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Home Weather Stations
You can place your weather sensors on a rooftop or in your backyard garden.
Weather forecasting entails the prediction of how the present state of the atmosphere - the air covering the earth - will change. Forecasts are accomplished through observation and collection of data. It's possible now for everyone to take advantage of the newest technologies and predict weather in their own environment - that means as close as the home weather enthusiast's backyard. Why Collect Weather Data? Some reasons for collecting weather data and eventually forecasting climate changes - it's simply fun and can be an enjoyable hobby. Weather hobbyists are interested in recording temperatures, greatest rainfall and the lowest barometric pressures. "I talk to people all the time who say they have written down the rainfall for the last 13 years," says Dave Miller, president of Peet Bros. Co. Inc., St. Cloud, Fla. "There are a lot of people out there keeping track of those things." As Miller explains, many amateur observers set up and use home weather stations to share data with others via the Internet.
Some want to manage the household to better protect family and home from extreme weather conditions. "If the homeowner is getting their weather from a weather station miles away, they may be having a different weather experience at home," Miller says. Miller notes a weather phenomenon called the microclimate (see Charlie Wing's installment of From the Ground Up in the Jan./Feb. 2002 issue of Smart HomeOwner for a detailed explanation of microclimates). Someone with a house on a hill will experience more wind than those near a small lake or in a valley.
These different weather experiences, or microclimates, can vary greatly even over short distances. Often spring and summer storms and the ensuing rain are localized so that even if the home is in or near a city with a local official weather station, the rain reported at the official weather station may be quite different from that at the home location. David Patterson, president of Texas Weather Instruments Inc., Dallas, Texas, says, "Pilots and boaters need weather stations for safety reasons. Gardeners need to know such things as rainfall and soil temperature." "My favorite use of the home weather station is in planning," Patterson says. "It is sure nice to wake up, glance at the weather station, and decide what to wear to work. It's also great to be able to go to my computer and look up previous years' weather on the same date." Patterson has found another interesting reason for home weather stations. He says that in extreme weather circumstances, having a home station can help convince insurance companies they should pay for storm damage experienced by a particular homeowner, since the homeowner with a weather station can log data and have it available for review.
For gardening enthusiasts, says Carolyn Schmidt, marketing manager at Davis Instruments, Hayward, Calif., "Alarms can be set to alert the homeowner to certain conditions so they know when to cover plants if the temperature gets down to a certain point." Schmidt adds, "Some weather-station owners have a unit set up at their vacation home or an elderly loved one's residence to keep abreast of weather developments." Weather Instrument Basics The good news is that you don't have to be a science major or have a degree in meteorology to understand the instruments used in a basic home weather station. Most everyone understands if it is cold, wet or windy outside. A weather instrument merely quantifies and records what everyone already understands. As Miller explains, "Outdoor sensors define a serious weather station. This is what distinguishes a serious home weather station from a casual one. I call some instruments coffee-table weather stations because they only read indoor weather conditions, as they have no outdoor sensors." There's an abundance of companies that sell quality home weather station equipment with websites on the Internet. Finding them will not be a problem, but finding the one particular setup that meets all your requirements might take some homework. "The literature that comes with weather stations, books and many Internet sites has information about weather in readily understandable terms," says Gordon M. Heisler, research meteorologist, USDA Forest Service, SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry, Syracuse, N.Y. Basic instruments include:
Rain gauge to measure precipitation
Thermometer for temperature
Barometer for barometric pressure
Hygrometer for moisture in the air
Wind vane for wind direction
Anemometer to measure wind speed Other sensors that are available include lightning detection, solar radiation (sunlight) and leaf wetness (used in agriculture). Typically the wind vane and anemometer are mounted on vertical poles and are set to rotate. In general, wind measurements have been one of the more difficult observations. Wind can change directions and speed quickly over a short distance, particularly in locations with buildings, trees or mountains. Those obstructions create eddies, which make it difficult to determine the true direction and speed of the prevailing wind. Wind sensors need to be installed above the roofline of the house; the thermometer and hygrometer should be situated away from exposure to direct sunlight, and the rain gauge should be in the open and away from overhanging trees. In addition, the rain gauge should be low enough to the ground that it can be inspected and cleaned periodically. "Basic to any weather station would be a rain gauge," Heisler says. "I have one that I use at home made of clear plastic; (it) has a small plastic stake and holder for the gauge." Heisler says the gauge is read manually by picking it up to see the level of water depth on a scale printed on the gauge. He uses a wedge-shaped gauge so that the scale is larger at the bottom to read small measurements of water more accurately. Heisler notes that all rain gauges have some error factor caused by wind that can blow raindrops away from the opening.
The Computer Connection The more powerful home weather stations feature the ability to connect to a computer. "You simply connect the weather station to the serial port on the PC," Miller says. "Our home weather stations have this feature, as we assume the buyer will want to connect to the Internet for the maximum return on their investment." Heisler says, "Purchase a digital weather station that includes a small console to which the sensors are connected. The connection can be by cable or by a low-power radio." The console allows the user to look at the weather data displayed in graphs showing the change in a variable over hours or days or even longer. A data logger stores the measured weather numbers until the user is ready to download it to the computer. "Weather stations with sensors start at about $250 to measure rain, temperature and wind," Heisler says. "A data logger and the software for managing the data cost about $140." Users can also collect information from other sites on the Web, incorporate that data into their own and view the data on the screen alongside their own data. Seeking a Quality Weather Station When seeking quality weather-station instruments, make sure the materials used in the outdoor components are strong and will last a relatively long time. Some companies produce outdoor wireless sensors that aren't connected by cable to the house and use a wireless transmitter and receiver. "They think this makes installation easier, but there are so many drawbacks that we don't recommend it," Miller says. "Things like frequencies on cordless phones, baby monitors or microwave ovens can cause interference." Ideally, in a quality weather station, each component is a separate sensor so that each can be installed in an optimum location outdoors. Consoles should be large and easy to read across the room, in the dark and at wide viewing angle. The control buttons should be easy to use with tactile response. Patterson explains, "Stay away from the cheap, gray LCD displays with the membrane keyboards.
They are hard to read; it's hard to push the buttons and prone to failure (think calculator)." Quality stations should have non-volatile (stable) memory and non-volatile clock functions, so that when the power goes out, the user doesn't have to reprogram. "The sensors should be robust and made from unbreakable material," Patterson says. "Weather stations that look flimsy are. Product support is important. I suggest that the consumer contact the weather-station manufacturer directly to find out if they will answer questions." Setting up Your Station Miller says installing a weather station is no more difficult than hanging Christmas lights or installing landscape lighting. "It involves running wires from inside the house to outside the house and uses low-voltage electricity." According to Patterson, their weather stations come preconfigured with the time, date and other parameters pre-calibrated so that the user only needs to attach the sensors and plug the console into the wall. "If you already have a TV antenna on your home, just attach the sensors to the mast and run the wires to the console." Now after the next inclement weather front moves into through your town, you won't be surprised. n Judy Stock is a freelance writer based in Granada Hills, Calif.