An IoT project: Monitoring soil moisture (Phase 1)

I have several pots of Dracaena Sanderiana (Lucky Bamboo) at home and I struggle with watering them.

The genus loves moderately moist soil. Overwatering will lead to root rot and them turning yellow while under-watering can lead to dry soil and the plant can die too.

This is why I got the idea to build an IoT solution that will tell me when the soil is too dry or too moist. This way, I would know when to water and have a rough gauge of how much to water.

Hardware and the plan

This project is split into three different phases.

For the first phase, it’s about being able to read the soil moisture information and present it. It should also notify me about low soil moisture.

To get started, we will be using the following hardware:

  1. Arduino Uno
  2. Sparkfun Soil Moisture Sensor (SEN-13322)

Rather than getting other type of sensors individually, I went with the Seeed Arduino Sensor Kit. It comes with a collection of common sensors such as button, accelerometer, humidity and temperature sensors. It also come with a Grove Base Shield that allows me to connect the various sensors easily via the Grove Connectors.

From this kit, I decided to use the buzzer to serve as the notification device. Whenever the moisture level drops below certain value, it should buzz and let me know. To present the moisture information, I went with the small 128 x 64 OLED display.

As I don’t want to burn out the display by keeping it turned on 24×7, I also hooked up the button. When pressed, the button will generate a signal that will turn on the display for a few seconds before it switches off.

For power, I got a power supply with a 5v output and barrel connector instead of powering it via battery.

For the second phase, I will look into implementing WiFi communication for the Arduino so that it could send back soil moisture data back to a database. This way, I could build a dashboard for me to see the history of the soil moisture.

For the third and also the last phase, I will incorporate an automatic water pump system that will help me water the plant when the soil moisture dip below certain level. This way, I could free up more time for me to do more projects.

Implementation (Writing the code)

With the documentation and code provided by Sparkfun for the soil moisture, I managed to get the soil moisture sensor to start reporting its first set of values.

The sensor is powered by digital 5v on Arduino digital pin 7 (D7). The data pin, also known as signal, is hooked up to A0 of the Arduino analog pins.

To read value from the sensor, it must first be powered up. This is done by first setting up digital pin 7 as the OUTPUT on the Arduino and this is done in the setup function.

Then, the moisture value is read from A0 with the use of analogRead in a separate function. After which, D7 is turned off

To get a better picture of the values that the sensor returns, Serial.println() is used to send data back to the Serial Monitor of the Arduino IDE over the UART. When the sensor is not touching anything, the values returned were between 0 to 10. Then, I touched the sensor’s prongs with my moist hands and the moisture reading went anywhere between 800 to 895. I even placed the sensor into a bowl of water and I get the same range of 800 to 895. A dry hand returned values between 300 to 500.

With those values, I worked on implementing the buzzer, which is connected to D5 on the Grove Base Shield. Based on my understanding of the plant, if the soil moisture is between 300 to 600, it’s probably too dry.

In that case, the program will call the buzzUrgent function and the buzzer will go off twice.

Initially, I had it go off three times with 1.5 seconds delay using a while loop. However, it was advised by the Arduino community that delays should be used sparingly since it’s a blocking action and will prevent the Arduino from doing other stuff. Thus, I made the change to use shorter time delay to create the rapid beeping sound that should catch my attention.

The program will also record the time (in miliseconds) the buzzer had gone off. And, if the soil remains dry, the buzzer shall continue to go off twice, once every half an hour (in milliseconds) as defined by the following variables.

On the other hand, if the soil is too wet, the buzzer will go off too. Initially, I went with the value of 850 because that was the highest I got when the sensor was in a bowl of water. Several days later, the buzzer keep going off while the sensor was in the soil and the arduino restarted after I powered it off as I was switching the power socket. When I checked the value read by the sensor, it was hovering between 850 to 890. With that, I had to change the value from 850 to 900.

During the development process, the Arduino, sensor and the OLED display are kept in a plastic container. Once the main development is done, we will look into building a housing.

Next thing that I implemented was the button. I needed a way for me to turn the display on only when I need it and turn off the display after a certain amount of time. This was to protect the display, preventing it from burning out.

I connect the button to D4 Grove socket on the Grove Base Shield. Then, the code to detect if the button is pressed is added to the loop function.

The isButtonPressed is a simple function that checks if the button state is high. If so, returns a true, otherwise a false.

With the button implementation, the program will cause the OLED to activate for 5 seconds every time I press it. This should give me enough time to read the value.

One last thing to mention is that the loop function previously had a blocking delay at the bottom. I removed that in favour of the non-blocking timer. What it does is basically get a soil moisture reading once every 30 seconds. For the initial prototype, this is probably a good amount of time since I don’t want to be waiting for ages before I get a new value. Once the system is stable, I would increase the delay between the sensor read further. Once every thirty minutes is not out of the question since soil moisture level don’t change so fast (unless we are in a heatwave and drought).

The code to the project can be found here.

Problems and Troubleshooting

During the implementation, I came across an issue that got me wondering if there was an issue with the hardware.

When I first connected the OLED display, I couldn’t get it to work. After nearly one day of research and then trial and error, it turns out it was because I’m using Arduino Uno. Based on the README provided here:”(SSD1315)V1.0, software I2C should be used instead.

However, since I’m using the Arduino_Sensorkit library, there’s no direct way of using software I2C. More research pointed me to this commit history at the Arduino_SensorKit repository on Github

With that, I located version 1.0.5 that had support for software I2C and installed it. I retested the program and the OLED display turned on. I could then display information on it.

Housing and deployment

Like the previous IoT project that I did, I went with using Lego for the housing.

Fun Fact: The button was a last minute addition after the housing is done when I realised I needed a way to turn the display on after it has gone to sleep. That’s why it’s dangling outside. A re-design of the sensor housing on the right is necessary.

As you can see below, the buzzer, OLED display and button are connected to the Grove Base Shield via the Grove connectors while the moisture sensor is connected using jumper cables.

This is the finished product. The Arduino is hidden away within the box. The top part is actually a moveable flap that can give me quick access to the hardware. The OLED display is placed on the side with the use of double-sided tape to stick it to two transparent panel bricks. A roof is added to “protect” the display from water splashing on it from the top. On top of the display is the button that allows me to press and turn on the display for a quick glance of the moisture value.

At the back of the housing, there’s a compartment for the buzzer. Lego bricks that look like a window are used to create an opening for the sound to exit instead of sounding muffled.

Once the housing is done, the project is finally deployed. But first, the sensitive part of the moisture sensor had to be protected from water. So I modified an anti-static bag and used it to wrap around the top part of the sensor with the application of a decent amount of sticky tape.

Here is the OLED display in action after the button is pressed. It shows the current soil moisture level. Based on the value, looks like I don’t need to water the plant just yet.

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