Gas station without pumps

2014 September 17

Putting the heater in a box

Continuing the saga of the incubator project in the recent posts:

On my to-do list for the project

  • Put the whole thing into a styrofoam box, to see whether extra venting is needed to allow things to cool down, and to see how tightly temperature can be controlled. Find a smaller bread board or prototype board to put the controller on—my current bread boards are all 6.5″ long, and the box only has room for 6″, especially since I put the resistor in the center of the 6″×12″ aluminum plate, which just fits the box. I suppose I could drill a couple more holes in the plate and mount the resistor off center, but I rather like the idea of building the controller as an Arduino shield, so that the Arduino + controller is a single unit. Another possibility is to drill a hole in the styrofoam box and run cables through the box for the resistive heater, the fan, and the thermistor. Even if the grounds are connected outside the box, this is only 8 wires. Putting the control electronics outside the box would reduce the clutter in the box and make tweaking easier

    I got this done today, by drilling a hole in the box and soldering long wires onto the resistor and the thermistor, so that all the active electronics could live outside the box. Incidentally, “drilling” did mean using a drill bit, but I held it and turned it with my fingers—styrofoam is so soft and grainy that I feared a power drill would tear out big chunks.

    Here is the interior of the styrofoam box, with the lid open.  The 6"×12" aluminum plate covers the bottom.  The thermistor is on the left, propped up by a rubber foot, the resistor in is the center, and the fan is sitting on a foam pad on the right. (The foam is to reduce noise until I can get the fan proper mounted in a baffle.)

    Here is the interior of the styrofoam box, with the lid open. The 6″×12″ aluminum plate covers the bottom. The thermistor is on the left, propped up by a rubber foot, the resistor in is the center, and the fan is sitting on a foam pad on the right. (The foam is to reduce noise until I can get the fan proper mounted in a baffle.)

    As expected, I can heat up the thermistor fairly quickly, but if I overshoot on the temperature, it takes a very long time for the closed box to cool back down. Cooling off just 1°C took over half an hour.

  • Add some low-pass filtering to the temperature measurement to reduce noise. Just adding 4 measurements in quick succession would reduce the noise and give the illusion of extra precision.

    I did this also. With the box closed, the thermistor reading is fairly stable, with fluctuations of less than 0.1°C (which was the resolution with a single thermistor reading before adding 4 successive reads).

  • The fan controller occasionally has a little glitch where the tachometer either misses a pulse or provides an extra one (I think mainly an extra one due to ringing on the opposite edge).  I could try reducing this problem in three ways: 1) changing which edge I’m triggering on, 2) using more low-pass filtering before the Schmitt trigger in the edge detector, or 3) using median filtering to throw out any half-length or double-length pulses, unless they occur as a pair.  (Hmm, the half-length pulses would occur as a pair, so this might not help unless I go to median of 5, which would be a lot of trouble.)

    I fixed this also, using two techniques:

    1. In the program I have 3 states for the interrupt routine that catches the edges: normally, I check that the edge is within 3/4 to 3/2 of the previously recorded pulse—if so I record it and continue. If it is less than 3/4 as long, I skip it, and change to a skip state. If it is more than 3/2 as long, I skip it and switch to a force state. In the skip state, I ignore the reading and switch to the force state. In the force state, I accept the pulse length (whatever it is), and switch to the normal state. With this state machine, I ignore a double-length pulse or a pair of half-length pulses together.
    2. The rising edge of the pulse from the tachometer is very slow (thanks to the RC filter of the pullup), but the falling edge is sharp. Extraneous pulses are more likely to occur if I trigger on the slow edge rather than fast edge, so I switched the polarity to make sure that I was using the falling edge (which is the rising edge of the output of the Schmitt trigger).

    I think that changing which edge I used made a bigger difference than trying to suppress the erroneous reads digitally. I no longer hear the occasional hiccup where the control algorithm tries desperately to double or half the fan speed because of a misread timing pulse.

  • Improve my anti-windup methods for both thermal and fan controllers, to reduce overshoot.

    I changed from using conditional integration and back calculation of the integration error to using a decay of the integration error based on the difference between the computed PWM setting and the limit when the limits were exceeded. I’m not sure this improved anything though, and it introduces yet another parameter to tune, so I may go back to the previous method. I did play around with the tuning parameters for the fan loop today, and realized that I still don’t have good intuition about the effect of parameter changes. I noticed that the fan control was oscillating a little (small fluctuations around the desired speed, but big enough that I could hear the changes), and I found ways to reduce the oscillations, but at the expense of slower response to step changes.

  • Improve my modeling of the thermal system, so that I can do more reasonable back calculation on setpoint change.

    I still need to do more thinking about the thermal modeling, since it is clear that I can’t afford overshoot when heating (though overshoot during slow cooling is unlikely to be a problem).

Still on my list with no progress:

  • Consider using a PID controller for the temperature to get faster response without overshoot.  (If I can reduce the noise problem.)
  • Design and build baffling for the fan to get better airflow in the box. I’ve made a little paper and wire baffle, to get better air flow over the resistor, but I’ve not done the full baffling to get good airflow in the box.
  • Figure out how to get students to come up with workable designs, when they are starting from knowing nothing. I don’t want to give them my designs, but I want to help them find doable subproblems. Some of the subproblems they come up with may be well beyond the skills that they can pick up in the time frame of the course. The more I work on this project, the more I realize that I and the students will have to be happy with them having explored the options, without getting all the problems solved.

I want to add to the list today:

  • Add changes to the cumulative error term whenever KP or TI are changed, to keep the PWM output the same after the changes—currently changing any of the control loop parameters adds a huge disturbance to the system.
  • Separate the control algorithm better from the rest of the code, so that I can use the same code base and quickly switch between different control algorithms: on/off, on/off with hysteresis, proportional control, proportional control with offset, PI control, PI control with anti-windup variants, PID control.
  • Add an option for recording the response of the system over a long time, so that I can plot input and output of the system with gnuplot. This would be nice for the fan control loop, but I think it will be essential for the temperature control loop.
  • Research control algorithms other than PI and PID, particularly for asymmteric systems like the temperature control, where I can get fairly quick response to the inputs when heating, but very slow response when cooling.


  1. […] Putting the heater in a box shows the physical layout of the partially completed incubator and discusses the (meager) progress today. […]

    Pingback by Thermal control loop working (sort of) | Gas station without pumps — 2015 January 4 @ 13:58 | Reply

  2. […] with heatsink, PWM heater and fan, PWM heater and fan continued, Controlling the heater and fan, Putting the heater in a box, Improving feedback for fan , Thermal control loop working (sort of)) and how to teach them.  Of […]

    Pingback by More on freshman design projects | Gas station without pumps — 2015 January 19 @ 22:01 | Reply

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