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Update: the technique described in this article is possibly no longer necessary for the current version of OSBee, as it now supports setting a different opening vs. closing voltage.


Recently when helping a customer, I came across an interesting case of how to control Gardena 1251 latching solenoid valve using OpenSprinkler Bee. This valve is mostly sold in the European market and isn’t very popular in the US market. On spec, it’s operated using a single 9V battery, and to use this valve you need to buy a Gardena 1250 controller unit. The whole assembly including the valve and controller unit are quite pricy (close to 100 bucks), so it’s not a very cost-effective solution compared to other brands. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting case that helped me understand how these latching solenoids work.


Measure the Control Voltages

The initial request to look into this valve was due to the fact that OSBee can’t seem to operate this valve correctly: it can open the valve but never manages to close the valve. This was reported by a German customer, and it caught my curiosity. To figure out the issue, the first thing I did was to check how the control unit (1250) is sending out control voltages to the valve. It’s pretty common that when operating latching solenoid valves, the control circuit sends an impulse voltage to open the valve, and another impulse voltage in the reverse polarity to close the valve. On most solenoid valves I’ve seen, the two impulse voltage (of opposite polarity) are roughly the same, and that’s also how the OSBee circuit works.

Upon connecting the control unit to an oscilloscope, I noticed something strange: no matter how I press the on/off button, it’s only sending a very short (a few milliseconds) pulse, which cannot possibly operate the valve. Then it became clear to me that the controller is in fact actively sensing the existence of the valve, and would not send control voltages if the valve is not detected. I measured the resistance of the solenoid valve, which is about 35 ohm. So I connected a 33 ohm resistor to the controller as a dummy load, and there you go, now we can observe the control voltages and pulse lengths.

It’s pretty easy to notice the asymmetry here: while opening the valve requires a pulse of 250 ms and -7.84 voltage (this is roughly the battery voltage since my 9V battery isn’t fully charged), closing the valve only requires a very short pulse of 62 ms and very low voltage — 2.5V. This is quite strange to me: how come closing the valve only requires such a short pulse and such low voltage?


How Does This Latching Valve Work?

In order to figure out what’s going on here, I un-tightened a bunch of screws and opened up the valve.

At the bottom of the valve is a pressure chamber with a spring. This is very similar to other valves I’ve seen.

The top section contains, supposedly, a coil and magnet inside, and a small cone-shaped metal piece that can be attracted to the magnet or released. It’s quite easy to observe that when opening the valve, the metal piece gets attracted (left picture above), this supposedly releases the pressure in the bottom chamber, thus allowing the water to flow through the valve. Conversely, when closing the valve, the metal piece is released and dropped to block the hole at the bottom, this supposedly allows water pressure to build up in the bottom chamber, thus stopping the water flow.

The key in making this latching is that an impulse voltage can permanently magnetize the core, thus permanently attracting the metal piece. This makes it possible for the valve to remain in the ‘open’ status without contiguously drawing current from the power source (which is unlike non-latching valves like 24VAC valves).

Observing this mechanism, it became clear to me that ‘closing’ the valve basically requires de-magnetizing the core, and that requires just a short pulse of low voltage in the opposite polarity. If you apply the same voltage and strength as before, it will start magnetizing the core the other way, thus the magnetic pole changes direction but the metal piece will still be permanently attracted!

Anyways, this is very interesting to me because previously I had no idea how latching solenoid valves work internally. Now at least I know understand this particular valve works, and this understanding will help me figure out how to get OpenSprinkler Bee to control this valve.


Use OSBee to Control the Gardena 1251 Valve

There are several issues that make OSBee incompatible with the Gardena 1251 valve, but it turns out they can all be solved without too much difficulties. The first is that OSBee by default boost the input voltage (which is 5V from USB) up to 22VDC, which is significantly higher than 9V required by the valve. This is reasonably easy to solve — by fine tuning the boosting time, I can find the sweet spot where the boosted voltage is just around 9V. This boosting time turns out to be around 80 to 100ms.

Second, OSBee by default uses 100ms pulse in both directions (i.e. both opening and closing the valve). This is very easy to change to 250ms and 62ms respectively to match the Gardena controller.

The last issue deserves more thinking, that is, opening the valve requires 9V, but closing the valve requires only 2.5V. Because the input voltage is from USB and it’s 5V, there is no obvious way to step that down to 2.5V since the boost converter can only bump up the voltage and never reduce the voltage. How do we create this asymmetric voltage in opposite polarities? Turns out that you can do so by making use of a diode connected in parallel with a 100 ohm resistor. Why? The diode is a one-way gate: when positively biased, it turns on almost fully (except the 0.7V voltage drop across it, which can be ignored here); but when reversely biased, it turns off, thus current has to flow through the resistor (connected in parallel to the diode), and that resistor will divide the voltage, ensuring that only about 2.5V falls on the valve.

I’ve attached here a diagram showing the connection. The diode can be almost any general-purpose rectifier, like 1N4148, 1N4001 and so on. I’ve also included two photos showing the actual components connected to OSBee and the valve. With this modification, OSBee can now both open and close the Gardena 1251 valve successfully. Mission accomplished!

Today I am very excited to introduce OpenSprinkler Bee (OSBee) 2.0: it’s an open-source, WiFi-enabled, universal sprinkler controller. It is suitable for garden and lawn watering, plant and flower irrigation, hydroponics, and other types of watering project. This is the first OpenSprinkler product built upon the popular ESP8266 WiFi chip. It’s designed primarily for latching solenoid valves, but can also switch non-latching solenoid valves (such as standard 24VAC valves), low-voltage fish tank pumps (which can be used to feed water to flower pots and indoor plants), and other types of low-voltage DC valves and pumps. All of them can be powered from a single USB port. This is made possible by using a unique circuit design that leverages a boost regulator and a new solenoid driver circuit. Hence I call it a Universal sprinkler controller. Among the software features, it introduces the concept of Program Tasks, which provides maximal flexibility in programming the zones. In contrast to the first version of OSBee, which was in the form of an Arduino shield and relies on an additional Arduino, OSBee 2.0 is a standalone controller with built-in WiFi, OLED display, laser cut acrylic enclosure, and can switch up to 3 zones independently.

Here is not-so-short video introduction to OSBee 2.0:

Here are two photos of the OSBee 2.0 circuit board:

osbeewifi_1osbeewifi_2

Screenshots of the web interface and Blynk app:
osbee_screenshots

In summary, in terms of Hardware Design, it has the following features:

  • A single ESP8266 chip serves as the microcontroller and handles WiFi connectivity.
  • On-board 128×64 OLED display, real-time clock with backup battery, USB-serial chip. Can switch up to 3 zones independently.
  • Boost converter and a new H-bridge design that allows the same controller to switch both lathing and non-latching solenoid valves, all powered from a single 5V USB port.
  • An easy-to-assemble laser cut acrylic enclosure.

In terms of Software Features:

  • It has a built-in web interface that allows you to easily change settings, perform manual control, and create automatic sprinkler programs. It also provides logging and program preview features.
  • It introduces Program Tasks to allow maximal flexibility in programming zones. For example, you can define arbitrary ordering of zones, have multiple zones run at the same time, and insert delays between tasks. Zone water time is programmed at precision of seconds.
  • It allows remote control through the Blynk app and Blynk cloud server.
  • Firmware update can be performed either wirelessly using the web interface (OTA), or through the on-board USB port with a USB cable.

It improves upon the current OpenSprinkler 2.3 by adding built-in WiFi capability, and using a unified solenoid driver that can handle both latching and non-latching solenoid valves. On the other hand, it can only switch up to 3 zones, and the number cannot be expanded. It’s also missing a few advanced features at the moment, such as weather-based water time, virtual stations (e.g. HTTP and RF stations), and support for sensors. Some of these features are purely software, and can be easily added in the future.

OpenSprinkler Bee 2.0 is now available for purchase at our online store:

The package includes a fully assembled OSBee 2.0 circuit board, laser cut acrylic enclosure, instructions, USB cable, and optionally an USB adapter.


Resources and Technical Details

OSBee 2.0 is an open-source project. Its hardware schematic, firmware source code, user manual, and API document are all available at the OpenSprinkler Github repository (look for the prefix OSBee in the repository).

Below I will briefly go over the technical details of the boost converter and the solenoid driver, as I think it’s an interesting design that’s potentially applicable elsewhere. The boost converter is borrowed directly from the OpenSprinkler DC circuit. It’s a simple MC34063-based boost regulator that bumps the input 5V up to 24V DC, and stores the charge into a 2200uF capacitor.

osbee_circuit_1

The Booster is controlled by two MOSFET-based high-side switches. The first one controls the input power: the microcontroller uses it to feed the input 5V to the booster, which quickly raises the voltage to 24V. After a couple of seconds, high-side switch 1 is turned off and the microcontroller prepares the states of the half H-bridges (COM, Z1, Z2, Z3). Let me first explain how the states are set for Latching solenoids. The solenoids for the three zone are connected between COM-Z1, COM-Z2, and COM-Z3 respectively. Normally all four half bridges are in ‘High’ state, so the net voltage across every solenoid is 0. To activate a solenoid (say Z1), the corresponding half-bridge will be pulled down to ground (i.e. ‘Low’ state). The microcontroller then turns on high-side switch 2 momentarily to dump the charge from the 2200uF capacitor to the solenoid. This turns on the valve. To deactivate the solenoid, the microcontroller pulls all half-bridges to Low, except the zone that is to be deactivated which remains in High state. It then turns on high-side switch 2 momentarily, again dumping the capacitor charge to the solenoid, but now in reverse polarity, thus closing the valve. This is basically how it operates latching solenoids.

So how does the same circuit work for Non-Latching Solenoids, such as 24VAC valve commonly used in residential sprinkler system? It turns out that just like latching solenoids, non-latching ones also require a pretty high impulse current (called inrush current) to get activated. The difference, however, is that to keep it on, it needs to draw current continuously from the power source. When the power cuts off, the solenoid is deactivated. This is called the holding current and is considerably lower than the inrush current. So to operate non-latching solenoids, all I need is an additional diode that provides a path from the input 5V to the solenoids to provide the holding current. This diode could be software switched by the microcontroller, but because ESP8266 has very few number of GPIO pins, (and I want to avoid having to use an IO expander), I opted to enable this diode path using a solder jumper. To operate non-latching valves, this jumper needs to be soldered on.

osbee_circuit_2

On the Software side, the firmware uses an option to allow the user to choose the valve type (unfortunately the controller can’t automatically detect the valve type yet). For non-latching valves, the half-bridge states are actually easier to manage than the latching case: now COM is always in ‘High’ state, and Z1, Z2 or Z3 are kept ‘Low’ for as long as needed to keep the valves on. That’s it.

You may be wondering how does this even work for valves rated at 24VAC? How can we drive them using DC, and just 5V? The short answer is that this is due to the way such solenoids behave under AC. Specifically, when you first connect the solenoid to 24VAC, it immediately draws a high inrush current, which reliably energizes the solenoid and opens the valve. Once energized, the solenoid presents a large inductance and high reactance to AC, thus limiting the effective current flowing through it. This results in lower holding current, which is enough to keep it on and saves the coil’s lifespan. We can exploit this behavior and achieve the same effect using a DC-based circuit: the booster produces a high voltage initially to provide the inrush current needed to energize the solenoid, and then lowers the voltage to the input level to provide the holding current. Exactly how much holding current is needed is not clearly defined, but for all 24VAC solenoids I’ve tested, once energized, they can remain on at just 5V input voltage.

Now we are left with the last part of the technical details: the Half H-Bridge Design. From the circuit diagram above, it seems we can easily implement the half bridges using relays. While this is totally true, relays are bulky, expensive, slow to switch, and difficult to replace. For these reasons, modern electronics prefer to use semi-conductors as much as possible in place of relays. So I decided to use a MOSFET-based H-Bridge design, and it’s a more interesting design than just throwing relays everywhere.

Typically when you want to switch between GND and a voltage considerably higher than the microcontroller’s output, you can use a half H-bridge design as show in the left image below. It uses a low-power N-MOSFET to drive the high-power P-MOS on the bridge, making it possible to use a GPIO pin to switch a high voltage. However, this generally requires 2 GPIO pins (i.e. A and B) per half bridge. Because ESP8266 has a small number of GPIO pins, the challenge is how to use just 1 GPIO pin per half bridge.

osbee_hbridge_1osbee_hbridge_2

So I came up with a slightly modified half bridge design, as shown in the right image above. It leverages two low-power N-MOSFETs to drive the high-power P-MOS and N-MOS on the bridge. This allows using just 1 GPIO pin (A) to switch the bridge. When A is Low, both input N-MOSFETs turn off, and the gates of the P-MOS and N-MOS are both pulled high, so the P-MOS turns off and N-MOS conducts, pulling the OUTPUT to Low. When A is High, the reverse happens, and the OUTPUT is also High.

Using two input N-MOSFETs also makes it easy to prevent shoot-through problem, which is often an issue with H-bridge. Shoot-through happens when the control signal A transitions from Low to High (or conversely from High to Low), and at some point the P-MOS and N-MOS may both be in conducting state, causing a shorting. To avoid this, I chose to use two different types of input N-MOSFETs: one with lower gate threshold voltage (such as BSS138) and one with higher gate threshold voltage (such as 2N7002). This way, as the control signal A swings between Low and High, the two input N-MOSFETs will turn on and off at different times, ensuring that the P-MOS and N-MOS will not both conduct at the same time. As for the choices of the P-MOS and N-MOS, I opted to use the common AO3401 and AO3400, which provide ample room for continuous current as well as impulse current.

Sorry about going through these nitty-gritty details, but I think these are interesting design notes worth documenting and sharing. Feel free to chime in with your comments and suggestions. Thanks!

A quick note that our Black Friday / Cyber Monday sales are on now: all OpenSprinkler products are shown in discounted prices right now, and the deal only lasts till Monday Nov 28. This is the only time of the year that we offer discounted pricing, so if you are interested in buying OpenSprinkler, grasp this chance and don’t let it slip away!

If you are wondering whether you need to apply any coupon code. The answer is NO: the price you see is the discounted price. In the past when we used to have coupons, many customers forgot to apply the coupon in the end. To save you the trouble of having to enter coupon code, we directly discount the price, so you will definitely not miss it.

Last Thursday I had a lot of fun doing a workshop at my college (UMass Amherst) where I taught students to use a WiFi-enabled Color LED matrix combined with Javascript programs to create animations displayed onto the LED matrix. The matrix is made of 5×7 WS2812 (NeoPixel) LEDs. I’ve actually designed it two years ago and wrote a blog post about it. Back then I was using an Arduino-compatible SquareWear Mini to control the display patterns. It was fun to play with, but changing the display patterns require modifying the Arduino sketch and upload it over and over again, which took a lot of time.

This time, I improved the design by simply using a ESP8266 WiFi chip mounted at the back of the LED matrix. I wrote a firmware with a minimal set of HTTP GET API, with which you can set all pixels colors, set the brightness, or tell it to scroll a line of text. What’s cool about it is that you can now use Javascripts to send animation frames to it on the fly, which is a lot easier compared to re-writing and uploading an Arduino sketch. In addition, you can take the LED matrix on the go and use your mobile phone to control it, which is nice for wearable electronics.

img_20161029_234314

The video below goes through the details. Take a look at it first. Essentially, combining ESP8266 with the LED matrix makes a little wireless display. The next thing I should work on is to figure out how to stream video to it. It’s going to be very very low resolution for sure, but it’s gonna be fun, and I can always daisy chain multiple matrices to make a larger display.


Workshop Materials

Below you can download the materials I prepared for the workshop, including the Arduino firmware code (compilable in Arduino using ESP8266 core with NeoPixel library), the Javascript programs I wrote, and the powerpoint slides with lots of details and can be used as a 1-2 hour tutorial.

Also, the LED matrix and ESP8266 development board that I used in the demo are both designed by myself. They are attached together by double-sided tape and three soldered wires. The hardware design files are available in my Github repository below:


I just discovered something exciting recently and want to share with you: it’s now possible to use IFTTT with OpenSprinkler and OpenGarage; and because IFTTT support Amazon Echo (Alexa), you can now speak voice command to trigger sprinkler actions. For example, say ‘Alexa, trigger open sprinkler zone 1‘, or ‘Alexa, trigger my garage door‘. I will briefly walk you through the setup process. We will be building support for IFTTT into the firmware soon, to allow for additional features like push notification. For now, the guide below will allow you to trigger actions on OpenSprinkler and OpenGarage with your existing firmware.

Before I proceed, I should give credits to Mike Szelong, who has purchased both OpenSprinkler and OpenGarage, and made both work with Alexa through IFTTT. Thanks to Mike for sending me this tip in the first place. Below let me first explain how IFTTT works.

What is IFTTT?
If you’ve never heard of IFTTT, it stands for If This Then That. With IFTTT, you can set up what’s called ‘recipes’, which hook up ‘triggers’ with ‘actions’. There are many triggers, for example, weather changes, sensor value changes, a new text message, a new twitter message, a new photo upload, or in our case, an Alexa phrase. There are also many actions, for example, send a text message, send an email, post a message on facebook, or in our case, send an web request to OpenSprinkler. With IFTTT, you can easily set up recipes like: ‘if temperature drops below xx degrees, send me a text message’, ‘if there is a new post on my facebook, send me a push notification’, or in our case ‘if Alexa receives a specific phrase, trigger a sprinkler action’. Because it’s so convenient, it has become very popular among Internet of Things.

How does IFTTT send or receive web requests?
IFTTT provides support to what’s called a ‘Maker Channel’, allowing you to use generic web requests (i.e. HTTP commands) as triggers and/or actions. This makes it possible to extend IFTTT support to your own DIY hardware gadgets. For example, to use a Maker trigger, just have your gadget send a web request to IFTTT, and hook it up with an action, such as text message, to enable push notification. This way, when OpenSprinkler starts to run any program, or receives weather changes, it can send a web request to IFTTT, which further triggers a text message or push notification to your phone. Conversely, to use a Maker action, you can set IFTTT to send a web request to your gadget. This way, when it receives an associated trigger, it can send a command to OpenSprinkler to start an action. As both OpenSprinkler and OpenGarage implement HTTP GET commands, they can naturally work with IFTTT through the Maker channel.

Wait, what’s the catch?
There are two. First, to use the device as a trigger, the firmware needs to connect to IFTTT. Neither OpenSprinkler nor OpenGarage has firmware support currently to send web requests to IFTTT, you can’t use them as a trigger yet, but work is underway to add such support to the firmware. Second, to use the devices for action, IFTTT needs to reach the device from the Internet. This requires you to set up port forwarding so that IFTTT can use the public IP address to reach the device. I know that port forwarding is gradually phasing out in favor of cloud-connected devices, but for now we will have to stick with port forwarding.


Now I have explained how IFTTT works, let’s go ahead and create some recipes.

Step 1. Sign up for an IFTTT account
Go to ifttt.com, click on ‘Sign up’ to register an account. You will walk through a simple tutorial to learn the basics of IFTTT.

Step 2. Enable Maker channel
Click on ‘Channels’ at the top, then search for ‘Maker’ and under ‘Developer Tools’ select the Maker channel, and click on ‘Connect’. You will be assigned a ‘key. At the moment you don’t need the key, so you can ignore that for now.

ifttt1

Step 3. Set up a recipe
Click on ‘My Recipes’ at the top and then ‘Create a Recipe’. Select a trigger (i.e. this) — for example, search ‘sms’ and select SMS as a trigger. Input your phone number and a verification pin. Then select a trigger method, such as ‘Send IFTTT an SMS tagged’. Then input the tag phrase, such as zone1on. This means every time IFTTT receives a text message with that particular phrase, it will trigger an action.

ifttt2ifttt33

Next, to choose an action (i.e. that), search for ‘Maker’, and click on ‘Make a Web Request’. This is where you need to input the HTTP command. You will need to type in your home network’s external IP address, external port number (that maps to OpenSprinkler through port forwarding), followed by a supported HTTP command (check API document listed below), device password, and required parameters. The example below turns on zone 1 (i.e. sid=0) for 10 minutes (i.e. 600 seconds). For ‘Method’, select ‘GET’, and you can leave Content Type and Body empty. If you are not sure whether the command works or not, simply copy and paste the URL you constructed to a browser, and if the returned message has {‘result’:1} that means it has succeeded.

ifttt5
Click on ‘Create Action’ to finish.

In case you’ve got lost, here are some useful links that you may need to refer to:

Step 4. Test the recipe
To test the above example recipe, send a text message #zone1on (don’t forget the pound sign!) to the IFTTT phone number (this is the same phone number you received a text from when you verified your phone with IFTTT). If everything is set up correctly, your sprinkler zone 1 will start watering for 10 minutes!

Step 5. Use Alexa to enable voice command
Now that I’ve walked you through a basic example, you can experiment with using Alexa to enable voice command. You obviously need to have an Alexa (Amazon Echo) for this to work. The recipe is largely the same as the above text message example, except that for trigger (i.e. this) you will select Alexa, and give it a phrase. Now when you speak that phrase to Alexa, it will trigger the action. How exciting! Don’t forget that you need to say ‘Alexa, trigger xxx’ where xxx is the phrase. The ‘trigger’ keyword is kind of like the pound sign in the text message.

If you have an OpenGarage, you can also follow the OpenGarage API to set up web requests and get Alexa to open / close the garage door for you.

Currently as the phrase is fixed / static, there is no easy way to parametrize the phrase. For example, you can’t say ‘trigger open zone 1 for blah minutes’ where ‘blah’ is a variable like 10, 20 or any positive integer you want. I am sure this would be possible in the future though.

Next Step: Notifications
As I said, another popular use of IFTTT is for email / text / push notifications. For doing so, the device needs to send HTTP commands to IFTTT. Upon receiving the request, it can trigger an action such as sending you an email or text message. Work is under way to add this support to both OpenSprinkler and OpenGarage firmware, and hopefully they will be ready soon!

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