Why Foobot is an alternative to expensive monitors for researchers

The Foobot indoor air quality monitor was built as a friendly part of the family. The white box checks the air constantly to check for pollutants in one’s home, keeps track of the levels over time, and alerts a building’s occupants when they’re in danger. It lights up blue when it’s happy and orange when it’s worried. It likes clean, healthy air, and hates chemicals, particles, and when you look at its bottom (its fans know what I mean). But Foobot is also a tool for science.

Meet Alejandro Moreno Rangel. As an architect, his focus is sustainable design. He moved from Mexico to Glasgow where, for his Ph.D he is researching ways to improve environmental quality in buildings. Specifically, buildings designed to be energy efficient, which for all they do to conserve energy come with some nasty side effects.

Heating and air conditioning suck up lots of energy. In the US, they make up roughly half of the energy costs in an average house. So one of the most basic steps in making a home energy efficient is making it airtight. But trapping air in a building also means trapping air pollution, which is why indoor air quality is often up to eight times worse that outdoors.

Alejandro is looking for ways to solve this problem with a building’s mechanical ventilation heat recovery system (MHVR), a part of many energy efficient buildings that manage ventilation so that not too much heat is lost when cycling out the air.

Studying this naturally requires data. Thanks to his school, he’s got tools for that: A GrayWolf IQ-410, an Eltek RX250AL receiver and GD47 transmitter, and a Tiny Tag Plus 2 TPG-4500. They’re as sophisticated as they sound, measuring a wide variety of air pollutants and conditions with extreme accuracy.

The problem? They’re also as expensive as they sound. The GrayWolf kit alone costs thousands of dollars. That, and they’re large, noisy and require special training to use. While they’re great for checking air quality at a single location, that’s simply not the kind of data Alejandro needs.

“If you want to test the effects of smoking, you don’t look at one cigarette. You need 500,000 smokers before you know that something is wrong,” says Alejandro. “With bulky, expensive sensors like what I was using, there’s no way to get them into as many homes as I needed to.”

Instead, Alejandro looked for more affordable indoor air quality monitors that were easy to use and set up, and gave Foobot a try. Of course there was no way a $199 consumer product could have the accuracy of his specialized equipment. But given Foobot’s affordability, portability and the fact that it was designed to be placed nonchalantly in any given building, it would be ideal should it prove to be accurate enough.

foobot vs graywolf benchmark

Alejandro performed a comprehensive study on Foobot’s accuracy, testing it against the pricey lab equipment, testing for consistency between many Foobot devices, and testing it across different pollution conditions. Through his analysis, he produced a 22-page report that will be published at the end of the year. While I’m not allowed to say much about the study before it’s released, the results found that Foobot has a very important role to play in indoor air quality research.

If you draw a line chart to show a Foobot’s readings and a GrayWolf’s readings over time, they fit one another like a hand in a glove. If Foobot says your PM2.5 levels went up by 28% and your humidity went down by 12%, they did.

The pricey GrayWolf kit expectedly surpassed Foobot in absolute value accuracy, meaning it’s better if you need an exact measurement within its own reference frame, independent of any other reading.

But that’s not what mattered most. What mattered was relative values, that is, how readings go up and down over time. And here he found Foobot was perfect for the job. If you draw a line chart to show a Foobot’s readings and a GrayWolf’s readings over time, they fit one another like a hand in a glove. If Foobot says your PM2.5 levels went up by 28% and your humidity went down by 12%, they did.

More helpful still, Foobot automatically logs its readings every 5 minutes and stores them automatically on an online account. This means Alejandro can be in a Starbucks in one country but get a detailed chart of the air quality of a building in another. He can have hundreds of Foobots in homes all over the world and check on them all from his smartphone. And all a volunteer building owner has to do to provide the data is keep it plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi.

This connectivity is especially important given Alejandro’s motivations.

“I’m from Mexico, but I’m studying in Glasgow,” he says. “I want to take my work back to Mexico. I want to take it everywhere.” It’s easy to diagnose air quality problems when you’re in a laboratory, but that’s not where people live. He couldn’t take his GrayWolf or Eltek sensors on a flight home, let alone to every building with a pollution issue. Foobot makes indoor air quality monitoring so portable that it can nearly fit in his coat pocket.

The details are confidential, but Alejandro Moreno Rangel’s next project involves more ways to manage indoor air quality remotely. Such a system could make it much easier to detect and correct problems with indoor air pollution, keeping buildings a healthy place for all their occupants—anywhere in the world.

Liked Alejandro’s way to use Foobot? Share your own usage and ideas in the comments below​!