When we drive to the grocery store, as most Americans do to get their food, we burn fossil fuels to get there. Likewise, the trucks that distribute that food from the farm to store are also burning immense amounts of fossil fuel along their trips. All of this driving back and forth is contributing heavily to the destabilization of our planet's climate, and is ultimately unsustainable.
At Gutters To Gardens, we wanted to use our dual passions of horticulture and technology to do our part in addressing this problem. Our solution: If more people start their own personal gardens, there will be less need for all this driving! Not only that, I hope the more that people engage in the age-old human tradition of cultivating the land for food, the happier they will be.
As we set off on our research, we were happily surprised to find that gardening seems to be on the rise in the US.
According to a report by the National Gardening Association, Garden To Table: A 5-Year Look At Gardening In America, one in three American households is now food gardening. The report goes on to state that the “total spent on food gardening rose 40% from $2.5 billion in 2008, to $3.5 billion in 2013.”
Though one-in-three is an impressive statistic, It would be nice to see this number rise even more over the next few years.
What is it that is keeping the other two thirds of Americans still driving back and forth from the supermarket to buy their tomatoes and cukes?
According to an article by Growertalks.com, time is "a leading factor regarding why people don’t garden. Most respondents stated that they lack the time due to variables such as work, family and other extracurricular activities. This made it clear that the opportunity cost of gardening was too high when compared to other activities."
Could automation be the missing piece for the busy and the time-crunched to finally take the plunge into adopting a horticultural practice of their own?
We think so. That is why Gutters To Gardens has developed TechTOWER, an open-source system for automating drip-line irrigation in raised garden beds.
Provide people with tech-based solutions to common gardening problems. We'll start with the initial TechTOWER system depicted here, which gives people the ability to control the flow of water in their gardens remotely. Whether that is from their home, using AI assistants like Amazon's Alexa, or whether that's from their mobile phone half-way across the world, the TechTOWER solution will work just the same. However, the TechTOWER in its current form is only the beginning. With this technology, it would be possible to integrate automated temperature and humidity sensors as well as deploying components like fans, lights, and opening and closing vents. With this system, it would also be possible to connect a camera as a kind of horticultural version of a baby monitor. The opportunities for innovating off of this initial platform are diverse and exciting. TechTOWER isn't a product for people to buy; it is an open-source solution to a common problem, and others are free to adjust and improve upon it as needed. As more and more people begin incorporating solutions into the system, we hope to see a renaissance in sustainable energy and home food gardening across the globe.
The TechTOWER design is comprised of 5 sections:
- Water Collection
- The Raised Bed / Dripline
- Mobile Interface
- AI Interface
Section 1: WATER COLLECTION
I used a 55 gallon drum in our prototype to collect rainwater from a gutter. This could be expanded to an array of multiple 55 gallon drums or a 500 gallon water container as desired.
The size is not important...what matters is how you use it.
You may want a pump. For our prototype this wasn't needed, but there may be situations in which it is. For instance, if the downspout of your gutter is far away from your garden, or if your water container is not raised.
If the water container is raised like my prototype, then a solenoid valve will work just fine, as gravity will do most of the work in moving the water. If the container is not raised, it will be necessary to use a pump instead.
In my design, the container was raised 30" off the ground in a structure designed to resemble a municipal water tower. The quirky design is not required, but comes highly recommended.
The following are my approximate expenses for the water collection section of the TechTOWER system. Costs may vary depending on location and market fluctuations.
55 GALLON BARREL: 20
MATERIALS FOR WATER TOWER STAND: $170 WATER COLLECTION TOTAL: $190
Section 2: ELECTRONICS
The electronic section of the TechTOWER system is comprised of seven separate components. These components are diagrammed in the figure attached to this page and listed below along with their approximate prices.
SOLAR PANEL ($75)
We start with a 15 Watt Solar Panel, which converts light energy into electrical energy.
100w SOLAR CHARGE REGULATOR ($25)
The solar panel is connected to a regulator, which ensures that its connected battery is not overcharged.
12 VOLT BATTERY ($20)
This battery is a rechargeable battery, which allows it to receive energy from the solar panel through the regulator.
12 to 5 VOLT CONVERTER ($10)
This component changes the output of the 12 volt battery into 5 volts, so as not to overpower the controller.
PARTICLE PHOTON ($20)
The Particle Photon is the controller of the entire system and the brain of the operation. It is managed through a mobile interface, and can be synced up to an AI assistant. It is comprised of two different general purpose input/output types:
- Digital: These give and receive yes/no and on/off signals.
- Analog: These give and receive signals of degree (e.g. a dimming light or a variable speed motor).
5 VOLT RELAY ($3)
In a reversal of the process the 12 to 5 volt converter performs, the 5 volt relay makes sure the 12 volt valve gets enough energy, despite its being connected to a controller that only works at a voltage of 5 or less.
12 VOLT SOLENOID VALVE ($35)
Depending on the various inputs to the controller, the solenoid valve will be told to open or close. When open, it will release the water collected from the rain into the raised bed.
Alexa Echo ($50)
ELECTRONICS TOTAL: $191.00
(NOTE: This is not limited to a 12-volt system. The same array may have the potential to be mapped onto a 24-volt system.)
Section 3: THE RAISED BED / DRIP LINE
The raised bed is, of course, where the plants are planted and where they receive water from the TechTOWER through a drip line irrigation system. A drip line irrigation system is essentially a segment of tubing with holes running along it, allowing water to be distributed to all the plants in the bed evenly. By mid June, Gutters To Gardens intends to release an instructional video on how to build a raised bed for growing food, as well as one on how to install a drip line.
MATERIALS FOR RAISED BED: $100
DRIP LINE: $12
RAISED BED / DRIP LINE TOTAL: $112
Section 4: THE MOBILE INTERFACE
We used an app called Blynk to allow remote access to the controller of the TechTOWER via a mobile device. The app uses a simple, drag-and-drop interface that requires no coding experience. Using the application builder within Blynk, an individual can set the necessary commands to run the system. Specific instructions on how this is done are listed below.
BLYNK APP: FREE
Section 5: The AI INTERFACE
Particle, the company that produces the controller of our system, offers a resource they call Particle Library, which they describe as "a collection of reusable firmware code that can be easily added to one or many Particle projects." The firmware code entitled Library "EchoPhotonBridge" will program the Photon to turn on and off through voice command. Specific instructions on how this is done can be found at the following link.
GRAND TOTAL: $543
In July of 2018, Particle will release its third generation of devices. These devices will not only be able to connect to separate electronic components as we have used it in the design above, they will also be able to communicate to one another via bluetooth or wifi. A TechTOWER design could take advantage of this development in the technology by connecting temperature and humidity sensors to the controller using bluetooth or wifi. What makes this an important development is that it wouldn't be necessary to have wires running from the main Photon to every single component in the system, and that makes implementing the system that much easier. This kind of meta-connectivity is being called "The internet of The Internet Of Things" by some.
The plan from here on out is simple: spread the word!
Over the following months, I intend on sharing our design on websites like Instructables, Pinterest and Hackster, while also producing instructional videos on Youtube to show people just how easy it is to put together a system like the one we've presented here. Youtube seems to be a ecosystem primed for cultivating vibrant communities around niche interests like this, and it may prove to be a valuable tool in encouraging the type of hands-on, solutions-based thinking that I hope to see flourish in our world today.