Adventures in Science: Level Up Your Arduino Code With Timer Interrupts

Yay! More interrupts. Let's see how to set up timer interrupts in an Arduino.

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Previously, we looked at using registers directly in Arduino and setting up external interrupts. This time, we configure a timer interrupt to toggle an LED every 0.5 seconds. That’s right; we’re going to redo blinky the hard way.

The ATmega328P has three timers that continually increment. Note that Arduino uses them for various functions, which means you probably don’t want to use those functions if you plan to mess with the timers. On the UNO and RedBoard, you will find:

Name Size Possible Interrupts Uses in Arduino
Timer0 8 bits
(0 - 255)
Compare Match
delay(), millis(), micros()
analogWrite() pins 5, 6
Timer1 16 bits
(0 - 65,535)
Compare Match
Input Capture
Servo functions
analogWrite() pins 9, 10
Timer2 8 bits
(0 - 255)
Compare Match
analogWrite() pins 3, 11

Each of these timers can be configured for one or more interrupts:

  • Compare Match — When the timer value reaches a specific value (stored in the corresponding output compare register), an interrupt will be generated. This can be useful for creating pulse width modulation (PWM) signals on pins or sampling a sensor at specific intervals.
  • Overflow — When the timer rolls over from its max value (e.g., 65,535) to 0, an interrupt is generated. Overflow interrupts are also used for PWM signals and running pieces of code at precise intervals.
  • Input Capture — When a specific pin changes value (e.g., ICP1), the current timer value is stored in another register (ICR1) that can be retrieved later to see the exact time that event occurred. This type of interrupt is good for measuring the time between pulses.

To help make timing longer events easier (especially when some of the timers can only count up to 255), a prescaler can be used. A prescaler, in effect, divides the system clock to make something operate more slowly. For example, here is Timer1 counting up to 15 with no prescaler. You can see how Timer1 increments on every rising edge of the system clock.

No prescaler on a timer in Arduino

If we set a prescaler of 8, we can see how the timer counts up at a much slower pace. The timer only increments once for every 8 counts of the system clock.

Prescaler of 8 for a timer in Arduino

Knowing that we have a 16MHz clock on the Arduino UNO and RedBoard, we can calculate what kind of prescaler we need and to what value we need to count to trigger an interrupt every 500ms. Timer1 supports four different prescalers in addition to no prescaler (directly connected to the system clock): 8, 64, 256, 1024. We can find these by looking at the TCCR1B register description in the ATmega328P datasheet. We can multiply the desired delay by the clock speed and divide that answer by the prescaler to get the number of required timer counts. If we use a prescaler of 256, we see that we need 31,250 counts:

Prescaler to counts calculation in Arduino

We set the prescaler to 256 and load 31,250 into the OCR1A register. Don’t forget to set the output compare A interrupt enable bit in TIMSK1 and enable global interrupts! Now, whenever Timer1 reaches 31,250, a TIMER1_COMPA interrupt will occur. Create your ISR to toggle the LED and reset the timer.

// Pins
const int led_pin = PB5;

// Counter and compare values
const uint16_t t1_load = 0;
const uint16_t t1_comp = 31250;

void setup() {

  // Set LED pin to be output
  DDRB |= (1 << led_pin);

  // Reset Timer1 Control Reg A
  TCCR1A = 0;

  // Set to prescaler of 256
  TCCR1B |= (1 << CS12);
  TCCR1B &= ~(1 << CS11);
  TCCR1B &= ~(1 << CS10);

  // Reset Timer1 and set compare value
  TCNT1 = t1_load;
  OCR1A = t1_comp;

  // Enable Timer1 overflow interrupt
  TIMSK1 = (1 << OCIE1A);

  // Enable global interrupts

void loop() {

  TCNT1 = t1_load;
  PORTB ^= (1 << led_pin);

Timers are extremely powerful and useful microcontroller functions. They allow you to sample, control hardware or measure signals at very precise intervals.

Outside of the already given Arduino functions (delay(), millis(), servo, tone, etc.), how else have you used timers in your microcontroller projects?

Comments 8 comments

  • Love the series as always Shawn. Great timer interrupts example. Question. Is there a good way to just make a simple blocking delay without using a timer interrupt or a timers at all? Say I just want to have 1,000,000 nop (no operation) instructions run to kill 0.0625 seconds. Is there a way to do that without timers at all? I assumed that was how the Arduino delay() function worked, but I was surprised to learn that is not the case in this video. Is there a simple way to do lots of nop commands? Thanks!

    • Thanks! I know that delay() is blocking, but it does rely on internal timers. You can definitely do asm("nop"); to insert an assembly nop instructions. For example,

      for ( unsigned long i = 0; i < 1142000; i++ ) {

      Gets you something close to a .5 second delay (very quick calculation based on the assumption that the nop + for loop overhead is ~7 instructions. I seem to be off by some, so if someone else wants to correct it…).

  • I’ve avoided using timer interrupts because I was afraid I would break something else when using the Arduino API functions. Do any of the chip communication protocols (not bit-banging, but hardware comms) like UART, SPI, or I2C use the timers? If so, which ones?


    • Most of the communication protocols (I2C, SPI, UART) have their own set of interrupts, so they should not conflict with your Timers. However, do note that because the 328P is not really set up to support nested interrupts, you’ll want to make sure your Timer ISRs are as short as possible so that you don’t miss any incoming messages.

  • Shawn, GREAT VIDEO! Done at the right level. More needed - especially on the Arduino. Thank you!!!!

  • Great video! 👏

  • Hi Shawn!

    Another great video! (Up early as the neighbor wanted the car moved before cutting down a tree… and yes, we have trees in Phoenix ;-)

    One comment: When you use one of the Arduino functions that involves one of the timers (e.g., delay(), analog_write()) you are using timer interrupts, it’s just that the Arduino IDE is taking care of all the details for you.

    Also, if you need to get “timer interrupts” for significantly larger periods, many RTCC (Real Time Clock Calendar) chips are capable of generating asserting their “interrupt pin” for periods ranging from one second to one year, or at specific times and/or dates (e.g., wanting to take a measurement once an hour). This is another reason that RTCCs on “development boards” is a big “hot button” for me,

    • Thanks!

      Arduino using the timers for certain functions is what I meant, so I apologize if that wasn’t clear.

      RTC chips (or RTCC) are definitely great for saving power if you can set up an external interrupt for only when you need it. The other thing I’ve done is set up a counter in the microcontroller (RAM or EEPROM) and have it count on each interrupt. Whenever that value reaches a certain value, then call your real function. It’s not as efficient or accurate as a separate RTC, but it does save you some hardware.

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