Tracking Temperature, Humidity, and Light Conditions inside Terrariums

Since I published my December 2017 Orchidarium Update, a number of readers have had questions about how I gather my data, with many asking why do I collect data, and what equipment do I use?  So, here’s an article that I have written especially for you, which I hope will answer all of your questions.

Data is really exciting! 

It’s easy in life to make assumptions, but assumptions are rarely accurate.  Despite this, assumptions are often perpetuated for far longer than is necessary, unless of course they are challenged and undergo the necessary research to absolutely prove the assumption to be incorrect, which is not usually possible of course.  To really be able to accurately learn about a situation you’ll need the facts, and as many details as is possible.  On the occasions that an assumption of mine is accurate, I still wish to obtain all the details to enable me to learn as much as I can about my plants, their growing conditions, and the given situation.  Whatever is happening with my plants – whether the plants are flourishing, dying, or anything in between, I always want to learn more about my plants and the conditions that they are growing in.

Sharing accurate information about plants

I love to help others to accurately learn more about plants.  To do this effectively, it’s important for me to be able to clearly, and accurately, share my growing conditions and my plants’ experience, by collecting as much data as is possible.  I want to ensure that someone I have never met, who has never seen my plants in person, can understand exactly how I have achieved my successes and failures.  With this knowledge, my readers can more easily replicate the same conditions to enjoy growing their plants fortuitously, or are able to effortlessly avoid making the same mistakes that I have made.

Terrarium Trials and Outdoor Plant Trials

My regular readers will know that I enjoy running trials.  If you’ve seen my 2017 Sweet Pea Trial, my 2017 Scented Daffodil Trial, my White Orchid Terrarium Trial, my Miniature Orchid Trial, or indeed any of my outdoor trials or indoor trials, you’ll know that I collect a huge amount of data throughout these trials, which enables me to carry out a full analysis of the trial, to enable me to see as full a picture as is possible of my plants’ experience at every stage of my trial.  Seeing how different trends and changes affect the plants I grow is fascinating, it often leads to me to new discoveries and learning.

Data-logging systems for terrariums, glasshouses, indoor growing conditions, and outdoor growing conditions

I researched data-logging solutions for my terrariums and my outdoor trials in 2016, as I wanted to accurately track and record the conditions in which my plants were growing.  I initially started looking into Weather Station Systems, to help me to track the weather and temperature conditions for my Sweet Pea Trials and my other Outdoor Trials.

In my Outdoor Trials I look for correlations between the wind, rain, and sunshine, to the number of flowers produced by my plants, which is just so interesting!  However, after doing some research, it seemed that not only are the consumer Weather Station Systems very expensive, but it’s not easy to extract the data from the system for me to analyse.  Another drawback is that many Weather Station Systems are limited in the number of sensors that can be connected – as I have a garden, a growhouse, my Miniature Orchid Trial BiOrbAir Terrarium, my White Orchid Trial BiOrbAir Terrarium, my Madagascar BiOrbAir Terrarium, my Orchidarium, my Rainforest Terrarium, countless other terrariums, and the readings from inside my home that I want to record, it soon became clear that many of these systems simply wouldn’t scale to my needs (and that’s before considering the cost – my budget is limited).  So instead, I decided to source my weather data from the various online platforms (I choose to use Weather Underground https://www.wunderground.com/) and I looked instead for a data-logger for my terrariums.

The first option I considered was suggested by Helen Millne at her talk at the Orchid Society of Great Britain meeting (http://www.osgb.org.uk/news/blog/index.php?id=4653619808046284757).  I missed this Orchid Society of Great Britain meeting, but I  know that during her talk Helen Millne suggested the use of ‘USB Data loggers’ – individual devices which collect humidity and temperature readings, which can then be plugged into your computer to download the results (example here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Temperature-Humidity-Accuracy-Indication-Function/dp/B01FFOQ8CE/).  This can provide a quick, simple, and reasonably cost-effective way to capture temperature and humidity measurements with a data extract that can be uploaded onto the computer.  However, doing this manually for each of my terrariums (plus calculating my indoor conditions, the garden, and growhouse etc) would still be extremely time consuming, so for me this wasn’t the answer.

Data-logging – the solution for both outdoor and indoor plants

The final solution I discovered was very neat and simple – a product called Wireless Sensor Tags (http://wirelesstag.net/).  This system is made up of a tiny base unit, (which is about the size of two matchboxes) which connects to the internet router via a cable.  A number of Wireless Sensor Tags collect measurements and broadcast them to the base unit, these measurements are then transmitted to the server where they are stored.  The collected data can then be viewed via the Wireless Sensor Tags website, or downloaded as a file which can be pulled into Excel to create charts, etc.  The Wireless Sensor Tags available range from the basic temperature version, up to a version which will collect high-accuracy temperature, humidity, and ambient light measurements.  The tags are small, neat, unobtrusive and have a claimed battery life of 6-12 months (with replacement batteries costing 50p each, sadly the batteries are not rechargeable – this is the only drawback that I have noted so far).  This solution sounded almost perfect for my requirements!

Inside my Orchidarium, as pictured on the 1st January 2018. The White square box on the right hand side of the picture is the Wireless Sensor Tag. This Orchidarium also has an automated misting unit, fan and LED lighting.

This picture shows the sensor positioned on the back wall of the Orchidarium, where it collects temperature, humidity and ambient light readings every 15 minutes.

This picture shows the sensor positioned on underside of the lid of the Madagascar Orchid Trial BiOrbAir Terrarium, where it collects temperature, humidity and ambient light readings every 15 minutes. Note that the positioning is critical – too close to the LED lights, and the temperature reading will be artificially high due to the warmth they give off. 

I found the Wireless Sensor Tags’ system to be super easy to set up.  I now have Wireless Sensor Tags installed around my home and garden, I currently have a tag:

The Wireless Sensor Tags are set to collect temperature, humidity, and ambient light measurements every 15 minutes.  I then export this data in order to create charts, and to track the growing conditions alongside my plants’ progress.  I can also check the conditions (including the historical trends) directly from my smartphone, which is very useful indeed.

Example data extra from the monitoring system – showing ambient light readings (in Lux) for the last 12 hours.

Example data extra from the monitoring system – showing average ambient light readings (in Lux) for the last 90 days. 

Example data extra from the monitoring system – showing humidity readings (%RH) for the last 12 hours. You can see the humidity increase for the Orchidarium at 08:30, when the misting system activates, and later for some of the other terrariums when they were hand-misted just before 11am.

Example data extra from the monitoring system – showing average humidity readings (%RH) for the last 90 days. The most interesting thing about this chart is how much drier the atmosphere is in the house than the terrariums – as low as 40%RH. This immediately shows the benefits of increased humidity for orchids in the terrariums.
You can also see the increased humidity in the greenhouse – peaking at 120%RH – as the temperature drops as winter deepens.

Example data extra from the monitoring system – showing temperature readings (in degrees celsius) for the last 12 hours.

Example data extra from the monitoring system – showing average temperature readings (in degrees celsius) for the last 90 days.

Adverse growing conditions warnings

Another advantage of this system is that the Wireless  Sensor Tags are able to have thresholds set, which if breached, will trigger an alarm (which can be an SMS, an email, or a notification on your smartphone).  This is great as a safety measure – if any of the rooms in which my orchids are growing get too cold (too hot if you’re outside the UK!), or if any of my terrariums become too dry, or too wet, I’ll get notified immediately.  Thus allowing me the best and quickest opportunity to take action to rectify the situation promptly.  Wireless Sensor Tags also have motion sensors in them, which I could use to track (for example) how often the doors to my Orchidarium are opened, but currently I’m not using this feature.

Observations from the Data

Tracking the data from my terrariums is really useful, as it allows me to ensure that my plants are growing in their desired conditions.  I knew that my BiOrbAirs did an excellent job of creating and maintaining a humid atmosphere, but having the sensors in place gives me peace of mind that all of my orchids are growing in optimum conditions inside my Orchidarium, and indeed inside all of my terrariums.  Knowing that I’ll get alerted if the conditions change and temperatures drop to be too cold for my plants, and that this system will let me know if the environment inside a particular terrarium becomes too dry is of great comfort to me.

It’s also interesting to see how different activities affect the conditions, for example, seeing the humidity rise in the late evening and early morning when the central heating is off and my home grows cooler is a really good indication of the inverse correlation between temperature and humidity.  It also allows me to monitor the effects of any changes in the conditions; for example, adjusting the length of time that the misting system runs for inside my Orchidarium can drastically increase or decrease the average daily humidity, so it’s good to be able to track and monitor these changes and their corresponding effects.

Example data extra from the monitoring system – showing the minimum and maximum humidity each day for the Madagascar BiOrbAir Terrarium, over the last 30 days.

Other Equipment I use

I also have a hand-held light meter, (you can buy these for around £20) which displays the precise light level in Lux or Foot-candles.  This can be really useful for checking the light levels that individual plants receive.  You can also use a light meter to help you to decide on the best positioning of your plants within a larger terrarium, using the light meter to enable you to accurately verify and compare the intensity of the light received in various different positions and at particular heights.

Light meters

It is also incredibly useful to have access to a light meter when you’re talking to other growers about the light requirements for specific plants.  For example, in my Orchidarium, the light from the Jungle Hobbies Advanced LED Lighting system is around 1,000-1,200fc for the top tier of plants nearest the lights, around 600-800fc for the plants halfway down, and around 400-600fc for the plants at the base of the tank.  This demonstrates how a distance of moving just 60cm (2ft) from the lights dramatically reduces the intensity of the light (thanks to the inverse-square rule of light intensity https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverse-square_law).

It’s wonderful to be able to check with certainty that my plants are all in the right place and will be receiving the optimal level of light that they require for healthy growth.  To then be able to accurately pass on this information to others, and to be able to fully and meticulously understand the light levels that other growers provide for their plants is valuable indeed.  By compiling precise data, I can take the guess work, and the worry out of my growing.

Conclusion

Trials and collecting data is both fun and worthwhile!  Seeing what’s really going on with your growing conditions and your plants can be enlightening, interesting, comforting, and exciting, all at the same time!

Further Trials

Terrarium, Vivarium, and Orchidarium Trials

To see my step-by-step guide showing how to plant up a terrarium or bottle garden, please click here.

To see how my Rainforest Terrarium was set up and find out the thinking behind my design, please click here.

To see how my Orchidarium was created, please click here.

To read my first update for my Orchidarium, please click here.

To read the first part of my White Orchid BiOrbAir Terrarium Trial, please click here.

To read the first part of my Madagascar BiOrbAir Terrarium Trial, please click here.

To read the first part of my Miniature Orchid BiOrbAir Terrarium Trial, please click here.

To read about the general care I give to my orchids and terrarium plants, and the general maintenance I give to my BiOrbAir terrariums, please click here.

To see a planting list of mini-miniature orchids for terrariums, vivariums and bottle gardens, please click here.

To see a planting list of ferns, orchids, and other plants suited to growing inside terrariums, vivariums, or bottle gardens, please click here.

For a list of articles that show how to set up bottle gardens, terrariums, vivariums and orchidariums, please click here.

Sweet Pea Trial Reports

To read the results of my 2017 Sweet Pea Trial, please click here.

To read the results of my 2016 Sweet Pea Trial, please click here.

To read the results of my 2015 Sweet Pea Trial, please click here.

Compost Trial Reports

To see all of my Compost Trials, please click here.

Scented Daffodil Trial Reports

To read the results of my 2018 Scented Daffodil Trial, please click here.

To read the results of my 2018 Scented Daffodil Container Trial, please click here.

To read the results of my 2017 Scented Daffodil Trial, please click here.

Other articles that may interest you……………

To read about the great new features of the 2017 BiOrbAir terrarium, please click here.

For information on how to mount epiphytic orchids onto cork bark, please click here.

To read a Planting List of a wide range and variety of beautiful plants which are suitable for growing in terrariums, vivariums, bottle gardens, and indoor gardens, please click here.

To see a Planting List of beautiful, miniature orchids, suitable for growing in terrariums, vivariums, bottle gardens, and indoor gardens, please click here.

To read about the Writhlington Orchid Project, please click here.

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