Aerobic Septic System Monitor - Part 1 - Overview

7 minute read

Recently I had an incident where sewer gas had forced it’s way into the house. Among the question of how this happened was the obvious question “Is the aerobic septic system working?” Having recently found the joy of IoT that the ESP8266 and ESP32 bring with the ease of programming like an Arduino and simplified connection to Wi-Fi and the Internet I thought “My dishwasher, pet feeder, vacuum, and light switches are all connected to the Internet, why not my septic system!”

Thus the birth of this project which will look at monitoring an existing mechanical system (AC sensing), logging usage data and alerting system failures all through a Wi-Fi Internet connection.

What is an Aerobic Septic System

An an Aerobic Septic System, also referred to as an Aerobic Wastewater Treatment System, is a small-scale sewage treatment system similar to a septic tank, but which uses an aerobic process (adding air or oxygen) for digestion rather than the anaerobic (without air) process used in septic systems.

Adding air promotes the growth of organisms that break down the solids, which are put through a clarifier and chlorinated for disinfection which produces a cleaner, more environmentally friendly discharge. This cleaner discharge eliminates the need for a drainage field (leach field) allowing the system to be installed on a small property where a standard septic tank system would not have been possible. Ref: Aerobic Septic Systems Explained - JT Septic Co - NE Oklahoma Septic Experts

Components

The first and obvious thing you are going to need is an ESP32 board. I chose to go with a development board as they are easy to prototype with, exposing all the pins along with a USB-UART bridge, reset- and boot-mode buttons, an LDO regulator and a micro-USB connector. I chose a ESP32-WROOM-32U. The U designates an external IPEX MHF4 antenna connector. While my aerobic septic control box (timers, alarms, etc.) is mounted on the house relatively close to the WiFi router many control boxes get mounted far from the house (100-200ft) at the aerobic tank. An external antenna in the design made more sense since I was still dealing with a a reasonable distance from the router and a concreate wall. Better safe, than sorry.

For an antenna I purchased a simple 8dBi antenna with a IPEX MHF4 to RP-SMA female pigtail cable that allowed for through hole mounting of the RP-SMA connector such that the antenna can be mounted outside a waterproof enclosure box. if you need more range I would suggest that you look at using a high gain Yagi directional antenna which can go up to 20dBi.

While building a PCB to mount the ESP32 and other components was appealing, this project is a prototype and many of the sensor components are not designed well to place on a PCB board. So, I decided it would be best to make all connections to the ESP32 through a breakout board. This will also make the design more modular should a component need to be replaced. Remember, I’m connecting sensors to AC circuits which are much more susceptible to power surges (i.e. lighting!).

Note that not all ESP32 development boards are equal when it comes to board width pin spacing. Some come in a 0.9” pin spacing, while others in a 1.0” pin spacing. The HiLetgo board I chose comes in a 1.0” pin spacing. Not realizing this and thinking that spacing was the same for all development boards I initially bought a breakout board with the smaller 0.9” pin spacing. The one suggested in following parts list will accept both the 0.9” and 1.0” pin spacing.

The basic function of this project is to measure if the power is on/off and if the pump is actually running. To determine if the power is on (i.e. the timer has switched on) I found some 220V optocoupler modules that can output a 3-5 volt TTL (digital) signal. Connected to any GPIO (general-purpose input/output) pin you get 0 for on and 1 for off.

While the power may be turned on, there is no guarantee that the pump is actually running since the pump circuit contains a low water level float switch designed to turn the pump off when the tank is empty. This means that I have to monitor the current flow in the circuit to determine if the pump is really running. I originally chose a cheaper current sensor that only measures 0-5 amps as I didn’t care about what the current was, I only needed to know current was being pulled. Turns out cheaper is not always better and after hours of trying to get a reading I decided to go with a current sensor that could read a full 20 amp range. The better sensor will also allow me to monitor the pump motor health by specifying an operational current range which could be used to indicate problems like a clogged intake or sprinkler outlet.

To log data I will need an SD card and real-time clock(RTC) to correctly timestamp the data. An Arduino compatible SD card reader with a SPI interface are extremity easy to find , as well as an I2C DS3231 real-time clock module. The real-time clock module suggested below also contains an AT24C32 EPROM memory chip which I will need to store things like the Wi-Fi SSID/password and administrator users/passwords. If you don’t buy a RTC with a memory chip you can add a separate memory module.

While it’s not necessary I thought it would be nice to add an OLED display. These are small, cheap and run on I2C. For this project the plan is to display things like the IP address (maybe even a QR code) and other useful status Information for when you open the enclosure to check/program.

To power the ESP32 and added modules I will need a USB wall charger and cable. The plan is to run power into the added enclosure using an extension cord with the female plug side in the box and male plug side cut off and spliced into the aerobic system power terminals. This way any standard USB wall charger can be plugged in to the female plug. The reason for the 6 foot cable is that it allows you to walk out to the septic system with your laptop and plug into ESP32 to diagnose and/or program as needed.

Parts List

Quantity Description Source Suggestion
1 ESP32 Development Board Amazon.com: HiLetgo 2pcs ESP32-DevKitC ESP32-WROOM-32U Core Board ESP32 ESP-32 ESP-WROOM-32U Development Board for Arduino : Electronics
1 Antenna Amazon.com: 2 x 8dBi WiFi RP-SMA Male Antenna 2.4GHz 5.8GHz Dual Band +2 x 15CM U.FL/IPEX to RP-SMA Female Pigtail Cable for Mini PCIe Card Wireless Routers, PC Desktop, Repeater, FPV UAV Drone and PS4 Build : Electronics
1 Breakout Board Amazon.com: naughtystarts for ESP32 Breakout Board 3.5mm / 0.14” Terminal GPIO Expansion Board for 0.9” / 1.0” Size ESP32 Module ESP-WROOM-32 ESP32-DevKitC (Pack of 2pcs) : Electronics
4 220V Optocoupler Module HiLetgo AC 220V Optocoupler Module AC Optocoupler Alternating Current Detect Module 3-5V or PLC 24V Level Power for PLC MCU(1 Channel): Amazon.com: Industrial & Scientific
Amazon.com: JESSINIE 3Pcs 1Channel AC 220V Optocoupler Module 220V Voltage Detect 220V Optocoupler Isolation Microcontroller TTL Level 3V-5V : Industrial & Scientific
1 Current Sensor Gravity: Analog AC Current Sensor (20A) - DFRobot
Gravity Analog Ac Current Sensor - SEN0211 (electromaker.io)
Amazon.com: Gravity: Analog AC Current Sensor (20A) - AC Current Signal Conversion Module and Open Type AC Transformer Probe Included - Non-contact Measurement : Industrial & Scientific
1 SD Card Reader Amazon.com: HiLetgo 5pcs Micro SD TF Card Adater Reader Module 6Pin SPI Interface Driver Module with chip Level Conversion for Arduino UNO R3 MEGA 2560 Due : Electronics
1 Real-Time Clock w/EEPROM Memory Amazon.com: HiLetgo 5pcs DS3231 AT24C32 Clock Module Real Time Clock Module IIC RTC Module for Arduino Without Battery : Industrial & Scientific
1 EEPROM Memory (only necessary if the real-time clock module does not include memory){:target=”_blank”} EC Buying 5Pcs AT24C02 Module I2C IIC Interface EEPROM Memory Module Intelligent Car Accessories with Dupont Wire at Amazon.com
1 Display (optional) Amazon.com: Frienda 10 Pieces I2C OLED Display Module OLED Display Screen Driver IIC I2C Tabellone Seriale con Display Auto-Luminoso Compatible with Arduino/Raspberry PI : Electronics
1 USB Wall Charger Amazon.com: (3 Pack) USB C Wall Charger, Dual Port PD Power Adapter Fast Charging Block for iPhone 15/15 Pro/15 Pro Max/15 Plus/14/13/12/11,X, Pad, Google Pixel, Samsung Galaxy and More : Cell Phones & Accessories
1 6’ USB Cable Amazon.com: AILKIN Micro USB Cable, 5-Pack 6ft High Speed Nylon Braided Android Charging Cables for Samsung Galaxy J8/J7/S7/S6/Edge/Note5, Sony, Motorola, HTC, LG Android Tablets and More USB to Micro USB Cords : Electronics
1 220 Ω 1/4W Resistor (optional, beta testing) Amazon, DigiKey, or Mouser Electronics
1 5mm LED (optional, beta testing) Amazon, DigiKey, or Mouser Electronics

Visual Studio Code

While the Arduino IDE 2 has come a long way from what is now referred to as the Arduino Legacy IDE or Arduino IDE 1, a lot of developers including myself prefer to use VS Code, short for Visual Studio Code. VS Code is an extremely versatile editor that through the implementation of extensions can work across multiple languages and platforms. To use VS code you will need to install the Arduino extension. You might also want to look at the PlatformIO IDE for VS Code extension.

More to Come…

If you can’t wait for the next article “Beta Testing”, you can get a sneak peek at the GitHub repository.