Arduino Masterclass Part 2: Build an LED weather station


APC's Arduino LED Weather Station board
Our APC weather station using an Arduino Uno R3-compatible board.

Project-specific parts

You’ll need the standard parts (Arduino board breadboard wires pliers and so on) along with these extras:

  • DHT11 temperature/humidity sensor
  • 7 x 330-ohm/0.5W metal film resistors
  • 3 x 4.7k-ohm/0.5W metal film resistors
  • 2 x BC337 NPN transistors
  • 2 x LTS543R or FND500 common cathode seven-segment displays

They shouldn’t cost you more than $15 all up and you can get everything bar the DHT11 from Jaycar Electronics.

In Part 2 of our Arduino masterclass we’re cracking on to build a weather station that measures temperature in degrees Celsius and relative humidity as a percentage. We’ll introduce new components and theory and put the lot into practice.


Seven-segment displays

LEDs on their own are great indicators but to display quantitative information we need something more and that’s where seven-segment displays come in. These are blocks with seven LEDs arranged into a figure eight each individually controllable. As we described last previously LEDs have two connections: an anode (A) and a cathode (K). When current flows from anode to cathode the LED lights up. However to reduce the display pin count from 14 to 10 most displays have either all of their anodes or cathodes joined together to a single pin – they’re known as common anode or common cathode displays.

We’ll be using the LTS543R common cathode type – they’re a garden variety display and the most complicated part of using them is knowing the pin layout. Here’s how you do it: hold the display in front of you with the decimal point LED at the bottom-right. The bottom-left pin at the back is pin 1 counting right to pin 5 and the top-right pin is pin 6 counting left to pin 10.


Driving seven-segment displays

To drive a seven-segment display you need seven data lines from an Arduino to control the seven LEDs. If you add a second display you’ll need another seven data lines. A third is another seven. So you can see the control pin count can skyrocket if we keep using this system.

Our weather station uses two displays and while the Arduino Uno R3 has 14 outputs to play with we’re going to do it with just nine using a technique known as multiplexing. Put simply it’s a way of being able to send data to different devices over the one set of control lines (data bus) using a time-share system. A simple analogy is driving your car: you (probably) don’t have your own dedicated roads you use the same roads as everyone else. If you think of it in the time domain you’re time-sharing a road for the time you’re on it. What we’re doing is similar – we’re multiplexing 14 LEDs’ worth of data over a seven-bit data bus using a similar time-share method.



We’re going to need another two control lines to make it work. This is also a good time to introduce you to another new component: the transistor. Your average Ivy Bridge-class Core i5 processor has 1.4 billion of these things and we need just two. Transistors are clever little devices that can amplify a signal and act like controllable switches. In every case a transistor lets you control a larger current with a smaller one. If you follow the circuit diagram we’re using them as switches connected to the common cathode pin of each display.

Basic curcuit diagram for our LED weather station
Basic curcuit for our LED weather station.

The transistor in our circuit is a BC337 NPN medium-signal transistor. It’s a garden variety three-pin device and here’s how to tell the pins: hold the transistor flat-face facing you with the pins pointing down. The pin on the left is known as the collector (C) the pin on the right is the emitter (E) and the one in the middle is the base (B). You could write two books on transistor theory but for now that’ll do.

LTS543R BC337 NPN transistor and Breadboard jumper wires
Left: The LTS543R seven-segment display. Middle: Pin-out for the BC337 NPN transistor. Right: Breadboard jumper wires like these make Arduino easier to use.

So quickly here’s how the whole multiplexing thing works. When we want a number to appear on DIGIT1 we send output D9 high (meaning its voltage rises to the 5V supply rail). This sends current through the 4.7-kohm limiting resistor into the base of transistor Q1 it activates and turns on. This pulls the common cathode pin of the display to 0V (or ground) to get the LEDs ready to light up. We then send the data for that digit on the seven control lines D2 to D8 and the display will light up with the number. To display a number on DIGIT2 we do the reverse. We send data output D9 low which turns off Q1 and DIGIT1. We pull output D10 high turning on the other transistor which activates DIGIT2. We send the data on the outputs D2 to D8 again but this time DIGIT2 will light up.


What’s the point?

If you’re thinking this is pointless because all we end up with is two alternately flashing displays you’re dead right. The trick is speed. Eyes are great at resolution but they can’t distinguish flashing objects much beyond about 75Hz. So if we can get this multiplexing speed up high enough you won’t see two flashing displays – they’ll appear as though they’re continuously lit. And that’s exactly what we do in the Arduino code except that we push the multiplex rate up to 125Hz to make damn sure you can’t see it!

In the end we’re using nine data lines – seven for the LEDs in each display and two to control the displays themselves. Hopefully you can see we only need one extra data line for every new display we then add. (Technically you can do the whole thing with just one data line albeit with a lot more electronics than we have here.)


Introducing the DHT11

That takes care of the display side of things but what about the temperature and humidity data? That’s what the little DHT11 sensor provides. You can pick these up from eBay for under $3 or online from places like Australian Robotics with different pin-outs. It’s basically a tiny four-pin brick with its own microcontroller a hygrometer and negative temperature coefficient (NTC) thermistor that outputs its data in serial form.

To tell the pins hold the DHT11 in front of you pins down with the label facing away from you. The left pin is pin 1 and connects to the supply rail pin 2 is the data pin pin 3 is not connected and pin 4 is 0V. We connect the DHT11’s pin 2 to the Arduino’s data line D11 which we configure as an input and grab the data using our Arduino code. That’s where we’re off to next.

DHT11 sensor: pin arrangement.
DHT11 sensor: pin arrangement.


Tech Corner

The wiring is the trickiest part of this project. Just make sure you follow the colour coding on our wiring diagram right as it identifies which wire goes to which pin without clogging up the diagram. The circuit diagram will give you the reference point if you get lost. Keep checking things as you go. The displays transistors and DHT11 module must be installed the right way around or the project won’t work so again follow the overlay diagram carefully. If you’ve noticed the unusual wires we’ve used they’re sometimes called Dupont wires – we bought ours from eBay (search for breadboard jumper cable for around $4 for 65 assorted lengths. Alternatively grab an Arduino Experimenters Kit – Jaycar has the Freetronics version (cat. number XC4262) for $90 or you can get a simpler version from Australian Robotics for $46. You’ll still need the extra parts in the parts list though.

The wiring diagram for our LED weather station
The wiring diagram for our LED weather station.


Coding the weather station

With the hardware done we show you what’s needed to code your Arduino Uno board into a weather station.

There’s a bit for our Arduino to do in this project. It has to retrieve the data stream from the DHT11 module and at the same time multiplex our two seven-segment displays fast enough to ensure we don’t see them flashing away. So rather than reinvent the wheel we’re going to use the help of others by incorporating a couple of open-source libraries to simplify some aspects of our project. That said they only provide the nuts and bolts – we still have to pull everything together to make this thing work which is what our sketch does.



Where to get the software


You can find the software for our weather station on the APC web site at Grab the ‘’ file unzip it copy the ‘Timer1’ and ‘DHT’ folders to your Arduino IDE’s library path (Arduino-1.0.1library) and create a ‘apc_02_weather’ folder for the ‘apc_02_weather.ino’ sketch file.



DHT11 & Timer1 libraries


The DHT11 uses its own proprietary one-line data port which unfortunately doesn’t follow any industry standards. Thankfully we can use the DHT11Lib library to do the tough stuff. We’ve slightly modified the version included in the .ZIP file to add more precision to the error codes so we’re making it available under the GPL (General Public License). The library consists of two files: ‘dht11.cpp’ and ‘dht11.h’.

The other library we need is the Timer1 library. The Atmel ATMEGA328P microcontroller has three built-in timers (two 8-bit and one 16-bit) which you can preset to give you different time delays. We’re using Timer1 the 16-bit timer. When you have a 16MHz clock rate and you’re only counting to 65536 (that is 216) it doesn’t take long. That’s why the ATMEGA328P also has a prescaler or divider to create longer delays (well up to 9 seconds anyway).

The Timer1 library makes this easier to do but also adds in a very useful feature called a timer overflow interrupt. Basically once the timer has reached its timeout point it fires off an interrupt signal to the microcontroller just like a three-year-old saying “fiiiiiniiiiiished!â€. What’s useful about it is that we can attach the interrupt to a function or subroutine so that it automatically runs the code whenever the timer interrupt is fired.

It’s this interrupt system we use to ensure that our multiplexed display runs at the right rate. We first set the prescaled delay to 8ms which means it fires off at a rate of 125Hz to get the multiplex rate above eye speed.


Driving the LEDs

The next question is: what data are we sending to those displays? At the front of the code is a long-winded two-dimensional integer array where each row represents a numerical digit from 0 to 9 followed by various characters we want to display; for example the degrees symbol percentage letters and the like.

Each row contains seven numbers that correspond to each of the seven segments in the display: a 1 means we want a particular LED to light up while a 0 means we don’t. So the way it works is if we want a 5 to appear on DIGIT1 we retrieve the data from row 6 of the array (arrays start at zero) and switch D9 high which flicks the transistor switch. We then send the data to outputs D2 to D8 and the display will light up for 8ms before switching off again. It sounds slow to read it but in action you can’t see it.

The data for each display digit is stored in two integer variables: ‘digit1’ and ‘digit2’. Because the displays are automatically updated every 8ms all we need to do is throw the right digit into those two variables and within 16ms (8ms for each digit) the numbers will appear on those displays. Wherever you see a ‘digit1 = 10’ or ‘digit2 = 13’ line in our sketch that’s exactly what we’re doing.

However since we get the temperature and humidity readings as two-digit integer values from the ‘dht11.temperature’ and ‘dht11.humidity’ functions manually setting ‘digit1’ and ‘digit2’ is clumsy. So to simplify things we’ve added the ‘shownumber’ function. It takes the data values direct from the ‘dht11’ functions and uses some simple maths functions to separate the digits and updates the ‘digit1’ and ‘digit2’ variables.


How the weather station works

When the Arduino first powers up it’ll show my initials (it’s your job to figure out how to add your own) followed by the startup error code. If it’s all good you should get ‘E0’. After that it’ll blank momentarily and then begin with the temperature followed by ‘°C’. The display will go blank then show the humidity followed by ‘%’ and then go blank again. Each ‘step’ lasts for one second and continues this loop until the power is removed.

Error codes:

Our sketch has four error codes that relate to the DHT11:

  • E0 – all good
  • E1 – data read error
  • E2 – data read timeout
  • E3 – initialisation fault

If you get ‘E3’ it’ll likely mean the DHT11 isn’t getting any volts or there’s no data connection so check your wiring. ‘E2’ will occur if you swap the DHT initialisation code around in our sketch file and we’ve never seen ‘E1’.

The ‘E0’ error code means zero errors – all’s well.


Playing with the code

Provided you don’t change any of the output pin assignments at the top of the sketch code file feel free to muck around with the code and change things. One thing we’d recommend changing is the value in the ‘timer1.initialize(8000)’ line. This is the line where we set the 8ms/125Hz time delay. Change it to ‘500000’ and see what happens (we won’t spoil it by telling you now but hopefully you’ll already have an idea).We’ve tossed in lots of comments into the code to help you understand what’s going on.

So why not give it a shot? Using computers is cool. Building your own computerised gadgets is better.


Step-by-step: Installing the software into the arduino uno

Step 1:

If you haven’t already download the Arduino 1.0.1 IDE from the Arduino web site ( Unzip it into a folder on your computer. Next grab our ‘’ file from Unzip the file and copy the ‘DHT’ and ‘Timer1’ folders into the IDE’s Arduino-1.0.1libraries subfolder.


Step 2:

Plug your Arduino into a spare USB port. If Windows asks for driver software the Freetronics driver .INF file is available on their website and check the Arduino-1.0.1drivers folder for Arduino or compatible boards. Take note of the COM port assigned to your Arduino. Launch the ‘Arduino.exe’ file to start the IDE (64-bit Windows 8 users will have issues with driver installation – check the Arduino web site for updated drivers).


Step 3:

Load up the ‘apc_02_weather.ino’ file into the IDE. Click the green tick (‘Verify’ button) to check that there are no compile errors. Next click the ‘Upload’ button and it should start installing into your board (your Arduino’s LED should flicker). When it’s complete it will automatically start running our code.