Review: Take control of your closest environment with the Foobot air monitor

Foobot

Foobot
7.75

Design

8/10

    Ease of use

    8/10

      Use of information

      8/10

        Motivation

        8/10

          Pros

          • Easy to set up
          • Complete picture of indoor air quality
          • Decent app - allows you to tag 'pollution' events
          • Provides actionable suggestions
          • Integration with IOT devices

          Cons

          • LED lights on device instead of screen
          • Price on the high side

          Indoor air quality is a major influence on the health and comfort of your home. With 90% of our time spent indoors, determining the quality of the air that surrounds us is important. Most people don’t know that pollution sources indoors are more diverse and numerous than outdoors. In fact, the air indoors can be up to five times worse than outdoors!

          This plays a huge role in your well-being. As you breathe in unhealthy air, you increase your chances of developing long-term diseases such as asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. There are also some short term effects such as colds, allergies and poor sleeping quality.

          Essential reading: Improve the air in your home with these smart gadgets

          Without any measurable data, however, it is difficult to know just how good the air that surrounds you really is. The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has long been used as an indicator and can be measured by low-cost sensors. However, there is more than CO2 that should be measured.

          For example, the quality of air you breathe can deteriorate with activities such as cooking, cleaning and painting. These activities can introduce Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs). Home building materials and furniture may also release these particles. Or for example, in the process of trying to secure your home by locking doors and keeping the windows shut, you may also inadvertently seal in unhealthy air.

          To this end there is an increasing range of connected devices that allow you to monitor your home for air quality. One of these is Foobot – an indoor air quality monitor that alerts you to take action when necessary and helps you get rid of pollutants by providing you with actionable suggestions and smart home integrations.

          Foobot comes from an outfit called AirBoxLab. To develop the device, the company ran a successful Indiegogo campaign a couple of years back. The product was released in 2015 and performed quite well. I’ve recently got my hands on a sample and have taken it out for a spin. These are my impressions.


          Design

          In the box, Foobot arrives with the air quality monitor, AC adapter and a couple of small instruction booklets. Measuring 172mm in height, 71mm in depth and weighing 475 grams, the main unit is not exactly small. But it is smartly designed so should fit seamlessly into any home.

          The device sports a cylindrical shaped body with white panels layered on top of each other. The immediate interior is lined with a plastic ring of LEDs that let you know in real-time the quality of the air. Beyond these are hidden the sensors, where the real magic happens.

          The main unit needs to be plugged in at all times in order to keep tabs on air quality. Any of the blue LEDs means that the air is good and deteriorates with decreasing number of LEDs illuminated. Once you are past a certain threshold and the air becomes poor, the lights will turn to orange and you will receive a smartphone notification. You can then find out what the problem is and what to do about it.

          The lights are rather strong so Foobot can also double-up as a nightlight. Thankfully, the app allows you to control the brightness of the LEDs, and even automatically schedule when to keep them on and when to turn them off.

          The data is based on the airflow so if you keep the doors open inside your house, the device will measure the air quality for your entire home. To this end Foobot is designed with vents that allow air to pass through to access the internal sensors.

          If you prefer, you can change the location of the main unit occasionally to maintain separate readings for different rooms. The device will recognise that there has been a change, and will ask whether you have changed rooms. Or you could even opt for more than one Foobot, for example one sitting in the living room and one in the bedroom.

          The hardware itself doesn’t have any built-in interface apart from a “knock knock” feature which sends at-request detailed air-quality notifications to your smartphone. Most everything else is controlled through the smartphone app.

          Foobot needs a WiFi connection to function as intended. It can run without it, in which case you can use the LEDs as an indicator of air quality. But this means you are missing out on the detailed readings, data history, actionable suggestions and more.

          It is worth noting, although Foobot will immediately start to collect data about your air quality, the company says it needs up to 6 days to calibrate itsself to your home environment. You do not need to do anything as this is all done automatically via your home WiFi. In my experience, the calibration process took 1 to 2 days at most.


          Functionality

          Quantities of particulates and harmful gases change rapidly over time. Foobot data is recorded by the minute, hour, day, and week so that you can view how your indoor air quality changes. Its sensors are capable of detecting most types of indoor air pollution, including:

          • Volatile organic compounds, which are toxic chemicals with hard to pronounce names such as Formaldehyde, Benzene, Xylene, Toluene, Ammonia and others. They can be dangerous even at low concentrations and have short and long-term adverse health effects. A major source of man-made VOCs are cleaning products, paints and coatings, glues in furnitures, sprays etc. Foobot’s VOC sensor is also highly sensitive to CO.
          • Particulate matter 2.5, which are fine particles suspended in the air in the form of solid particles or liquid droplets that potentially pose great health risks (more info from EPA here). Think dust, fly ash, dust mites, aerosols, or fumes. These can get into your lungs to provoke asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases, and some may even get into your bloodstream. Foobot’s optical sensor detects particles in the air from 0.003 to 2.5μg. Since many mold spores will fall into this category they will contribute to the reading.
          • CO2 readings based on an algorithm results using data from the volatile compounds sensor. While CO2 is not a pollutant, at higher concentrations it can lead to symptoms such as rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, clumsiness, emotional upsets and fatigue. Level higher than 1300ppm indicate that the room should be ventilated.
          • Humidity, or the amount of water vapor in the air, is also an important health variable. With too much humidity, black mold may emerge with a toxic mist of bacterias and fungis in its wake. On the opposite end, dry air can lead to dry skin, sinuses congestion and itchy eyes.
          • A little known fact, but maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature can also help with air quality. For example VOCs tend to evaporate more with a higher temperature and humidity.

          The World Health Organization (WHO) and EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency), determine the thresholds at which those pollutant levels are not safe and the device uses their recommendations.

          For simplicity, the Foobot also combines all your metrics into one, comprehensive number – a weighted compound of the different pollutants which it refers to as the global index. It might take a bit of time to get a good understanding of what some of the readings mean, but the app and notifications go a long way towards helping with this process.

          Following a recent update, Foobot also lets you know the current outdoor pollution level. The app taps into air quality data from a platform called BreezoMeter to access this information. Rather usefully, it converts this reading into a pollution score that is directly comparable to your internal pollution score. This can help when deciding whether to open the windows to get some fresh air or if you are better off keeping them shut.

          As with all smart devices, there is a brief setup you need to go through. Power on the Foobot with the provided USB cable and adapter. You should see the Foobot lights gradually light up. Then download and start the iOS or Android mobile app.

          There is a rather odd procedure that involves flipping the Foobot upside down in order to connect it to your wireless network, and then turning it back over. When requested, enter your home Wi-Fi password. There are workarounds if this doesn’t work. It helps to perform the initial setup procedure with less than 5 feet (2m) between Foobot and your WiFi router. This is only necessary during the setup process.

          That should conclude setting up. From there the device will begin collecting data.

          You may now place the device anywhere you want to measure the air quality. Because Foobot monitors your indoor air quality, it’s better to put it at the same height as your nose. It is also recommanded to place Foobot in an open spacefor example on a shelf could be a good place.

            

          Once up and running, there are a number of ways to access air quality measurements. The best place to go to is the smartphone app as it will show the most detailed info. At a glance, you can always gain an understanding of the current readings via the LED lights on the device. These break down real-time measurements into 6 levels of air quality – 3 levels of blue (good) and 3 levels of orange (bad).

          Finally, double-tapping Foobot sends an instant reading to your mobile device. The device will light up purple for a second, which means its measurement is being sent over to your smartphone.

          The app itsself is a simple affair. The main screen shows the overall reading. Anything below 50 is considered good.

          The info is broken down into three segments representing particulate matter, volatile compounds and Carbon dioxide. Tap on each of these to get a more detailed readout with separate quality thresholds. Furthermore, the data is broken down into minutes, hours, days and weeks so you can monitor everything over time.

          The device can notify you when bad air quality goes above a certain threshold. It will send you an alert and ask you to identify it. While instant readings are helpful, they are less meaningful than measurements over time. This is why access to your historical data and tagging your pollution peaks is important.

          By seeing past pollution events, you can understand the sources of pollution in your home, like toxic detergents, and remove them. From opening your windows, changing your cleaning products, avoiding incense, candles, or cigarette, cleaning your HVAC system, there are many solutions, each one adapted to your situation.

          Unfortunately I do not have access to a science lab to determine just how accurate Foobot is. I did however notice that vacuuming, dusting and general cleaning of the room with chemical substances would trigger higher readings. Cooking in particular would spike the measurements and often result in a smartphone alert. Also, if a room fills with people, the CO2 will elevate. Opening a nearby window for ventilation resulted in quickly resolving most of these problems.

          Foobot distinguishes itself from competition by providing some handy integrations that can help your smart home become a little bit more intelligent. It works with Nest, Ecobee, IFTTT and more so can trigger air purifiers, dehumidifiers and turn on thermostat fans when pollution levels rise. This way, the air gets cleaned or purified automatically whenever pollution levels rise in your home! The company says, users who set it up tend to spend 53% less time in polluted air, and this potentially adds years to one’s life.

          For instance, if you have a Nest system, you can set it up to activate ventilation when poor air quality is detected. Or how about setting up your own IFTTT “recipes” to inform you of an event like an increase in pollution levels via email or text, or to collect historical data in a Google spreadsheet.

          Foobot has recently added Amazon Echo to its list of supported products. This means you are able to get an air quality report just by asking Alexa, receive tips based on pollution sources, and more.

          AirBoxLab seems to be continually upgrading the software. So while the hardware may be limited to just the sensors, the software keeps growing to provide a more feature rich experience.


          Conclusion

          Keeping the air safe in your home is not possible without detailed information on quantities of particulates and harmful gases. Even if you keep your home crystal clean, you might be surprised by the results. But for the information to become truly actionable you also need to know what to with it, either manually or automatically.

          My home’s indoor air quality was not something I regularly thought about. After using the device for a couple of weeks, I found out that changes to the quality of air can arise from the most unusual of sources. The more you use Foobot, the more you become aware of your closest environment.

          On the mobile app, you’ll be able to access to your historical data and tag pollution peaks and get notified when crossing a threshold. With an intuitive interface, its very simple to use.

          Foobot
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          However, around the clock detection and reporting of pollutants is only part of the Foobot experience. The system also suggests ways to eliminate causes of unclean air. This along with Foobot’s various smart home integrations allows you to make adjustments to keep your surroundings healthy and fresh.

          Foobot does what it says, and it does so very well. If you care about the quality of air you breathe this device will do the trick.

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