Finding the Right Hack is Half the Battle

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Sometimes you just get lucky. I had a project on my list for a long time, and it was one that I had been putting off for a few months now because I loathed one part of what it entailed — sensitive, high-accuracy analog measurement. And then, out of the blue I stumbled on exactly the right trick, and my problems vanished in thin air. Thanks, Internet of Hackers!

The project in question is a low-vacuum regulator for “bagging” fiberglass layups. What I needed was some way to read a pressure sensor and turn on and off a vacuum pump accordingly. The industry-standard vacuum gauges are neat devices, essentially a tiny little strain gauge on a membrane between the vacuum side and the atmosphere side, in a package the size of a dime. (That it’s a strain gauge is foreshadowing, but I didn’t know that at the time.) I bought one for $15 ages ago, and it sat on my desk, awaiting its analog circuitry.

See, the MPX2100 runs on 12 V and puts out a signal around 40 mV on top of a 6 V offset. That voltage level is inconvenient for modern 3.3 V microcontroller ADCs, and the resolution would get clobbered by the 6 V signal if I just put a voltage divider on it. This meant whipping together some kind of instrument amplifier circuit to null out the 6 V and amplify the 40 mV for the ADC. The circuits I found online all called for 1% resistors in values I didn’t have, and mildly special op-amps. No fun, for me at least. So there it sat.

Picture of sketchy-looking vacuum apparatus.
Cut the blue wire or the red wire? HX711 module and pressure sensor on the left.

Until I ran into this project that machetes through the analog jungle with one part, and it happened to be one I had on hand. A vacuum pressure sensor is a strain gauge, set up like a Wheatstone bridge, just like you would use for weighing something with a load cell. The solution? A load-cell ADC chip, the HX711, found in every cheap scale or online for under a buck. The only other trick was finding a low-voltage pressure sensor to work with it, but that turns out to be easy as well, and I had one delivered in two days.

In all, this project took months of foot-dragging, but only a few clicks and five minutes of soldering once I got the right idea. The industrial applications and manufacturers’ app notes all make sense if you are making hundreds or millions of these devices, where the one-time cost of prototyping up the hard bits gets amortized, but the hacker solution of using a weight-scale chip was just the ticket for a one-off. That just goes to show how useful sharing our tips and tricks can be — you won’t get this from the industry. So send us your success stories, and your useful failures too, and Read More Hackaday!

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