Using the Touchstone to Track New Build VOCs

One of the coolest things about working in a lab that makes its own hardware and software is the ability to get to find situations to test those products, and I was super happy to be able to getting to test a unique use case for the Touchstone indoor environmental quality sensor we’re working on: monitoring air quality during construction. I recently bought a three-story row house here in Chicago, and before moving in we wanted to do some cosmetic changes – a fresh coat of paint in the third floor bedrooms, brand new carpeting on the third floor as well as on 45 stairs (yes, that’s a LOT of stairs!), and new hardwood flooring on the first floor. All of these projects would be off-gassing various VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and it felt like a great time to bring in a Touchstone to monitor how high these levels got and how quickly they would dissipate. Finally, it also gave the team a chance to test user experience with installation – I am the least tech-savvy member of the bunch, so making sure the instructions were easy to follow was key.

Raspberry Pi SetupTouchstone protoype setupSetup was easy, thanks in part to some of the trickier bits being done by the team before I went to my new house. The setup includes a Raspberry Pi (which I’ve used in other applications, like setting up a welcome kiosk for our Information Services department), a USB stick that allows the Raspberry Pi to talk to the Touchstone, and the Touchstone itself. I also brought with me a Verizon MiFi hotspot, since our internet would not be connected for another week and the system needs internet to communicate to the software component called Grafana. Grafana is a way to display data directly from the Touchstone itself – while we are working on our own software, we are using Grafana to track data for research purposes.

I set up the Raspberry Pi and MiFi in my kitchen on the second floor, and then the Touchstone in the hallway on the third floor.

I set these up the day that painting started, 8/11/17, with final touchups of paint happening on 8/17/17. The units have stayed plugged in since, allowing us to see how the levels “settle” over time. It’s been hands off since installation, except for when we got our internet connected in the house, when I switched the Raspberry Pi over from the MiFi network to its final network home. That process was pretty easy, and the instructions the team wrote were clear and allowed me to do the switch with ease.

What did we learn about VOCs in that time period? As expected, total VOCs went up during construction, stayed elevated during the “worst” parts (when we had paint drying, carpet installing, and the hardwood floor going in simultaneously), and then dissipated rather quickly once we took steps to rid the air of VOCs. We also were able to tell when people were most active near the Touchstone itself, since CO2 levels would raise, which I thought was a funny way of measuring the progress of the carpeting install.

touchstone grafana data

The straight line from the 19th to the 21st is when the unit was offline between taking down the MiFi access point and getting our new internet installed. The 15th was the most active day for installation; the spike on the 18th likely corresponds to the actual move-in date, where lots of cardboard was being tossed around, lots of people were moving around, and any carpet fibers that were buried even after a vacuuming were being kicked up.

We mitigated VOCs in two major ways – creating cross breezes through window airflow, and by constantly running our indoor whole-house fan. We had the air conditioning on during the day – it was about 85-90 degrees during that week, and with workers bustling about we wanted to keep them comfortable – but since we were not living in the house yet, opening the windows at night to let out vapors was an easy and fast solution.

Some things to keep in mind with the graph above – we are tracking four different things that all actually do not usually exist on the same scale as each other, so the end values can’t really be judged without looking at individual points and comparing them to known ranges. But for a quick visualization, this works out great, and being able to track trends is an important part of monitoring indoor environmental quality.

Now that I’m moved in, I am planning on relocating the Touchstone after unpacking to a place that gets a lot of use, like the kitchen or living areas. That way, I’ll be able to directly see the impact had in the areas I “live” in the most. If I do see trends in VOCs or high CO2 levels, I can consider putting some pet-friendly plants that I am researching for part two of our Pocket Guide to Cleaner Air series. While indoor environmental quality sensors won’t diagnose specific issues, they are a valuable tool in tracking your home’s health, just like your Fitbit helps to track metrics about fitness, and we think these metrics will lead to happier home occupants.

Things Thursday #020: What makes a city smart?, Microsoft entering the thermostat battle, and some great resources on smart homes for you

A hand holding our environmental quality sensor, which is called the Touchstone. It's about the size and shape of a bar of soap.

The Touchstone sensor from CRT Labs. This device will read temperature, humidity, light, CO2, VOCs, particulate matter and more.

  1. What are 10 key things that make a city smart? (via ReadWrite)
    This is a great roundup of what a city needs to be smart. From connectivity to sensing, ReadWrite put together a great roundup. If you’re interested in the real estate perspective on smart cities, we’ve got a series for you to check out called ‘The Building of Functioning Cities‘.
  2. And finally: Amazon Echo 2 incoming and more (via Wareable)
    Yes, this is a list of smart home/wearable items for you to peruse. They have some good intel on Amazon’s latest smart speaker as well as what Apple’s up to on the smart home front. Check it out.
  3. What to know about smart home technology: 10 smart home resources for REALTORS (via CRT Labs)
    Another roundup??? What’s going on with this list? 🙂 I would be remiss if I didn’t point you to our roundup of resources you can take advantage of to bolster your understanding of this emerging market. Why does it matter to you? Because it matters to your clients. Read on to find out more.
  4. Microsoft’s Cortana-powered thermostat is totally gorgeous (via CNET)
    This is definitely something to consider. A nice-looking thermostat from Microsoft and Johnson Controls. No pricing info yet, but keep an eye on this. It’s called the GLAS, it’s voice-enabled (with Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Alexa) and it monitors indoor and outdoor air quality. If you want a voice-enabled thermostat now, check out the Ecobee4 with Alexa integration. If the $249 price point is keeping you away, you should look for rebates from your utility or insurance company.
  5. Touchstone: Environmental Quality Monitor for your home! (via CRT Labs)
    Finally, a look at what we’ve been up to. This device is not on the market yet, but take a look at our work. Really proud of our group here at NAR. Akram, one of our lab engineers, provides a pretty deep dive into what we’ve been up to with this device. I’m really proud of our team and their efforts to make this piece of hardware and the software behind it. They’ve been extremely supportive of one another and have collaborated better than I could have imagined. Kudos to them.

That’s all for Things Thursday this week. Have questions? Want us to cover something? Let us know. You can follow us on Twitter @crtlabs or Facebook

Touchstone: Environmental Quality Monitor for Your Home!

The Touchstone is an open hardware and software indoor environmental quality sensor designed by the National Association of REALTORS/CRT Labs. The idea behind the Touchstone was conceived in the summer of 2016, when we at CRT Labs were exploring various types of personal air quality monitors available in the market. We found that most of them were around $150-$200 for one device, costing a lot more in some cases. They used cheap sensors that weren’t accurate, and almost all had a dependency on a combination of a smartphone app and some cloud platform on the internet that it pushes data to. If we want to monitor the environmental quality of the entire home, we would have to spend around $200 for each room and give up privacy for the sake of cloud access to our data.

The Rosetta Home 2.0 platform developed by CRT Labs aims to solve exactly this issue. We developed it with an offline first mentality – no internet required. Cloud connectivity is optional for data backup, large-scale research and more in-depth data analysis. You are not locked into any one cloud provider or a mobile platform. With the addition of the Touchstone, a home’s environmental quality can now be monitored locally, accurately, and at a relatively affordable price.

A Touchstone can measure the local temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide concentration, TVOC (total volatile organic compound) concentration, PM2.5 (particulate matter) mass concentration, sound intensity, light intensity and barometric pressure. With advancement in MEMS and CMOS technology, we now have access to sensors that are extremely cheap and have decent accuracy, and more are being available every day. In order to find the right balance between price and performance, several sensors are tested along with higher-end reference sensors that we know are accurate from literature review of other studies. Sample CO2 data from one of our sensor tests is shown in the graph below:

From the graph, we can see that the sensors can vary widely in the readings. Similar tests are being done for other parameters that we measure. We found that some of the sensors that report incorrect values are currently being used in popular air quality monitors in the market today. Our goal is to maintain relatively high accuracy in sensor readings. This allows our Touchstone devices to be used in large-scale research projects that can provide large data-sets of anonymous environmental quality for different types of climate zones and different types of homes across the country. Ultimately, the goal is to yield useful correlations between this hyper-local data and energy use and human activity.

The Touchstone devices wirelessly send data to a receiver that’s also on the same network. For wireless transmission, an FSK radio transceiver running at 915MHz frequency is used. This frequency band is license-free and set as an ISM band for commercial and industrial products. Using a dedicated transceiver as opposed to relying on commonly used protocols that operate in the 2.4GHz bands such as WiFi, ZigBee, Bluetooth and others allows for robust, low-power and long-range wireless operation. The radio modules have a transmission range of over 500 m in open air and over 150-200 m in occupied buildings. Due to their operation in the sub-GHz frequency bands, they have much better obstacle penetration, greater reception and stronger immunity to the ever increasing RF noise in the spectrum. This contributes to superior performance for the specified application of data logging within buildings. Using dedicated radios also eliminates dependencies on internet access (wired or wireless) on every sensor location as well as electric power in some cases where the sensor can run on batteries for several years at a stretch. Currently, the Touchstone runs on a 5V USB power supply, the same one we use for charging our cell phones. There are application-specific versions currently in development that allow for lower power versions of these boards. The Touchstone and other boards in its family can all be made relatively cheaper than their commercial counterparts.

The gateway receiver has the same radio module which constantly monitors all incoming wireless sensor data from around the building and pushes it over USB to the Rosetta Home platform running on a Raspberry Pi. The data can then be aggregated and monitored in real-time locally, and also pushed to the cloud for remote-monitoring and research purposes if necessary.

Currently, we are designing and testing various types of enclosures at a manufacturing facility called mHUB here in Chicago. Here’s a Touchstone prototype in its enclosure and its relative size in the average hand:

This is how the assembled boards looks like without the enclosure:

The assembly of the board is currently done manually at CRT Labs, as we are iterating over the hardware design and as sensor tests yield more data. Over the next few months, the assembly of the boards will be done at mHUB, which has factory-grade equipment using which the production can scale to several hundred units per day. These devices when complete will be used for research studies to be conducted by CRT Labs in Chicago, and later, in various cities around the country in the coming months. The data that comes from this research can give us an insight on how residential and commercial buildings perform across seasons, and how they impact energy usage. Ultimately, this will lead to more energy-efficient, smart and healthier buildings in the near future.

#016-Things Thursday: Cleaning the air without planting trees and more

An image of a product called CityTree, which has a park bench on each side and a 15ft wall of plants attached to both benches.

CityTree by GreenCity Solutions is an IoT device that monitors and cleans the air with plants.

In this week’s Things Thursday, we have a lot for the future, but also a lot focused on health. What if some devices

  1. Disney Research’s technology could transform IoT landscape (via Android Authority)
    Disney Research is one of the premier IoT/emerging technology labs in the world. They’ve got offices in Switzerland, Pittsburgh (in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University) and, of course, California. You might be surprised that Disney is doing scientific research, but when you think about the theme park business, it makes sense. Disneyworld and Disneyland are like miniature cities. So, from the lab comes another cool project from them. They’ve figured out how to reduce the power and improve the connectivity of IoT devices without an antenna. This is important for sensors that may have little to no external power options. They’ve also done research on powering devices without traditional power sources. Keep an eye on them.
  2. Microsoft Research’s ‘Emma Watch’ helped a Parkinson’s patient write again (via Wareable)
    Pretty amazing work from Microsoft Research. Parkinson’s wreaks havoc on your central nervous system and can make everyday activities a challenge. A researcher at Microsoft is building a device to reduce tremors for people living with Parkinson’s. In order to help people write or draw, the watch has tiny motors that vibrate on the patient’s arm, disrupting the feedback loop of the central nervous system. It’s pretty amazing. Click through and watch the video.
  3. Connected trees will be scrubbing the air in a city near you soon (via ReadWrite)
    Smart cities will not just be connected and gathering data, but they will help cities perform better. GreenCity Solutions are building these amazing benches that have plants and sensors embedded in them. They claim that their benches can filter the same amount of air as 275 planted trees. This means less watering needed, but the benefit of filtration from the plants is pretty great. Currently, CityTree is only in the European market and they have plans to expand to the US in late 2018. Even still, it’s a great example of how to green a space and provide some seating options. To find out more about why smart cities matter to REALTORS, check out my post on Building Functioning Cities.

That’s all for Things Thursday this week. Have questions? Want us to cover something? Let us know. You can follow us on Twitter @crtlabs or Facebook

The Building of Functioning Cities: A Smart Cities Series

There is a blurry cityscape in the background with the phrase 'The Building of Functioning Cities' overlaid. This is a line from preamble of the REALTOR Code of Ethics. We believe this statement reflects the potential impact of smart cities on our industry.

Smart cities will impact the way we live and work in the very near future. Real estate stands to benefit from the data produced in these cities with improved services for clients.

In the labs, I often point out to visitors that we’ve based our work on the preamble to the Code of Ethics. I’ve included it below with the relevant bits highlighted:

Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization. REALTORS® should recognize that the interests of the nation and its citizens require the highest and best use of the land and the widest distribution of land ownership. They require the creation of adequate housing, the building of functioning cities, the development of productive industries and farms, and the preservation of a healthful environment.

At CRT Labs, we use this to focus our mission. It’s not only key to your work, but also, to the potential that the Internet of Things, renewable energy, and community gardening have to impact your industry. In order to support the ‘building of functioning cities’ tenant, we’ve spoken to several smart city projects throughout the US. We believe that data from the smart city will go a long way to shaping how you do business in the future. It will change the way you interact with your customers and help you in supporting their buying choices. We are just at the very beginning of this and there’s still a way to go before this is mainstream, but what’s already happening is exciting.

What are smart cities?

Simply put, smart cities are cities that use existing data and connected sensors to:

  • Capture data and performance metrics to improve city services
  • Monitor city performance
  • Inform the general public

Cities great and small are employing smart city techniques all over the world. Singapore is one of the big leaders in this space, as is Barcelona. Here in the US, cities large and small have active programs. From Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky as examples. For this series, I want to use what’s in my own back yard. Chicago has garnered a lot of attention of late for its Array of Things initiative and the use of its open data portal to engage the citizens.

Why do they matter?

Here’s why it matters to you: there are massive amounts of data that will be coming off these devices that will show how specific areas of a city are performing. As examples, you’ll be able to see things like:

  • Pedestrian and vehicle patterns and counts aggregated by time of day
  • Utilization patterns for parks and community buildings
  • Temperature variation at your work and at your home on a block by block basis
  • Air quality outside your door and any destination you need to travel to
  • Average sunlight exposure at any location
  • Standing water after a rainstorm

A number of those things above are key to how you’re home or property performs. Understanding microclimates will help buildings use less energy because they can adjust based on time of day or season. We can also understand busy residential and commercial areas are and use that as part of our marketing material or a widget on a website. When are the peak hours at the community pool or park? Data for a community could also inform when you hold open houses. How many people are in a neighborhood during a given day?

This is just the surface. I’m going to use this series to interview people here in Chicago who are involved in the smart cities initiatives and highlight where there are opportunities for real estate. If you have a story about smart city activity in your area, I encourage you to share it.

Related Articles from CRT Labs:

Building Better Air

I recently wrote about our newest project, A Pocket Guide to Cleaner Air, a book that educates those in the commercial real estate market about how to help their office clients pick and care for plants that can help make their indoor air cleaner and their workers more productive and healthier. Today, I’m going to show off one of the steps the National Association of REALTORS® is taking to help make our office environment in Chicago better. Just like the steps that IREM has taken towards the WELL standard, we are hoping that these plants are a start towards thinking about the indoor space we spend our time in every day. That step is a plant wall, installed on the 4th Floor of NAR’s HQ, which aims to clean our air of CO2 and VOCs to help make the IT department a healthier place.

Plant Wall in the IT department at NAR

Plant Wall in the IT department at NAR

We’ve covered a lot of the benefits of putting plants in indoor spaces on posts before, but to reiterate, we spend about 90% of our time indoors, and the EPA estimates that indoor air quality is 5-10x worse than outdoor air quality! At NAR, we can’t just open up our office windows to try to get in some air, so we need to take measures to help make the air that we are circulating (and recirculating) be as fresh as possible, so we enlisted our friends at Plant Parenting here in Chicago to think of a solution to get some of the plants from the NASA Clean Air Study into our office space. We have pretty typical cubicle walls, with paneling that can be taken out and replaced with different materials, so after measuring the paneling, we discovered we could actually fit some trays right into our walls! Howard at Plant Parenting was able to install this wall for us in a morning, including putting in all the plants. We have 4 kinds of air-purifying plants along the wall, which I will describe below with their benefits.

Plant Wall at the National Association of Realtors

There are 4 different plants that purify the air in these trays!

First up we have dracaena warneckii, a plant that cleans benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. The warneckii is a bushy plant native to tropical Africa, but it can also grow quite tall depending on the variety. We have the bushy warneckii, because they do not weigh much and thus won’t put a ton of strain on our cubicle walls. We also have a second type of dracaena called dracaena marginata, which comes in a variety of colors and shapes. Marginata not only cleans benzene, formaldehyde and toluene, but also is considered one of the best for cleaning xylene and trichloroethylene. These dracaena are native to Madagascar and other islands in the Indian Ocean. Next up is the Money Plant, and while it won’t make you rich, it will clean benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, and toluene. It is native to French Polynesia. It is one of the hardest houseplants to kill, hence its other name, Devil’s Ivy. Finally, we have a tropical plant from New Guinea called Chinese evergreen, which is said to bring good luck to those who grow it! We’re lucky it will be filtering benzene and formaldehyde out of our air. All of these plants will convert CO2 to breathable oxygen for us as well.

Devil's Ivy on our Plant Wall

Devil’s Ivy close up

We’ll be monitoring our indoor air quality using the sensors we’ve been building in the lab, and seeing how all our hard work getting the right plants together pays off. We’ll keep you all posted, and hope that our results inspire you to start putting plants in your own offices. And stay tuned for more info about our Pocket Guide to Cleaner Air!