We created and field tested a farmer-built electronic tool– which we have nicknamed “Fido”– that can monitor greenhouse temperature, record greenhouse data, and alert the farmer to problems in the greenhouse via cell phone text message. Fido is much more affordable and useful than commercially available greenhouse alarms (which rely on landline connections or internet connections, which usually aren’t available in the greenhouse). Fido has been field tested by several farmers, to ensure that it is accessible and appropriate for various operations. We thoroughly documented the process for building a Fido unit and published detailed instructions and images on a dedicated area of the Farm Hack web site (farmhack.net). We have done outreach through workshops and online to make it easy for other farmers to build their own Fido unit, and it has become one of the most popular tools on the Farm Hack web site. The development of Fido has already sparked the creation of new tools for farmers that have been based on our work with Fido.
We developed the Fido wireless greenhouse monitor and alarm in order to solve a problem we had at Hearty Roots Community Farm. I was growing vegetables on various parcels of rented land, and at any given hour of the day I may have been at the main field, or across the road at the unheated seedling greenhouse, or a mile away at the heated greenhouse which was leased at a school, or several miles away at home. I have a lot on my mind during the growing season, and unfortunately one of the things on my mind a lot was, “what is the temperature in my greenhouse right now?” and “are my seedlings frying? or freezing?”
Of course, I was going to great lengths to avoid losing seedlings. There were fans on thermostats, heaters on thermostats, crew members who check on things every morning and evening. But it just takes one mistake or malfunction to kill a lot of plants. One spring, on an unusually hot and sunny day, there was a miscommunication about who was supposed to open up the seedling house. It got to be 120 degrees F in there before I realized what had happened. Half my onion seedlings were fried.
To avoid these mistakes, I spent a lot of time driving or walking to my greenhouses to check on them. 90 percent of the time, everything was fine– but I need to be sure. What a waste of time, going back and forth just to read a thermometer! We developed Fido in order to have a more efficient and reliable way to monitor temperature in our seedling greenhouse.
Our objective was to develop a stand-alone electronic tool that would monitor the temperature in our greenhouse. The key functions for the tool to perform were:
Monitoring the temperature at time intervals set by the farmer;
Logging the data for record keeping;
Communicating information to the farmer via text message, at a reasonable cost;
Alerting the farmer if the temperature was above or below the limits that the farmer selected;
Allowing the farmer to choose to receive regular updates and daily summaries of the temperature conditions;
Having a built in alert if electric power to the greenhouse was lost.
Our objectives for documentation and accessibility were:
Keep the cost of the materials of the tool to under $150;
Make the construction of the tool accessible using a bare minimum of electronics / soldering skills;
Create a thorough Do-It-Yourself guide that led farmers through the steps necessary to build the tool;
Do outreach to other farmers to spread the word about the tool.
These days there are off-the-shelf electronics available that, with appropriate “tutorials”, allow farmers to build their own greenhouse monitoring and alert tool with minimal electronics skills. We began by taking advantage of a readily available electronics part popular among do-it-yourselfers: an “Arduino” microcontroller. These devices allow for many types of sensors and interfaces to be attached, at a very affordable price.
Collaborators Louis Thiery, with expertise in electronics, and R.J. Steinert, a computer programmer, developed the Fido tool using the bare minimum of both parts and computer code in order to keep things affordable and simple. This involved coupling the microcontroller with a temperature sensor, a data logging storage device, and an inexpensive pay-as-you-go cell phone.
After assembling the prototype (for just $134 in materials), we tested the device in the greenhouse at Hearty Roots Farm (my farm) to ensure that things were working properly. We made a few adjustments to the electronics and software to make sure things were running smoothly, and then began the process of documentation and outreach.
We provided the Fido tool to two farmers to test on their own farms. We also posted detailed instructions on how to build a Fido unit on the Farm Hack web site, to enable others to try out the tool on their own farms and post comments related to ideas for improvements or any problems that were encountered in building the tool.
The development of the Fido tool was a great success. We were successful in building a tool that meets all of our objectives, is reliable and is relatively easy for a farmer to build.
Our documentation of the tool on its own section of the Farm Hack web site (http://farmhack.net/tools/fido-greenhouse-monitoring-text-message-alerts ) has also been well received. It was the second-most viewed tool on the site in 2013 (which has many dozens of tools documented) and it has generated many comments and much discussion on the site. The tool has come in very handy for the farmers who have built it, and at Hearty Roots Farm it has served its purpose well, monitoring our greenhouses and also serving to monitor temperatures in our cold storage to ensure that our vegetables are at proper temperature.
We are very proud that the development of the Fido tool has already led to further work on farmer-built electronic tools that are based on our work. Another user on the Farm Hack web site modified the plans for Fido to build a portable electric fence monitor, that can alert a farmer via text message if an electric fence has lost its charge. And project partner Louis Thiery has begun development of a much more ambitious set of tools under the umbrella of his company Apitronics. Fido set the stage for what will include an entire network of farm sensors that can monitor weather conditions, temperature, humidity, soil moisture and other conditions, and communicate with a farmer through a web browser as well as text message alerts.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Fido is thoroughly documented, with a step-by-step guide, a parts list, computer code and photographs, at http://farmhack.net/tools/fido-greenhouse-monitoring-text-message-alerts . Our use of the Farm Hack platform for this documentation also allows those who wish to ask questions and leave comments about their efforts to build a Fido tool to do so. There is also a .pdf version of the Do-It-Yourself guide to building a Fido (see below).
Fido was presented at a workshop at the NOFA Summer Conference in August 2012, and at the MOFGA Farmer-to-Farmer conference in Maine in 2012. It has also been featured at many other Farm Hack conferences, including in Ithaca, NY; Burlington, VT; and Maker Faire in NYC. It has also been written about on many blog postings and shared on the Market Farming list serve.
Although the cost to build Fido from off-the-shelf parts is affordable, we determined that the tool could potentially be custom built by a small-scale manufacturer at a reduced cost (due to economies of scale). There has been progress on commercial farm sensors that may replicate the features of Fido, and will also add functionality of more sensors and the ability to turn on or off motors, etc. However, there will always be a place for development of open-source, do-it-yourself versions of these commercially available tools to ensure that prices remain affordable to farmers and the technology is not out of reach from the farmer community.
Since this project was undertaken, more farm monitoring tools have been developed, both commercially and in the do-it-yourself realm. Fido has influenced some of these new developments, but has not become obsolete. Fido stands out as one of the most affordable solutions for monitoring greenhouse temperature, and the best available tool for doing so in an area without landline or wifi service.