HAB - Enclosure and Heater System

Release! by stilldavid.

A story of the electronics and logistics of launching a high altitude balloon.



For the enclosure you need something light, rigid, with decent thermal insulation. Enter Styrofoam. A 2 x 4 ft sheet from the local hardware store was ~$5. I hate stryofoam. HATE it! If you try to cut it with a knife, you'll end up with tons of statically charged little balls running around. I learned this the hard way building the GPS clock. After getting a flood of emails talking about Nichrome wire, I decided to give it a try. Nichrome wire is the stuff in your toaster. With a little voltage/current, the wire heats up nicely and cuts through styrofoam like butter. For us, it certainly cut quickly, but it was impossible to cut a straight and perpendicular line by hand. This is important as you will need a square box without many holes for the cold air to get in. What we needed was a styrofoam cutting machine, but that would be a project unto itself (and I consider it yak shaving). So instead, I swallowed my OCD and we cut the styrofoam with a regular kitchen knife. Not great, but it worked.

Lessons learned: The box doesn't have to be all that perfect. The metallic duct tape works really well adhering to the styrofoam and will fill in or cover up most of the gaps in the seams. You don't need to go overboard with silicon sealant or making sure the thing is totally air tight - on the contrary, you'll want it to be slightly leaky so that as the air pressure drops to near nothing, the box doesn't explode at 100,000ft. The metallic tape acts as a radar reflector (fulfills one of the FAA requirements).

Building windows: We decided to use small pieces of acrylic to make a window for the still and video cameras to view out. These were a huge hassle that I believe we will avoid on the next build. The windows did help to seal up the box against air flow, but with a properly, tight fit camera, you will get a decent seal. Cutting into the wall to fit the camera also helps keep it in place as the payload starts to spin or shift.

Make sure to label your box! And label it well. Your name, phone number, address, and something about how it is an 'Amateur weather balloon project' should be included. A note stating 'no boy inside' is also acceptable, but the humor may be lost on the person that finds your payload. Laminate the label. Put markings on your PCBs. Include something like a metal tag or identifier that won't degrade over time. My payload is currently lost somewhere out on the eastern plain of Colorado and while I marked the box, I didn't laminate the paper and am worried that even if found, the person will only be able to find me because the PCBs have 'SparkFun.com', 'Load Control', and 'Every Sensor We Know' printed on them. Fingers crossed.


Here you can see inside the box. Nothing really to it. Camera window in the bottom left corner. This was one of the first 'freezer tests' with an Arduino and the BMP085 pressure and temperature sensor, and an OpenLog for datalogging. It's a little bit surprising to throw this box in the freezer for 12 hours, pull the thing out, and discover it's still happily ticking along, cold, but functional.


Here's what the first freezer test showed. The logger worked! The temperature coming off the BMP085 pressure sensor is very accurate. You can see that the freezer takes a around 15 minutes to start to drop the internal box temperature from ambient (~25C) to 0C in 35 minutes! The freezer hits the end of its first cycle around 60 minutes when the box temp pops up a bit, then the freezer kicks on again and starts to drive us all the way down to -18C and holds there. Obviously the box is not sealed, but if this payload is going to 100,000 ft, the enclosure is not going to be able to maintain the starting temperature on the ground and things are going to get REALLY cold. Electronics really do work down at -20C (the test Arduino and OpenLog were still blinking after six hours!). But -50C can be a major problem for batteries, so let's heat the inside of the box...

Heater System

Electronics will operate in cold conditions, but the outside temperatures can dip to negative 50 Celsius at 100,000 ft up. The enclosure will help protect them a bit, but batteries tend to lose their potential (voltage) and things just generally go bad. I don't need a comfy 20C (70F) in the box, I just need the internals of the box to stay at or near freezing. The batteries and electronics should be quite happy at 0C. So I set off to design a heater system to help generate just a little bit of heat during the flight.


We discussed the load controller in the Emergency Cut-Down segment of the The Balloon, Enclosure, Helium, and Cut-Down tutorial.

I limited myself to a single 2000mAh battery. Assuming the payload would be in the air for 5 hours, this allowed me to source 2000 / 5 = 400mA for heat. 3.7V @ 400mA is (3.7 * 0.4 = 1.48W) nearly 1.5 watts of power! That's not a bad little heater. All I had to do was find a power resistor that could handle that much current and heat. Never forget Ohm's law: V = I * R. Looking for the resistance, 3.7V / 0.4 = 9.25Ohm. Cool. I ordered a couple different 2W power resistors off Digikey (part numbers 13W-2-ND and 7.5W-2-ND). Attaching the 13 Ohm to a LiPo battery, it did indeed heat up. The 7.5 Ohm resistor heated up just past the point of me being able to touch the resistor (hot!) so I went with it. Select the resistor as you see fit.


Here you can see the power resistor attached to the load controller (schematic, eagle files, firmware), inside the box with some metallic tape running around the edge. The load controller has a LM335A temperature sensor on board and the firmware was designed to cycle the relay (turn on/off the heater) to try to maintain a balmy 0C inside the enclosure. There is also the BMP085 pressure sensor (I was using it for temperature only at this point), an Arduino, and an OpenLog to log everything (temp and milliseconds passed).


The resistor is free floating in the picture, but during testing, the resistor was taped down firmly with metallic tape. This allowed for good thermal conduction from the resistor to the tape, and then around the inside of the box. This worked very well to heat the inside of the box. The problem with metallic tape however is that it's conductive! So be sure to watch the bottom side of your PCBs and electronics - if they touch the tape they could short out.

I threw in some freshly charged batteries, sealed everything up and threw it back into the cold corner of the freezer.


Here we can see the heater actually took the inside of the box up over ambient. The heater did work! It staved off cold death for about 200 minutes (3.3 hours) before it looks like the battery kicked the bucket and the freezer started really doing its job. We can see the same slope at 217 minutes as the box crosses the 0C mark and approaches the static temperature of around negative 15C.

So what does this show us? While this was a good exercise, it wasn't productive for me to test at this point. In the end, testing with the full setup, I discovered that the XTend radio heats up like a light bulb - very toasty! It turns out I didn't need a heater at all! A microcontroller is designed to be very low power, but a radio can get very warm. In future launches I will probably use a different radio that could be potentially much lower heat output, so I will need to retest. If you're doing your own launch, be sure to run a number of test with the full system operating from the freezer to make sure you see how the enclosure interacts with the heat coming off the different sub-systems. If you are at all in doubt, I would recommend a heater but it does add a layer of complexity and weight.

Next page - Weights, Measures, and Costs

Comments 14 comments

  • Hi, great blog, thanks. I’m learning electronics from the ground up so please bear with me!

    Is there any significant advantage to using the load controller rather than a simple temperature sensor, (in my case, a TMP36)? I have been testing a heat pad powered separately and controlled via a relay from the Arduino. This switches the heat pad on and off depending on the internal temperature of the box. I like the idea of the resistor as a heater so will be testing that too. Additionally, should I use a thicker, stranded wire to connect the resistor to the battery?

    Be interested in your thoughts.

    Best wishes


    • Nate / last week / 1


      A TMP36 with a heat pad should work fine. The load controller was handy because it was soldered together rather than an Arduino with wires that could become disconnected.

      Google “wire thickness for different currents” and you’ll get lots of good tables. 22 gauge solid core wire will handle about 5A. If you’re pulling more than that you’re going to have a very toasty box :)

      • Appreciate the reply Nate; thanks for the pointer on wire thickness too. As an aside (it may be useful for someone), when the USB cable was powering things, I got a small voltage drop on the TMP36 when the relay coil energised. To test things, I was asking the Arduino to switch the heat pad on when the TMP36 reported >22 degrees (so I could test it on the kitchen table with my finger as the heat source). The voltage drop caused the calculated temp to drop under 22 degrees and the relay switched the heat pad off. This cycle continued until the increase in temperature was great enough to be above the 22 degrees even when the voltage dropped.

        I tried capacitors to no avail then had the bright idea of using the battery (which is how things will be powered in flight) and it worked fine…no voltage drop so no yo-yoing of the temperature. I then plugged the USB cable back in (leaving the battery attached) so I could see what was going on via the serial monitor and that worked fine too.

        Best wishes


  • One other problem with in-box heaters is that when you need them the most, the ambient air pressure is too low to allow for convective heat transfer. My team recently launched a HAB to 20 miles, and nothing seemed to mind the cold except possibly the still camera. Next time, we will use a chemical handwarmer pressed against the camera to heat it by conduction.

  • Should have used a thermocoupler (awsome little things they are.

  • another thought: use supercaps to power the thing as these will work at any temp. the best way is probably to use a 2.5v caps in parallel and a 5v step up regulator. the main problem is you need LOTS and they are expensive.

  • cutting Styrofoam is easy with a home made hot wire cutter. go to the silicon chip website and buy the dec 2010 issue. they tell you how to make one cheaply.

  • double or triple the wall thickness of your insulation? 2" bead board is only about R-10 rated, try for R-34. Air-tight seal the box. Double-window (storm-window) the camera window and apply a finned heat-sink to the warmest item in the box to better extract and distribute the warmth -or maybe a tiny fan in place of the sink.

    • Problem with sealing the box is the pressure change might make your box explode as it rises

    • thats a great idea but i would look for other foam boards that are a higher r value. i know of one that has a wicked high r value but i forget the name i would contact local lumber yards for help on that.

  • Did you consider using a chemical hand warmer as your heat source? It may have been a few grams heavier but I am pretty sure the vehicle could have tolerated the weight creep easily. Simple… reliable and easily scalable – just add more for more heat.

    • Certainly a good thought, however all chemical hand warmers that I know of need oxygen for the exothermic reaction. The higher the payload gets, the colder it becomes and - unfortunately - the less air there is.

      • A little late with the info, but maybe you can use it anyway. There is a a type of hand warmer that needs no oxygen. They are plastic pouches which contain a water and sodium acetate solution. You snap a small disk in the pouch, squeeze it around, and presto changeo you have heat. We used to use them motorcycling in cold weather. We had sizes from small for inside gloves, to large to zip inside your riding jacket across your belly. An example of these are at http://www.hotsnapz.com. I have no experience with this brand and am not specifically recommending them, but the concept is the same as the ones we used.

      • Shows what I know about chemical handwarmers. Ok, they need oxygen, got it. However, there’s quite abit of atmosphere between the ground and terminal altitude where they would work and that might be sufficient to the purpose.
        They could certainly be used to pre-condition the interior of the air vehicle.
        It might be worth while to slap a thermo-couple on one as an experiment. I’m certainly curious as to whether the reaction could be sustained to provide sufficient heat at altitude.