Beer IoT (Part 8)

Strike up the band, it’s time for the eighth, and final, installment of this fermentation instrumentation series. In part four, I placed several different sensors in several different carboys of beer beginning fermentation. In parts six and seven, I analyzed a week of data from two of the sensors. This post will cover the third sensor, a floating accelerometer.


The ADXL345 provides three readings for each sample: one for each axis in 3D space. I’m using the chip in “2g 10-bit” mode, which means each axis will report a number from -512 (2g negative acceleration) to +512 (2g positive acceleration). In this case, the only acceleration I want to measure is gravity, so I should see only values between -256 (1g negative acceleration; “this axis is pointing straight down”) and 256 (1g positive acceleration; “this axis is pointing straight up”). Using a bit of trigonometry, I should be able to figure out the angle at which the sensor is tilted.

My float is sort of a rounded rectangular prism. I’ve oriented the sensor such that the y-axis is in line with the long axis of the prism, with the positive end pointing toward the end I expect to float. The x-axis is horizontal across the short axis of the prism, and the z-axis is pointed “up”. The expectation is: y will start about zero, or slightly positive, as high buoyancy keeps the float “flat”; x will start about zero as well, because any dip should be along y; and z will start near max, almost straight up. As the beer ferments, reduced buoyancy should cause one end to dip, causing y to increase (because it will point upward more steeply), and z to decrease (because it will move off of straight upward), with x staying the same (because the rotation should be around that axis). So what actually happened?


Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but I’m pretty sure this one just says, “Not that.” We have both x and z increasing, and y is doing … I’m not even sure. Let’s see if there is anything to salvage.

Let’s check an assumption first. I’m expecting to only see acceleration from gravity here, so the total acceleration should always be 1g (plus or minus some measurement noise). We can check that with a bit of Pythagorus: the square root of the sum of the squares of the readings should be a constant 256.


Except for the sudden change in the middle, it’s a variance of about 1, which is 0.0039g for this chip. It’s interesting that it’s only 252 max, and I have no idea what that sudden shift is (it seems correlated with a sudden shift on the z axis, but nothing on the other axes), but it does look like we’re measuring approximately a constant 0.97-0.98g force.

The increasing x may a bit of a red-herring. It just means that the tube is “rolling” (turning around its long axis). This is why z is increasing as well: x returning to horizontal around the unchanging y axis means that z is returning to vertical. There is a chance that the float is rolling instead of tipping as buoyancy changes. This might be worth returning to later, but let’s see if we can save y first.

Despite the fact that our sanity check showed that we’re reading constant gravity as we expect, and therefor all axes agree, we could use Pythagorus again to compute what the value of the y reading should have been, given x, z, and our expected force:


The synthesized y reading is in blue, while the actual y reading is in red. This graph used 256 for the expected gravity. Let’s instead use the 253/250 mix we saw before, which will also account for that unexplained shift in z:


Many features are similar between these plots, but we appear to have exaggerated a somewhat steady descent in y during the period that x and z where steadily climbing (Feb 19 through 21). I expected y to start around zero and become more negative over time. Starting above zero, and decreasing anyway just means that the sensor was tilted away from the expected sinking angle to start. Interestingly, y moving from slightly up to closer to horizontal will also have the effect of bringing z up closer to vertical, just like x moving from negative toward zero did.

If the rolling is not the result of buoyancy change, then this change in y alone leaves us with a change from early Feb 19 mid afternoon Feb 21 of either 33-22 (computed, blue line) or 10-5 (observed, red line). asin(33/256) = 7.41º, asin(22/256) = 4.93º; asin(10/256) = 2.24º, asign(5/256) = 1.12º. Using 252 instead of 256 only alters the result by 0.1º. So, a change of at most 2.5º, and at least 1º. A bit of a narrow bad, if you ask me.

If the sensor shifted during placement, the x axis might be measuring pitch instead of roll. But if even if not, what if the fermentation primarily produced rolling instead if pitching? The x reading swings from -115 to -100. That’s 26.7º to 23º, meaning a change of 4.3º. That’s more, is about all that can be said about that.

If we take both roll and pitch together, we can just consider the change in z, but we also have to ignore the sudden shift near the end of the time range we were looking at. That gives 223 to 231, or 60.59º to 64.46º. Still just 4º change.


If I return to the design of the float, its weight of the float is 1.8oz. So, to float in fresh water, it will have to displace 1.8oz, or 3.24 cubic inches. The float is 4 inches long, by 1 3/16 inches wide, by 7/8 inches tall. A rough estimate places that at 4.15625 cubic inches. The rounded edges are tricky, though. Measuring via displacement shows it’s actually about 3.5 cubic inches. So, what I have is a float that is only just barely floating in water. That was the aim, and what was observed, but good to see the math line up.

If the float has to displace 3.24 of water at specific gravity 1.000, then at our starting gravity of 1.040 it only has to displace 3.12 of unfermented beer, and 3.22 of beer at the finishing gravity of 1.0075. So we’re looking at a change of 0.1 cubic inches of displacement.

I found the center of mass to be about 3/8 inch closer to the end that is expected to sink. That’s not a huge margin of influence, but since the float will be almost entirely submerged anyway, it’s probably enough. The heavy end also happens to have less volume, due to the curvature, so it should have to sink more to displace the same amount.

Calculus is probably the correct way to solve this problem. 18.01 was a long time ago, though, so I’m hoping I can fudge it. Instead of trying to figure out how far this float should have tipped, let’s figure out if a 4º pitch could have changed the displacement 0.1

If we’re already mostly-submerged, we’re looking near an edge that is not 1 3/16 inches wide, but instead closer to 0.75 in (due to curvature). If the float were flat (which the y and z axis readings mostly suggest), 0.75 * 3.75 in would be above water 0.036 in. If we pitched that 4º, we would lose 0.12 cubic inches into the water:

Height lost at 4º over 3.75″: (sin(4/180)*3.75) = 0.08332647479 inches

Volume of 0.083 x 3.75 x 0.75 ” triangular prism: 0.75 * (0.083 * 3.75)/2 = 0.117 cubic inches

So 4º could actually the correct change for these parameters! This does require that the x and z axes were reading pitch, and not roll, though. A 4º roll with these parameters is only a change of about 0.02 cubic inches.

A final check: how well does the shape of this data match the shape of the BeerBug’s?


Comparing the Z axis, it looks like the story is similar to the pressure sensor: the change plateaus at about the same point as the BeerBug, signaling the end of primary fermentation. If the 4º change was measuring the correct thing, then math would have told me the correct final gravity, but it would have been much easier to have developed a calibration table with known angles of specific gravities beforehand.

That wraps up this experiment. I’ve added this data to the gist containing the other sensor data. What’s next for this beer sensing story … ?

For the BeerBug, it may be worth continuing to use their service. The device works when the service works, as shown in this data. If anything, I think I’d work on snooping its communication, so I could tee it off to my own storage, in case their service goes down again.

For the pressure sensor, it’s mostly about a new housing, and then calibration to that housing. It needs something that is both heavy enough to sink, and also flexible enough to compress. If both of those are taken care of, it seems like calibrating to known specific gravities may actually provide decent data.

For the tilt sensor, it’s also about a new housing. The weight distribution needs to be far more unbalanced, to ensure a larger change in angle. Something narrower, so that more sinking is required to balance displacement, would work to. If those can be taken care of, then calibration may make this as good as other options.

Both the pressure sensor and the tilt sensor would also benefit from getting the Helium Atom and battery onboard. Current results are probably affected by the cable running out of the carboy. For now, this would require fermenting in something with a wider neck, since the development board is too wide to fit in the carboy. That’s easy to do, and would avoid me having to design my own printed circuitry.

What was really amazing to me is how easy this sort of thing has become. A week after I got hardware, I put it into service. I2C is a nice standard communication protocol. Lua is a quick language to pick up. The Helium chip, library, and service work very smoothly. Between the dev kit and the sensors, I’m over $100, but less than $200 into this exploration. I can see why people are excited about IoT these days – it’s easy to get started, and fun to participate.

But for now, there are two cases of beer to sample in a couple of weeks, and they’re stacked under earlier brews, so I won’t have any more fermentation to measure for a while. I’m setting up one of my Atoms to monitor the temperature in the conditioning closet. I wonder what I should start measuring with the other.

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