Building a Simple Soil Moisture Sensor

This article is a sub-article of another article (Growing Purple Strawberries).  In this article I build a simple soil moisture indicator.

Simple Moisture Monitor

The plan is to have a device¬†that has a red LED when the soil of a plant is dry, and a green LED when there is adequate soil moisture. ¬†This is a very simple circuit so I don’t need to make any sketches and can¬†jump¬†straight to a prototype:

As you can see, when I apply the moist tissue to the sensor the LED switches from red to green.  I used the following parts:

  • Arduino
  • RGB LED Light
  • YL-69 Moisture Sensor
  • YL-38 Signal Sensor/Decoder
  • 220ő© Resistor

And here is the Arduino source code:

void setup()
   pinMode(3, INPUT_PULLUP);
   pinMode(4, OUTPUT);
   pinMode(5, OUTPUT);

void loop()
   digitalWrite(4, !digitalRead(3));
   digitalWrite(5, digitalRead(3));

The YL-38 has an extremely useful calibration dial that can be used to set the level of moisture at which the digital bit is triggered.

Switching Over to a ATtiny85

At first I was going to build a permanent prototype using a Digispark, but the ATtiny85 had a lot of advantages over the Digispark and it will make a great microprocessor for this project. ¬†I also bought a USBasp programmer for it that I haven’t yet used. ¬†Benefits of¬†to the ATtiny85 compared to the Digispark is that it is smaller, has a guaranteed 20Kő© input pull-up resistor on all pins, it’s cheaper, it doesn’t have an on-board LED that drains power, it is easy to set the clock speed to 1MHz to save power and it is¬†very¬†reliable. ¬†The downside is that it can’t just be plugged in to the USB port for programming (but this also means I can build a fancy programming unit); it also doesn’t have an on-board testing LED light (not a big deal), finally, it doesn’t have an on-board 5V power regulator (this is a big one, I will need to figure out something for powering the ATTiny85).

I put together a USBasp programmer (and made a post on doing it too).

I can quickly program ATtiny chips by putting the chip in the IC socket and plugging an USBasp in the ribbon socket.
I can quickly program ATtiny chips by putting the chip in the IC socket and plugging an USBasp in the ribbon socket.

I changed the pin numbers and uploaded the program to the ATtiny in no time.  I used two AA batteries to power the project, this was more than enough power for the ATtiny85, but a little less for the soil sensor, which became very sensitive and needed an increased amount of moisture to trigger.  I will need to run some soil tests to determine if we can run this project of 3V or will need 5V.  Here it is running on an ATtiny:

And here is the new source code:

void setup()
  pinMode(0, INPUT_PULLUP);
  pinMode(1, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(2, OUTPUT);

void loop()
  digitalWrite(1, digitalRead(0));
  digitalWrite(2, !digitalRead(0));

The Power Struggle

I now need to find a way to power this whole thing, right now it is running off two AA batteries.  AA batteries have about 2,500 mAh of power; using a multimeter I can see the draw of this project is about 7.8 mA @ 3V.  Testing each component individually, it appears the ATtiny is comsuming about 1.1 mA, the LED about 2.5 mA and the rest by the sensor.

If we were to power this project as-is, using AA batteries it could theoretically run for 320 hours (it won’t because the voltage drops as the batteries age). ¬†That isn’t good enough, we either need to reduce consumption significantly, or find a different power source; I believe we can reduce consumption by at least 95%.

We can get a huge savings by not running the LED and sensor continuously. ¬†We can drop it’s duty cycle by a huge amount. ¬†We can blink the LED for 500 ms every 10 seconds, meaning it will reduce power consumption of the sensor and the LED by 95% (We might even be able to get away with a smaller duty cycle).

After trying it out, it’s a win; realistically, the device would still work even if the duty cycle was 0.5ms per 30s. ¬†Using a¬†multimeter, I am seeing a current of about 1mA when the LED and sensor is off, and 7.7mA when it is on. ¬†Meaning (based on a 30s cycle), 1.66% of the time we are using 7.7mA and 98.3% of the time, we are using 1mA. ¬†This makes our average consumption 1.11mA; therefore,¬†on 2x AA batteries we can run the device for 2,252 hours (or three months).

But wait, there’s more! ¬†We can reduce power consumption even more.¬† At this point most of the power is being drained is by the continuous¬†1mA of the ATtiny85. ¬†This draw can be reduce by putting the chip in low power mode, and putting it to sleep when¬†the sensor and LED is off.

With a few updates to the code, I have the chip sleeping for 40s, using 0.004 mA and the system awake for 500ms consuming 5mA.  This means the average consumption of the system is just 0.33mA.  Now, if we put in two fresh AA batteries, they should last about 1 year; much more acceptable.

To save even more power I made a few final tweaks:

  1. Blink the LED instead of have it solid reduces consumption when the LED is on by 1/2 and it makes the LED more noticeable.
  2. Turn off the moisture sensor when the LED is blinking, the sensor only needs to be on for a few milliseconds to get the moisture reading.
  3. Reduce the sensor interval to 80 seconds, it is more than enough.

With all this done, I estimate my average current is 0.08mA, meaning on two batteries we will be able to run the device for about 3.5 years.

Now I just need to calibrate the sensitivity, solder it all together and we’re good to go! Here is the final code:

#include <avr/wdt.h>
#include <avr/sleep.h>

int cnt = 0;

void setup()
  pinMode(0, INPUT_PULLUP);  //The sensors goes low when the soil is moist, and must be pulled up otherwise
  pinMode(1, OUTPUT);        //The green LED (using a common anode RGB LED)
  pinMode(2, OUTPUT);        //The red LED (same RGB LED as the green one)

  pinMode(3, OUTPUT);        //We will use pin 3 as the negative for the sensor, so we can turn it off when not in use

  set_sleep_mode(SLEEP_MODE_PWR_DOWN);  //When we go to sleep, use SLEEP_MODE_PWR_DOWN, the mode that uses the LEAST amount of power
  sleep_enable(); //Allow the ATtiny to go to sleep.

  cli();  //Disable interupts temporarly why we do some important work
  wdt_reset();  //Reset the watchdog counter for good measure
  WDTCR  |= (1<<WDCE) | (1<<WDE); //Set these bits in order to set the watch dog configs
  WDTCR  = (1<<WDIE) | (1<<WDP3) | (1<<WDP0); //Set the watchdog to 8s.

void loop()
  if (cnt == 0) //Only 1 in 10 loops will actually check the soil, since 8s is the maximum watchdog interval and we want to run this code every 80s.  9 times out of 10, we just put the chip back to sleep.
    digitalWrite(3, LOW);//Turn on the sensor
    delay(10);  //Give it a moment, just to be safe
    bool moist = digitalRead(0); //Read the sensor
    delay(10);  //Give it a moment, just to be safe.

    digitalWrite(3, HIGH);     //Turn off sensor

    for (int i = 0; i < 20; i++) //Blink the LED 20 times
      //Set the LEDs based on the moisture reading
      digitalWrite(1, moist);
      digitalWrite(2, !moist);

      delay(50); //Wait 50ms

      //Turn off both LEDs
      digitalWrite(1, HIGH);
      digitalWrite(2, HIGH);

      delay(50);  //Wait 50ms

  ADCSRA &= ~(1<<ADEN); //Disable the ADC while in sleep (saves .25mA)
  sleep_mode(); //Enter sleep for 8s, reducing power consumption to 0.004mA!
  sleep_disable();  //Where to pick up after coming out of sleep.
  ADCSRA |= (1<<ADEN);  //Turn the ADC back on.

ISR(WDT_vect) // Watchdog timer interrupt.
  cnt++; //Increment a counter
  if (cnt == 10) { cnt = 0; } //Reset the counter every 10 interrupts

A ¬†quick note on the code: I already programmed the chip and soldered it before realizing a couple of things. I tried to reprogram the chip with testing leads, but the wiring didn’t allow it. ¬†The two things I noticed:

First, you don’t need so much green blinking, consider only 1 or 2 blinks for when the soil is moist (if that). ¬†All the green blinking reminds me of Homer Simpson’s everything is okay alarm.

Second, you don’t need to turn on the ADC every time the watchdog wakes up the ATtiny.¬† You can probably get away with only turning it on on the cycles where the soil is tested;¬†you may not even need it then (I wasn’t able to test this, but if anyone else does, let me know how it turns out).

Hardware Layout

I never made a circuit diagram for this device since it was so simple, but I will describe the circuit below:

  1. Two AA batteries to power the system.
  2. YL-38 Decoder:
    1. Plug in the YL-69 the only way it can be plugged in.
    2. Vcc goes to + of the battery.
    3. Ground goes to pin 3 of the ATtiny.
    4. Digital output goes to pin 0 of the ATtiny.
    5. Analog output is not connected to anything.
  3. RGB LED (Common anode):
    1. Vcc goes to + of the battery with the resistor between them.
    2. Red cathode goes to pin 1 of the ATtiny.
    3. Green cathode goes to pin 2 of the ATtiny.
  4. ATtiny:
    1. Vcc goes to + of the battery
    2. Ground goes to – of the battery

Test your circuit on a breadboard before soldering.

The Final Product

Here are a couple of pictures of the whole thing soldered together on the strawberry plant.

Soil Sensor Indicating Moist Soil
Soil Sensor Indicating Moist Soil
Soil Sensor Detailed Circuit
Soil Sensor Detailed Circuit

Programming ATtiny45/ATtiny85 with a USBasp AVR Programmer

So, you’ve created a project on an Arduino and want to deploy it in to the world. ¬†The problem is that an Arduino is a big and relatively expensive device that has far more things than necessary for your project.

What you really need is just the microcontroller to run your code and control the pins.  All you need to do is buy an ATtiny45, ATtiny85 or similar Atmel chip, and then upload your program to it.

The Arduino makes putting your code and powering your Atmel chip very easy. ¬†Getting your code on to the stand-alone Atmel chip is a little more tricky; there are ways to program the chip with an Arduino, but they aren’t as easy as using a USBasp AVR programmer. ¬†The one I used is this one found on Ali Express.

If you are on Windows, you will need to install the drivers for the programmer.  A lot of sites will say you need to disable driver signing and do a whole bunch of steps, but the drivers found here will install on Windows 10 (they are signed) when installed using the installer (but not when you try to install the drivers yourself).  Once the drivers are installed, plug in the programmer and confirm your the drivers are working in device manager:

USBasp Drivers installed correctly.

Next, you need to install the ATtiny board in to the Arduino IDE.  To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Go to File > Preferences.
  2. Click on the button to edit the “Additional Board Manager URLs”.
  3. Add “” on a new line.
  4. Click “OK” to close the URL editor, and “OK” again to close preferences.
  5. Then go to Tools > Board Managers
  6. Search for “ATtiny”.
  7. Install the attiny boards that appear (you should only have 1 result).

Next we need to set the board to be the ATtiny and the programmer to “USBasp”, use the following screenshot for reference:

Settings for USBasp

We are now all set from the software end, we need to then wire up the hardware. The following pins will need to be connected:

  1. The MOSI from the programmer to the MOSI of the ATtiny (Pin 5)
  2. The MISO from the programmer to the MISO of the ATtiny (Pin 6)
  3. The SCK (Clock) from the programmer to the SCK of the ATtiny (Pin 7)
  4. The RESET from the programmer to the RESET of the ATtiny (Pin 1)
  5. The Vcc from the progammer to the Vcc of the ATtiny (Pin 8)
  6. Ground from the programmer to the ground of the ATtiny (Pin 4)

Setting these pins up can be done in a couple of ways, I decided to make a dedicated board for this with a socket, so I can program chips quickly in the future.  If you do this, I recommend running some tests on a breadboard first and making sure you have all your pins properly connected before soldering it together.  Here is my programmer.

I can quickly program ATtiny chips by putting the chip in the IC socket and plugging an USBasp in the ribbon socket.
I can quickly program ATtiny chips by putting the chip in the IC socket and plugging an USBasp in the ribbon socket.

Now, all that needs to be done is plug the USBasp in to the USB port of a computer and hit play, here is what the console will look like when it is all working:

Successful ATtiny Programming via Arduino IDE

Now, you can use the newly programmed ATtiny chip in a project, without have to log around the entire Arduino with it.

Running a simple blink program on a breadboard with a stand-alone ATtiny85.
Running a simple blink program on a breadboard with a stand-alone ATtiny85.