Laid off from job, man builds tweeting toilet

What you can do with some household parts, some coding and a BeagleBone

Technology, like comedy, uses improvisation.

Take Thomas Ruecker's project. With parts from an electric motor, a few household items, an open-source hardware board running Linux, and some coding, he built a connected toilet that Tweets with each flush.

tweeting toilet 26 Thomas Ruecker

Thomas Ruecker used familiar household tools and items to create a 'tweeting toilet' that can track water usage and other data.

The first reaction to the Twitter feed at @iotoilets may be a chuckle. But the idea behind this and what it illustrates is serious. It tracks water usage, offers a warning about the future of privacy in the era of the Internet of Things, and  just might say something about the modern job hunt.

Ruecker built his device on a recent long weekend after he was laid off as an open-source evangelist at a technology company undergoing "rightsizing," as he put it. He lives in Finland and spoke to Computerworld via a video Skype session.

Ruecker is fluent in German, English and Polish, and he has a background in electrical engineering, computer science and management, with particular expertise in open source. He is seeking a job in engineering management or project management. If @iotoilets draws some attention to his experience, skills and creativity and leads to job prospects, so much the better, he said.

The genesis of the project began with a series a Tweets from Taneli Tikka, a manager at his former employer. Ruecker described Tikka as a "successful serial entrepreneur."

Tikka wrote: "Silly sensor IoT question: does anybody know about "smart toilets & sinks" something that measure liquid flow? # of flushes? etc. :)" [You can see the Tweet chain here.]

Ruecker Tweeted back and said he would look into it.

"I enjoyed this little engineering challenge, as I was constrained to whatever I had at home and thus had to come up with a creative solution to the problem," he said.

Ruecker gutted a servo motor to get its potentiometer, a resistor used to control a device, and created a plastic arm using zip tie cut to length. Styrofoam acts as the float in the tank.

"The arm translates water level inside the tank into a circular motion that can then be read as a function of the resistance of the potentiometer," said Ruecker.

A BeagleBone Black, an open-source board with an ARM-based processor running Linux, was another component. He wrote the code for the device, and enabled it to use IPv6 and MQTT (Message Queue Telemetry Transport), a machine-to-machine protocol.

The device is capable of precise measurements, but the Twitter feed is only showing rounded-off usages. Ruecker said he plans to improve the accuracy of the reported values.

From an environmental perspective, the idea of knowing how much potable water is being flushed away may be a good thing. Many European toilets have mechanisms that allow for variable flushes.

But Ruecker says his creation also illustrates yet another way that a connected home can invade privacy. A device that records flushes can reveal that a house is occupied, for example, and even offer an indication of the number of occupants.

One thing that isn't flush (excuse pun) is Finland's technology job market.

Microsoft recently announced a major layoff in Finland affecting, after final negotiations, 1,050 of its Nokia employees. That is about 0.0190% of Finland's population of 5.414 million. A similar percentage of layoffs in U.S. equal would equal approximately 60,550 people.

Ruecker hopes his IoT creation helps demonstrate his knowledge of the "full stack" involved in creating these tools. He has plans to build moisture and temperature sensors to monitor his chili plants, and is working on connecting other things in his home, including his coffee maker.

Finding a way to stand out in the job market in Finland -- and most places today -- may be a necessity. Ruecker is doing just that, one flush at a time.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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