful survival tool mass manufactured today, not to mention a really important thing to have in your bag for the significant other who will most likely be with you. There are literally a zillion uses in a survival situation for a tampon but I'll save that for later, in the meantime if you are interested, check this out. Additionally I carry the following items:

  • Moist towelettes - Clean hands and other body parts to keep down grime and improve overall body hygiene. Get these from your local restaurants, don't buy them. I carry about 2 dozen of them in each bag.
  • Medicines - I carry at least 3 days' worth of any meds that my family is currently taking. I also augment my first aid kit with anti-diarrhea, anti-acids, ibuprofen, acetaminophen and Benadryl. These are all packed in bottles with labels if prescription and I include a silica packet to ensure moisture isn't an issue.
  • Alcohol based hand sanitizer - Keep hands clean and can be used to help start fires in damp conditions (with a tampon or course). A small travel sized bottle for each person in your family is fine.
  • Sunscreen - Yet again, often left out and can seriously ruin your day if not used in those long day walks back to your house/shelter (you should avoid this in a real situation). Get it anywhere but make sure it's > 15SPF.
  • Roll of toilet paper - I remove the cardboard core and compress it with my vacuum sealer. You can just place it in a Ziploc bag. Obvious uses  in addition to being a fantastic fire starter.
  • Chapstick - Great for those chapped lips in the winter months and can be used with cotton to create a long burning fire starter for really damp kindling. Mix with ash and rub under your eyes for snowy setting to prevent glare, rub on pending blisters to prevent them.
  • Underwear and Socks - Don't forget your underwear and socks! Actually these are really important. Please, please include at least one change of both of these for each member of your family in your bag. Getting wet in a cold climate will kill you and these will go a long way to keeping you warm and clean. A full change of clothes would be great but is often too heavy and bulky to fit, I opted for the minimal.

4. Tools & General Equipment

A person can really easily go overboard in this category of items. Please keep in mind that the idea is that you will be carrying this bag with you as you retreat to a more permanent and better supplied location so don't be tempted to put everything you can in your bag, it's easy to do with items from this category. I have equipped my bag with the following items:

  • 550 Paracord (Rope) - Too many uses to even attempt to list. You MUST have this in your bag and you MUST carry at least 50ft of it. I recommend 550 paracord since it's light and extremely versatile but honestly any well-made rope that you can easy fold tightly into your bag (or loop on the outside securely) will work. I've ordered from these guys and they have the true mil-spec paracord (7 strand) stuff in all the colors you could want. Don't buy colorful cord though, stick with dark earth tones. This cord supports 550 STATIC pounds (thus its name).
  • Gloves - Leather is what I carry, obvious uses. I carry two pairs.
  • Can Opener - I carry the famous P-38 can opener which has tons of uses other than opening a can of spam.
  • Multi-Tool - Ah, no bag could be complete without one. Don't skimp here, a good tool can save your hide. Leatherman makes a wonderful tool. The OHT model seems interesting but I've got a super tool 300. Its uses are obvious.
  • Cooking (stove & supplies) - Lots of choices here, because I camp, I have the JetBoil system in my bags but honestly I recommend a good camping cup and use of a good 'ole fashioned fire. Get yourself a nice cheap fork from KFC next time you pick up some fried chicken. Otherwise spend some serious money (for a spork) on this.
  • Fire Starting Tools - A BIC lighter sealed in a vacuum bag or regular Ziploc bag. I also carry a sealed pack of weatherproof matches. You can buy the matches at your local camping store or even Wal-Mart in the fall when they put out more camping gear. If they don't come in a watertight container, put them in one. Ziploc to the rescue. Also ALWAYS, ALWAYS carry at least three methods of fire starting as a fire will save your hide in a survival situation not to mention the morale boost it will give you. I carry a flint tool as my third fire starting tool. You can pick up a flint tool at Wal-Mart or any camping store.
  • Long Burn Candles - Once again, a camping store is your friend. Coleman makes some, others do as well. You want at least 8 hours burn per candle. I keep two candles in my bag.
  • Glow sticks - Yep, not for an impromptu rave but to ensure you can see at night, mark your path, etc. These things are great; they emit no heat, pack easily and last for 12 hours. I have six in my bag. Pick them up at Wal-Mart or cheaper online. Red is supposed to help prevent you from losing your night vision but I had green so that's what's in my bag. The SnapLights are good quality and have a hook on the end which is very handy indeed. These can also be used in place of road flares if you have car trouble at night.
  • Radio - Hand crank is nice but they are typically too heavy, too expensive and too big. I got these and they rock. Cheap, light and run forever on one set of batteries. A radio is a great source of information and general morale booster when on the lamb in a survival situation.
  • Sewing Kit - A small sewing kit is great to have in case those double sewn seams rip or you need to stitch up that open wound until you get medical help. I actually carry a small back cutting suture for that and highly suggest you don't actually use this  for medical purposes.
  • Signal MirrorGet one with a sight hole which makes targeting the reflection much easier.
  • Signal Whistle - You can get these at Wal-Mart or any camping store. Avoid cheap metal that may rust or otherwise breakdown in humid environments.
  • Compass - Really a core piece of equipment. Know how to navigate with a compass it'll save your hide for sure.
  • Nalgene Bottle - Don't bother wasting your money on cheaper bottles. Get a 32 ounce wide mouth and be done with it. Used to carry/store water but I also use this as a waterproof storage device when packed away for fire starting equipment and tissue paper. I carry two in each of my bags although one would be sufficient.
  • Fixed Blade Knife - Everyone has a favorite survival knife but if you don't I have a love for S.O.G knives and pack one of these in each bag. Get a good quality knife, don't skimp. Also pick up a cheap sharping stone and learn how to sharpen your knife (preferably practicing on a cheap knife). CHECK YOUR LOCAL AND STATE LAWS If YOU INTEND TO STORE YOUR BAG IN YOUR CAR WITH A KNIFE.
  • Cash - Carry $100/day in small denominations. I would recommend $5s or $10s. Learn from hurricane Katrina; ATM machines and banks are not going to be accessible in an emergency and cash is king. Unless the government has fallen and then you can use this as fire starter. Optionally you may carry small amounts of silver or gold for use as currency.
  • USB Memory Stick - Put all your important personal information on this FOB and make sure it's encrypted somehow. Wrap it in alternating layers of foil and plastic wrap to protect it from damage and keep in your watertight Nalgene bottle. I also pack photo copies of picture identification in my bag for each family member. Remember while zombies may not care who you are, those with a pulse may require it from you.
  • Flash Light - I recommend two dependable small flashlights with extra batteries for each. Don't spend lots on them but they are super handy so don't spend $1 on them either. I actually have camping gear so I carry a head lamp in one of my bags.
  • Fishing Kit - I bought a tiny basic fishing kit off eBay and got 4 kits for like $7 shipped. Perfect.
  • Survival Book - Don't not have this. Even if you think your skill set is top notch. I highly recommend the SAS survival book for folks.
  • Atlas - Pick up a cheap atlas for your local area. Yeah, even if you have lived there your whole life, you never know when you may need to take a route that isn't obvious. I got mine on sale at Wal-Mart for $1.75. I really don't recommend a GPS for your bag, but if you have one you want to throw in the bag, go for it.
  • CPR Kit - I carry one of these for $3.50 but make sure you take a class and your instructor can give you advice on which type of small kit to carry. Remember that when doing mouth-to-mouth, don't blow too hard; more than likely they'll throw up and that's not what you want in your mouth! These kits don't include a mouth barrier; if that's a concern for you, the other kits on that page do include them.
  • Firearm - You knew it was coming. Honestly no kit is complete without a firearm for personal protection and potentially to aid in hunting; although small game caught with a snare trap would probably be more effective. I recommend a gun that you are comfortable with but ideally at least a 9MM hand gun with at least 25 rounds. Many folks carry a .22LR pistol and that's fine, put whatever you think makes sense for you in your bag, this is YOUR bug out bag after all. PLEASE CHECK YOUR LOCAL AND STATE LAWS REGARDING THE STORAGE OF A FIREARM IN YOUR BAG IF IT'S KEPT IN YOUR CAR.


Closing Thoughts

Remember that you should absolutely not try to find a bag to buy that is already complete. Part of building your bag is understanding the use of the items in your bag, besides there is a ridiculous mark up on these types of all-in-one bags. Start your bag with the most important items first and then continually add to it till your check-list is completed. Start with the 3's and you'll instantly have an advantage in an emergency situation. Review your bag contents and refresh the items as appropriate every six months. Ensure your family understands the use of the items in your bag and involve them as much as possible in the process of building it. Don't be tempted to buy lots of expensive "gadgets" especially those that require any type of electricity; they'll be the first things you discard.

I really enjoy talking with people about preparedness and how they can become more prepared to deal with life's emergencies. If you have any questions about this post or preparedness in general, please drop me a line or comment on this blog below so that others may learn from the converstation.





Why did I wait so long to toast my boards?

PCB Toaster OvenI've recently redesigned my Retro WiFi Radio project to include some "extra" functionality and the design requirements required some tiny spacing of the components in addition to some tiny SMD parts. While I'm all for hand soldering SMD when needed, I wasn't looking forward to attempting this board build by hand...I really needed to look for a better, faster and more reliable way to solder SMD boards. I'd read articles from Adafruit and some other sites about utilizing electric skillets to re-flow boards but I've also read plenty that say it's not the ideal way to re-flow. I even went  as far as to "Watch" some eBay listings for a few cheap Chinese re-flow ovens. I knew folks had been having lots of luck using a PID controller and a toaster oven and after reading reviews about those cheap Chinese re-flow ovens, I figured my $50 investment in a toaster oven from wally world would be the safest gamble. I knew I wanted a toaster with no digital controls (easier to hack up, I suspected) and dual top and bottom heating elements. I also had read some good reports using toaster ovens with a fan which supposedly prevented hot/cold spots in the oven. I found a Black and Decker at Wal-Mart for about $40 that fit the bill perfectly so I made the plunge, I sure hope it would reach high enough temps fast enough to hold a good re-flow profile.... The first test for the toaster before tearing it apart was to ensure it'd get hot enough without any modifications.

My particular oven has both a "Baking" and "Toasting" settings with the difference being the "Baking" setting enables the convection fan. I tested the oven in both settings to ensure it'd easily exceed the required 250C my lead-free profile would require for re-flow. It didn't take any time at all for the toaster to exceed my temperature requirements in both settings. Looks like I got myself a champ here folks! Given the fact that I had already purchased an appropriate solid state relay for a different project and I had a spare Arduino laying around, I knew I could quickly throw together a PID controller and test the toaster's ability to hold a profile. I used a sketch from these great folks (which they use for their Arduino re-flow shield) and an LCD display I had laying about. I had a working PID controller in about 45 minutes. So far, this project was looking like it was going to be super easy! Why hadn't I done this before? Using my Fluke meter (with temp probe), I manually charted the temperatures of 3 re-flow runs and while not as accurate as an industrial re-flow oven, I think it'll do just fine. My first few boards worked perfectly and I must say, it's WAY faster and easier than soldering by hand! Bring on those 0603 resistors now!  


Not one to leave good enough alone, I decided there were a few easy things I could do to improve the responsiveness of the toaster and help it follow my profile more accurately. Here's what I did to the toaster to "improve" it and the results. 1. Added reflective "flue tape" to the inside of the toaster's internal metal walls (back wall and bottom with ceramic fill inside cavity) as well as the glass front door (minus the "peep" window). 2. Filled internal voids with ceramic fiber insulation wool. Got some cheap from eBay

Unaltered Toaster:

Time to 250C (Toast Setting): 3:41.3 Time to 250C (Bake Setting): 6:46.9

"Improved" Toaster:

Time to 250C (Toast Setting): 2:25.8 Time to 250C (Bake Setting): 3:53.6