Lawn Sprinkler the Introduction Part 1

by Mike Linnen 2. July 2011 09:00

Overview

The new craze for Home Automation is to use technology to Go Green.  One aspect of Going Green is about managing resources in a more efficient way.  I have seen a number of other hobbyists build projects that manage the amount of electricity or gas that they use within their home.  In this project I am going to manage the amount of water I use for watering my lawn.  In part 1 of this series I am going to cover the big picture of what I am attempting to do.

Since this is a multipart post I am including the links to the other parts here as well:

Requirements 

Of course I needed a few requirements to define the scope of what I am attempting to do.

  • Support for up to 4 zones
  • Be able to manually turn on 1 or more zones (max 4) and have them run for a period of time
  • Be able to schedule 1 or more zones (max 4) to come on daily at a specific time of the day multiple times a day.
  • Be able to schedule 1 or more zones (max 4) to come on every Mon, Wed and Friday at a specific time of the day multiple times a day.
  • Be able to schedule 1 or more zones (max 4) to come on every Tuesday and Thursday at a specific time of the day multiple times a day.
  • Be able to turn off the system so that the scheduled or manual zones will immediately turn off or not turn on at their scheduled time.
  • Be able to do any of the above requirements remotely.
  • Do not turn on the sprinkler if rain is in the forecast (Go Green)
  • Do not turn on the sprinkler if the ground is already moist enough (Go Green)
  • Be able to automatically set the clock when daylight savings time changes.

At first I was going to make the sprinkler system a completely stand alone device where I could setup the schedule by using a keypad and an LCD.  This would allow me to completely control the device without remotely connecting to it.  But since I wanted to control the device remotely anyway and the cost of hardware and development efforts would be higher for a stand alone device, I decided to abandon the “Stand Alone” capabilities.  I did want the ability to turn off the sprinkler system without remotely connecting to it and I also wanted a quick way to know if the device was off or not.  A push button switch can be used to turn the sprinkler immediately off.  A couple LEDs can be used to let you know what mode the sprinkler is in.

The Sprinkler

I am using a Netduino Plus as the microcontroller that operates my sprinkler heads.  I choose this device because it uses the .Net Micro framework and it also has an onboard Ethernet controller which makes connecting it to my network a real easy task.  You could very easily use another device to control the sprinklers as long as it could handle the HTTP messages and had enough I/O to interface to the rest of the needed hardware. 

This device is responsible for the following:

  • Monitor the schedule and turn on the sprinklers if it is time to do so
    • 4 Digital Outputs
    • Onboard clock to know when to run the scheduled time
  • Watch for HTTP JSON requests that originate from the Windows Phone
    • The onboard Etherent works well for this
  • Watch for HTTP JSON requests that originate from the weather service telling the sprinkler the chance of rain
    • The onboard Etherent works well for this
  • Watch for HTTP JSON requests that originate from the time service telling the sprinkler to change it’s onboard clock
    • The onboard Etherent works well for this
  • On power up ask the time service for the correct time
    • The onboard Etherent works well for this
  • Monitor the Off pushbutton and cycle the mode of the sprinkler through the 3 states: Off/Manual/Scheduled
    • 1 Digital Input
  • Yellow LED goes on when in the Manual state
    • 1 Digital Output
  • Green LED goes on when in the Schedule state
    • 1 Digital Output
  • Monitor the ground moisture (Note: I haven’t done much research on how these sensors work so this might change)
    • 1 Analog Input
  • Persist the Manual and Scheduled programs so that a power cycle wont these values

The sprinkler modes need a little more discussion.  When in the Off mode the sprinkler heads will not turn on but the board will be powered up and listen for any HTTP requests and monitor the push button.  When cycling to the Off mode from any other mode the sprinklers will turn off if they where on.  When cycled to the Manual mode from any other mode the sprinkler will immediately run the manual schedule turning on the appropriate zones for the appropriate length of time.  If no Manual schedule exists then the sprinkler does nothing. In Scheduled mode the sprinkler waits for the programmed day and time to turn on the appropriate zones for the appropriate length of time unless the ground is already wet or rain is in the forecast.

The Remote Control

The remote control is the only way to program the sprinkler since it doesn’t have any UI for this task.  There can be many different devices that serve as the remote control but I intend to use my Samsung Focus Windows Phone 7 for this purpose. 

The application on this device just needs to send HTTP Get and Post requests.  Depending on the type of request a JSON message might be required in the body of the request (i.e. sending data to the sprinkler).  Also depending on the type of request the response may contain JSON(i.e. returning data from the sprinkler).

I chose to use HTTP and JSON as the communication mechanism between the remote control and the sprinkler so that I could remain platform independent.       

Connecting the Remote to the Sprinkler

The Netduino sprinkler sits behind my home firewall.  If I want to talk to the sprinkler with a device that is not behind the firewall then things start to get a little painful.  I would basically have the following options:

  • Don’t expose the sprinkler to the outside world (kind of limiting).
  • The sprinkler microcontroller would have to poll some server on the internet for any new messages that it should process (lots of busy work for the controller).
  • Punch a hole in my firewall so I can get through it from the internet (can you please hack me).
  • Use Windows Azure Service Bus(no brainer).

The Service Bus allows me to make outbound connections to Windows Azure cloud infrastructure and it keeps that connection open so that any external device can make remote procedure calls to the endpoint behind the firewall. I have decided to use the v 1.0 release of service bus for now, but in the future I could see this changing where I would use more of a publish/subscribe messaging infrastructure (which is in a future release of service bus) rather than a remote procedure call.

To leverage the Service Bus you must have a Host that sits behind the firewall and makes the connection to the Azure cloud platform.  For the purpose of this post I am calling this service the Home Connector.  The responsibility of this service is to connect to the Service Bus as a host so that it can accept remote procedure calls from a client.  The client in this case I call the remote connector.

The Home Connector

The Home Connector is a windows service that runs on one of my windows machines behind my firewall.  When a Remote Procedure Call comes in it is converted to an HTTP Get or Post JSON request that is sent to the Netdunio sprinkler.  The response from the Netduino is then parsed and returned back to the RPC caller.  This routing of Service Bus messages to devices behind my firewall is built with the mindset that more than one Netduino microcontroller will be servicing RPC calls from a remote device over the internet.  So this architecture is not limited to just the Sprinkler System.  I intend to add more microcontrollers in the same manor and register them with the home connector so that they too can service RPC requests. 

The Remote Connector

I could have skipped this layer between the phone and the sprinkler.  Since the phone would not be able to use the Service Bus DLL’s directly I could have used the Service Bus WebHttpRelayBinding which would allow me to submit messages to the bus over a REST style api directly from the phone.  But I wanted another layer between the Phone and the Sprinkler so that I could cache some of the requests to prevent my sprinkler from getting bombarded with messages.  I needed a lightweight web framework that would make creating HTTP Get/Post JSON messages easy.

I choose to use the NancyFX framework because it seemed to fit the bill of being quick and easy to get up and running.  That sure was the case when I pulled it down and started building out the first HTTP Get handler.  I simply created an empty web site and used nugetto install NancyFX into this existing blank site.  After that I created a module class and defined my routes and handlers for the routes and I was running with my first Get request in about 15 minutes.  The NancyFX framework also handled processing my JSON messages with very little effort on my part.  All I really needed to do is have a model that represented the JSON message and performed a bind operation on it and the model ended up fully populated.  I haven’t tried to play around with caching the responses yet but I don’t think that will be too hard.

It is important to understand that this remote connector does not have to be on an Azure web role to work.  I could easily deploy this web site to another hosting provider that might be a little cheaper to use.

Conclusion

The Netduino, Service Bus and NanacyFX web framework all seemed to be pretty easy to get me going on connecting devices in my home to my phone.  At the time of this post I haven’t finished the sprinkler system but I got an end to end example of using the Windows Phone to control my Netduino behind my firewall without punching any holes in my router.  I spent most of my time working out the JSON parsing issues across multiple devices then actually getting the infrastructure in place.

This opens up a whole new world of possibilities for me of connecting multiple home devices to my phone and other services.  Before I go to a multiple device household I will most likely move away from the RPC calls and introduce a more publish/subscribe model of passing messages around.  That way I can decouple the message producers from the message consumers.  I will probably wait for the newer Azure Service Bus bits before I tackle that problem though. 

One thing that I started to think about while doing this project is how much smarts (code) should I be placing in the Netduino device.  Right now I have a considerable amount of code that performs all the scheduling functionality in the Netduino.  So once the Netduino receives its pre-programmed schedule it basically can run without any other communications from the outside world (as long as the power doesn’t cycle).  However the scheduling functionality that is built into my sprinkler code is kind of limiting.  If I wanted to add more features to the scheduling functionality it would require me to build a lot of the logic into the Netduino sprinkler code.  This also means I need to deploy more bits to my sprinkler device.  As you can imaging this could develop into a deployment nightmare if a lot of customers are using this product.  There are ways to solve that kind of deployment issues by automating the update process but another solution is to remove the scheduling smarts from the sprinkler device itself and place that logic into a cloud service.  Basically the sprinkler device would know nothing about a schedule and it would be told when it should turn on and how long the zones should run for.  This would eliminate a lot of code that is on the device and make it easier to add new features to the service.  Of course that means the sprinkler device has to be connected to the internet at all times in order to work but that’s doable.  Well I don’t intend to move in that direction yet but I think once I finish out the original design I will explore building out a Home Automation as a Service (HAAS) model.

Keep a watch on my blog for the future posts where I will be diving deeper into each layer of the system and showing some code.  Also I will be posting the source code to the project at some point for others to see.

Comments (5) -

tamberg
tamberg Switzerland
8/10/2011 9:08:29 AM #

Hi Mike, nice project! You might be interested in our project Yaler (http://yaler.org/), an alternative to ServiceBus that works on the Netduino Plus without an additional machine behind your firewall. It's described in the O'Reilly book "Getting Started with the Internet of Things". Gsiot.Server, an open source Netduino Plus library supporting Yaler is available at http://www.gsiot.info/download/ and you can get a free test account at http://yaler.net/
Cheers, tamberg

mlinnen
mlinnen United States
8/11/2011 12:17:24 AM #

Hi Tamberg,
That looks pretty cool.  I will have to check it out in more detail.  One thing I wanted to use the additional server behind the firewall for was to route a single message to multiple devices. For example a date/time service might send a single time message to the Home Controller and the might route the message to the Sprinkler and all the alarm clocks in my house.  I also want to be able to cache some of the messages on the Server for when devices are busy or offline.

mgaworecki
mgaworecki United States
8/22/2011 1:50:41 PM #

Neat project..

Just an idea....   you could have a pressure monitor for each zone, if the pressure is too high, it could indicate a faulty or plugged sprinkler head, too low might mean a breaking in the water line.

good luck and great job.

tan
tan India
8/29/2011 2:43:40 AM #

Hi Mike, I thought you might be interested to have a look at something I built on similar lines - however I focused more on automating through sensing. Here's how it stands today:

sidekick.windforwings.com/.../...oject-garden.html

Any comments/advices are welcome!

mlinnen
mlinnen United States
8/29/2011 6:55:42 AM #

Nice you even have a homemade humidity sensor.

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About the author

Mike Linnen

Software Engineer specializing in Microsoft Technologies

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