A new project: home show environment manager

Ok, so one of my brothers has moved into specializing with spray foam, for insulation (see www.air-titesprayfoam.com – nice Flash site, eh?!). He had a booth at the local Home Show this past weekend. Spray foam, as opposed to cellulose or fiberglass is a far superior alternative for insulation. For example, a big part of heat loss comes from air movement. So even if you have R-19 fiberglass, if you have a 1/2” of space on either side, that dramatically undermines the effectiveness of the insulation. That’s just one significant difference/benefit of foam.

Point is, we were talking about showcasing, in a more interactive way, just how significant this leap in technology is. It comes down to a few things it would be cool to “measure”. For example: temperature, humidity, and air loss. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could create a wall mock-up that had fiberglass, cellulose, and sprayfoam. Then, imagine you could control the temperature and humidity on each side. You could then gather metrics about how performant each material is.

A typical booth is 10’ x 10’ x 10’ at a home show. So, you could have a big self-contained “box” that has this mock-up, and perhaps has a touch flat-panel on the front, to show you the real-time numbers, gathered from sensors. Cool, right!?

Well, I was brainstorming this idea and this is what my first thoughts are (excuse the crudeness):


My thinking was to use (or use parts of) a space heater for heat. For cold, I think a small igloo cooler with dry ice, would do the trick (no water mess with regular ice or air conditioners). You put some HVAC duct work and some fans to control air flow, and that should get us in the ballpark. Dry Ice is –70 degrees by the way, so in theory, you could simulate a cold winter.

That’s just the background of roughly what we want to try to accomplish. Now, as far as the technology behind this, that’s what I want to write about it, and plan to cover in some future blog posts. I ordered a starter kit from www.phidgets.com after it was recommended to me. They have sensors of all sorts, that connect via USB, and have a native .NET library to access these devices.

With all of that said, here are some of the things I’m considering, in terms of inputs:

  • Temperature sensors for both the “exterior” and “interior” of the mocked up wall, for each insulation material.
  • Humidity sensors for both sides
  • Air pressure sensors for both sides (to record air transfer through the wall, again, is how most heat is transferred)
  • Weight/scale for the cooler, so you can record (like a gas gauge) how much dry ice is left. You zero out the scale with the empty cooler, then put your dry ice in, and voila – you got yourself a way to tell how much is left.
  • Relays to control fan and heat control
    I was even brainstorming on what the user interface might look like on this. Imagine this big box with a Plexiglas window, that has this mocked up mini-wall with different insulation that you can see. But behind the scenes, you have these heat and cold sources, along with sensors everywhere… So imagine you have a flat-panel touch screen, running a WPF application (that supports Touch). You could “switch seasons” – go from simulated winter (where you want to keep the heat in), to simulated summer (where you want to keep the cold in). Presumably, “pressing” a button could turn on the heater, turn on the fan, etc – until the “outside” temperature reaches 90 degrees for example. If you have programmatic control over powering the heat and cold, AND recording real-time information about how hot or cold it’s making things, then I should be able to let the admin set and maintain a temperature. For example, you might say “I want to simulate winter with 15 degree temperatures”, and via the sensors – this program could turn on/off the cooling fan until that temperature is maintained.

So that’s roughly what I plan on prototyping. Once I get that starter kit in, I will see how easy it is to use, and see if I can start fulfilling some of these functional requirements. Once I have that hammered out, I will work with Brother to see if we can mock up some of the components.

This will be my first real engineering project. That is, where I think I’m going to build each system, do unit testing – then put components together to see if they work together – integration testing, and then ultimately evolve to a full-blown prototype, a systems tests. I mean, I’ve done that with software, but I’ve never done this with physical components before!

I don’t plan to dig into this full-time until school is over (about a month from now), but I’ll be dabbling in the meantime. The shear workload from this semester is insane, and as you can tell from my blog posts (or lack thereof), I haven’t had much time other things. However, once this semester is done, this seems like a really fun, really interesting project to work on. I’ve never done anything quite like this before. So hopefully, you’ll see some interesting blog posts about this, as the project evolves.

Posted in Sensors, Uncategorized
2 comments on “A new project: home show environment manager
  1. […] Project: Let’s get started… OK, so as discussed, my brother is going to build a mini-display that showcases the differences between 3 different […]


  2. […] discussed here and here, I ordered up the Phidgets.com starter kit. It includes various sensors, controls, and […]


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