Using Wireless Technology to Monitor and Avoid Frozen Pipe Disasters at My Home

By: Nathan Entinger

In suburban areas surrounding Minneapolis, you’re basically in the bulls-eye capital of cold in the Midwest and things can happen quickly when the temperature drops. The problem I was trying to prevent was when the pipes under my home freeze, the pressure can drop in the pressure tank and cause the well head to turn on and start pumping; but it can’t pump through a frozen tube -- the result? In the best case scenario, you’re dead heading the well pump; and worst case scenario, you have a burst pipe on your hands. In the event of a burst pipe, I could come home to a massive flood in my basement! No chance that I wanted that to happen. Instead, I decided to fashion a small scale embedded remote monitoring system that would monitor what was happening to the pipes. The system is based on a design I did around the low powered TI MSP430 Launchpad development board with an XBee radio.

This may sound like a daunting home project, but I’ve worked on things like this before. As an employee of Railway Equipment Remote Monitoring Equipment on The Rail road Company, I helped develop Sno-Net® , which serves as a communication and control link for remote track switch heaters, propane tank level monitoring, and generator monitoring. Similar to the underbelly of my stoop, there are “dark” stretches of track on railroads that often times go unaccounted for. How Sno-Net® works is it collects and then ships data from these locations up to the cloud. From there we are able to run some analytics, check on various alerts and alarms, ensure the proper functioning of motors, and identify any signs of wear and tear on the motors. But the major draw is saving customers the hassle of traveling to the site for a visual inspection – which without the system might be necessary in times of inclement weather, particularly during blizzards. So, similar to the Sno-Net® solution, I had the need at my residence to monitor a system that was hard to get at and relatively unattended.

home automation monitoring tool: Xbee radio transmitter The project started with heat tape, which is normally used for underneath mobile homes to protect water lines from freezing. Once the heat tape was in place, I added a radio transmitting device – a Microchip Explorer 16 development board with an XBee radio -- which essentially beams temperature and system data back to a base station and watches the data for critical events or trends (want to learn more about XBee radios? YouTube tutorial here). In the event of a critical situation, the base station sends an e-mail and starts a flashing light.

In the end, I was left with a home project that is essentially a miniature version of Sno-Net® that keeps my pipes and pump in check during the cold months. So far, the system has caught one situation that could have turned out badly. Because of the remote monitoring system, I got the notification at work and was able to take corrective action. There are a lot of different ways that remote monitoring can provide valuable information to people and this is just one example of that. I’m curious to hear if anyone else has worked on a home project like this or is working on one now, if so please post a comment in the comments section below and let’s talk.