The Beer Fridge saga continues

Since the last update on the beer fridge, we’ve had to do some murdering of the original PCB to get it to fit in a case. In addition, we’d failed to take into account the startup power draw for the compressor (5 amps), and had to upgrade the relay we’re using from a 3 amp solid state relay. Luckily Doug had the beefier relay just sitting around in his shed. That means we’ve lost our opto-isolation because the new relay is a simple mechanical one, but we have a relay coil doing the same thing now. A new PCB will make the world a lot neater, which will be nice. Oh, we’ve also been mentioned on Hack a Day, which has generated some interesting comments on their site.

I’ve observed that sometimes the relay doesn’t turn on, even though the arduino thinks it has done so. An example can be seen here:

(Note that graph is a Google chart server image, generated by a simple visualization program I wrote in python. If you’re that way inclined, the visualization software is in my public SVN repository).

At first we thought this was a software problem with comparing ints to floats, but it continued to happen even after we fixed that bug. You can see in the graph above that during testing the compressor was “turned on” (i.e. the arduino thinks it has activated the relay), but the temperature continued to rise. A visual inspection showed that in fact the relay hadn’t turned the compressor on, and power cycling the controller (and therefore the relay) didn’t help. However, the simple expedient of hitting the relay with a screw driver handle fixed the problem, which made me think that Doug had given me a bodgy relay. This got me thinking about if it would be possible to unstick a relay in software though — its pretty easy to detect this case (temperature continues to rise despite the compressor being). I’m thinking that perhaps if you cycled the inputs over and over you might be able to get the relay to unstick.

Detecting this case in software might be generally useful anyway though… Ignoring stuck relays, it would also tell you when someone had left the door open for example. It would be nice to detect this case and then give up on the compressor for a few minutes before trying again. I wrote a quick implementation of this “door open detection” and gave it a try, but I’ve now given up on it as being too fiddly. I found problems such as when the outside world is heating up rapidly (summer mornings for example), the compressor can’t make a big enough difference to the internal temperature of the fridge, but you still really want the compressor on because something is better than nothing.

In the end it turned out the problem with the relay was that the arduino wasn’t providing enough current to pull the relay contact in reliably. This was fixed with the addition of a transistor to the board, which is yet another thing to add to the next PCB.

One of the big advantages of a microprocessor based custom thermostat is that I can implement new features that wouldn’t normally be present in a fridge. Some of these features might turn out to be bad ideas, but I view the beer fridge as a bit of an experimentation platform.

Since my extra Dallas 1820s have arrived from ebay, I also added a sensor inside the freezer. This is interesting because the freezer isn’t getting anywhere near the FDA recommended temperature (-17.7 Celsius). I tweaked the code yet again to turn on the compressor if either compartment is over temperature, but this resulted in the fridge running much too cold — it was close to freezing point in fact. I think this is probably a hardware problem with the freezer, and given its a beer fridge I’ve just written “this is not the freezer you are looking for” on the door and gone back to only monitoring the temperature of the fridge compartment. Here’s a graph of my experiments with the freezer yesterday:

Another recent software tweak is a start up delay for the compressor in order to reduce the risk of back pressure damage to the compressor. Thanks Murray! This comes with yet another LED which indicates that the compressor is currently disabled.

I think this project is nearly ready to start showing people the code. The code is also getting big enough that cutting and pasting it into blog posts is starting to get annoying. So, here are a few links:

  • The code for the arduino. This should be self explanatory, except for saying that we’re using a ethernet shield, not the standard one.
  • The visualization software. You want to scrape the web server on the arduino and push stuff into a MySQL database, and then is a simple python web server that provides the UI for visualization. The UI isn’t very good at the moment, but I shall improve it soon.