The ultimate measuring experience

They look like tiny batteries, round metal cells that hide a measuring instrument and a little bit of memory-space. They are (relatively) cheap and very robust. They are called iButtons and they are more valuable to me than an iPhone. This is a post about a measurement device, but one that definitely deserves some lyrical reviews.

Soil temperature iButtons

The best thing about them is their unrivaled survival skill. Just put them a few centimeters beneath the soil surface (maybe wrapped in some parafilm) and let them log the temperature for as long as you want.

Histogram of soil temperature sensors

We will leave them behind in fields all over the world, from Sweden to Chile and in all my gaps in my Belgian experiment.  On their own, these iButtons will help me answer several important research questions about mountain ecology and the effects of disturbance. They can bring my PhD to a whole new level of importance for science!

Soil temperature sensor tower

Just imagine how much they can tell us! They can show the temperature gradient in the mountains, they can reveal the influence of the roadsides on this temperature gradient and they can help tracking the exact perfect location for plants to grow! They cover the whole year, the cold winter snows and the peaks on a sunny summer afternoon. The best thing is: you can leave them behind in the field without any problem as they are strong enough to survive most outside adventures, but cheap enough to survive the losses.

60 iButtons, one experiment

When my PhD becomes successful, it will to a large degree be thanks to them. Some of the most exciting parts of future fieldwork will be to search for these little instruments where I left them behind, to find them back in the vastness of nature and download their important content.

iButton

In brief: this iButtons are magical!

iButtons

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14 Responses to The ultimate measuring experience

  1. Jim says:

    Interesting. How do you retrieve data from them?

    • They have a small (8Kb) data-log memory, which provides just enough space to log temperature every hour for a whole year. Then you have to take them out of the field and plug them into a reader connected to your computer. Read out the data, start a new mission, and put back wherever you want :).

  2. Josh Baker says:

    Very interesting. Good luck with your work.

  3. nlmoriyama says:

    amazing that something so small will be able to give you so much valuable data!

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  7. Hannah says:

    Hello,
    We’re doing a study on snowpack with students and don’t want to use HOBOs to measure temperature. How intuitive is the iButton software and how expensive was it to get the software, dat reader and how expensive each iButton (I find the manufacturer website somewhat confusing).
    Thanks, Hannah

    • Hello!
      Good idea to use the iButtons! I think the software is free to download (http://www.maximintegrated.com/en/products/ibutton/software/1wire/OneWireViewer.cfm). It might take a little bit of trial and error to find out all possibilities of the software. I was lucky to get explanations from someone who knew how to use it to point out all of them, but I am sure that you’ll find it intuitive to just start a measurement.
      The reader exist of 2 parts, both around 20 euro’s: the 1-wire Cable assembly network, which is the reader itself, plus a USB-to-1-Wire-cable to plug it in into your computer.
      The price of the iButton depends on what you want: you can have them from around 20 euro’s (limited memory, saves temperature values to 1°C, DS1921G-F5#), 40 euro’s (enough memory for 11,4 months of 1-hour logs to 0,5 °C accuracy, or 5,2 months to 0,06 °C accuracy, DS1922L-F5#) or 60 euro’s (measures both temperature and air humidity, DS1923-F5#).
      Prices depend on how many you order. There are local suppliers in different countries (mouser.com, for example), which might help to reduce import costs from the USA.
      I hope this clears out your confusion, but I am happy to answer more questions if needed!

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