in which hardware heats things up

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As a remote hacker, I spend a fair bit of time in my code lab when I'm not out and about around Seattle. It's great to have a space away from the rest of the house where I can work in isolation, but around this time of year in the Northern hemisphere the temperatures start to drop. I've had a powerful wall heater in the lab for a while now, but some days I'd be a little reluctant to head out across the frost-covered lawn since the heater takes 20-30 minutes before it really gets things comfortable on a cold day.

I've been getting my feet wet with hardware hacking the past few months, so to me the problem was practically begging to be solved with a little applied technology. Of course there are plenty of of-the-shelf devices that can toggle a 110V outlet, but the particular heater I'm using is wired directly into 220V mains, calling for a custom solution. I recently built a binary clock for my car using a Raspberry Pi, so I'd had a bit of experience with embedded Linux boards. For this project I ended up choosing the BeagleBone Black, an impressive board costing only US$10 more than the Pi but packing in a lot more power as well as boasting a Creative Commons-licensed hardware design. Of course an Arduino could have worked here too, but once you add Ethernet to the cost of an Uno it ends up costing nearly as much and would have offered much more limited language and library support.

beaglebone black

I ended up with this little board running Debian with an temperature sensor in its analog input and a solid-state relay hooked up to one of the GPIO pins. The analog input is the main thing that makes this a much better fit for the BeagleBone than a Pi; all the inputs on the Pi are digital, which would have made reading the temperature more complicated. Unfortunately the input to the relay won't trigger with less than 7.5ma, so it was necessary to hook it into SYS 5V (the taped wire above) and toggle it by way of an NPN transistor in between the relay's negative terminal and the board's ground. Disclaimer: working with mains power is dangerous; be sure to switch off the appropriate circuit breaker before you touch any of the high-voltage wires.

heater relay

In order to control the relay, I put together an Erlang XMPP bot which monitors the current temperature and switches the GPIO pin on or off accordingly depending on the target temperature. The target temperature can be set by messaging the bot, and the current temperature can be queried as well. The GitHub repo contains a few schematics along with more detailed instructions on how it was built.

There's still a bit more I'd like to do with it. Right now it's a pretty lame Erlang app that doesn't use any fancy OTP features to improve reliability, so a lost connection to the XMPP server can cause downtime. This is supposedly something OTP makes really easy; I just need to read through the appropriate chapters in Learn You Some Erlang. In addition I'd like to get logging in place; it would be useful to be able to plot temperatures over time. Update: it's now a proper OTP app with temperature logs in place.

I'm having a lot of fun with it, and I'm loving how I can just walk out to the shed and have it toasty right upon entry. It feels like a great practical project where a bit of hacking can really make life more convenient.

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