Life as a Physicist

Christmas Project


Every Christmas I try to do some sort of project. Something new. Sometimes it turns into something real, and last for years. Sometimes it goes no where. Normally, I have an idea of what I’m going to attempt – usually it has been bugging me for months and I can’t wait till break to get it started. This year, I had none.

But, I arrived home at my parent’s house in New Jersey and there it was waiting for me. The house is old – more 200 yrs old – and the steam furnace had just been replaced. For those of you unfamiliar with this method of heating a house: it is noisy! The furnace boils water, and the steam is forced up through the pipes to cast iron radiators. The radiators hiss through valves as the air is forced up – an iconic sound from my childhood. Eventually, after traveling sometimes four floors, the super hot steam reaches the end of a radiator and the valve shuts off. The valves are cool – heat sensitive! The radiator, full of hot steam, then warms the room – and rather effectively.

The bane of this system, however, is that it can leak. And you have no idea where the leak is in the whole house! The only way you know: the furnace reservoir needs refilling too often. So… the problem: how to detect the reservoir needs refilling? Especially with this new modern furnace which can automatically refill its resevoir.

Me: Oh, look, there is a little LED that comes on when the automatic refilling system comes on! I can watch that! Dad: Oh, look, there is a little light that comes on when the water level is low. We can watch that.

Dad’s choice of tools: a wifi cam that is triggered by noise. Me: A Raspberry Pi 3, a photo-resistor, and a capacitor. Hahahaha. Game on!

What’s funny? Neither of us have detected a water-refill since we started this project. The first picture at the right you can see both of our devices – in the foreground taped to the gas input line is the CAM watching the water refill light through a mirror, and in the background (look for the yellow tape) is the Pi taped to the refill controller (and the capacitor and sensor hanging down looking at the LED on the bottom of the box).

I chose the Pi because I’ve used it once before – for a Spotify end-point. But never for anything that it is designed for. An Arduino is almost certainly better suited to this – but I wasn’t confident that I could get it up and running in the 3 days I had to make this (including time for ordering and shipping of all parts from Amazon). It was a lot of fun! And consumed a bunch of time. “Hey, where is Gordon? He needs to come for Christmas dinner!” “Wait, are you working on Christmas day?” – for once I could answer that last one with a honest no! Hahaha.

I learned a bunch:

Pretty much the only thing I’d used before was Linux, and some very simple things with an older Raspberry Pi 2. If anyone is on the fence about this – I’d definately recommend trying it out. It is very easy and there are 1000’s of web pages with step by step instructions for most things you’ll want to do!