Servo Magazine ( September 2015 )

Workshop Air Quality Sensors

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

Working with robotics — whether it be finishing the legs of a crawler with epoxy paint, soldering a chip to a printed circuit board, or cleaning the metal gears in a servo with Acetone — can be a potentially hazardous operation. Volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) expelled into the air can be dangerous to your health. To avoid permanent neurological damage, I do my best to open the windows and wear an appropriate breathing mask when I work with cleaners and other VOC producing substances. However, I often cheat on the small five minute projects. Not a good practice.

The breathing masks with cartridges specific for various compounds aren’t that expensive — starting at about $30 for a basic mask from 3M and $10 for a pair of cartridges — but I’m not sure how well they work. I can’t tell when the cartridges are used up. Part of the problem is that many VOCs are odorless. Others have a sweet, almost pleasant smell.

As a result, I’ve moved to “low VOC” solvents and chemicals, but they’re not always available and often don’t perform as well as conventional versions. I’ve also added VOC sensors and alarms to my workspace. I’ve found it’s much easier to limit the release of VOCs in my workshop rather than trying to filter them out later with a mask or move them outside with a fan.

Commercial room VOC monitors are relatively expensive. A good VOC detector unit for the home or shop starts at about $300 (Amazon). A much more affordable approach is to build your own. For example, I built an Arduino-based detector/alarm for my shop for about $50, including a $20 VOC sensor board from SeeedStudio. You can also purchase VOC sensors from the usual supply houses (such as Digi-Key and Mouser) for $10-$20.

I haven’t calibrated my detector, but it’s sensitive enough to sound off as soon as I open a container of cleaning fluid. That’s when I’m reminded to open the windows and turn on the fans and air conditioner. I can no longer get away with the quick five minute projects. Instead, I’m immediately reminded to put on my mask and open the windows.

Even if you’re not interested in monitoring room air for volatile organic compounds, gas sensors are worth looking into. Imagine a robot constantly searching for gas leaks, or a “wash me” detector that lets you know it’s time to change and launder that shirt — a task that clearly qualifies for one of the four applications robots are known for: dull, dangerous, boring, and dirty. Keep your workshop healthy by looking into VOC detectors today.  SV

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