Building the hardware behind Tank Utility’s propane level monitoring system was no easy task. I’ll let the pendulum of media coverage — which seems to swing from encouraging to discouraging for hardware startups — make those arguments. The propane level monitoring device falls under a category of hardware devices that certainly has it’s share of buzzwords: Home Automation, Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices to name a few. However challenging creating this product has been, connecting computers to the physical world in order to solve big problems fuels our pursuit of perfection.
So, why is to so hard to build effective hardware? The answer is the physical device, comprised of mechanical and electronic components, must be:
- designed to safely and reliably endure environmental adversity
- physically manufactured and tested for quality
- sold, packaged and distributed
On top of building the ideal hardware behind Tank Utility’s propane level monitoring system, we had to make great software.
Early on in the monitoring system’s design phase, we were faced with crucial questions that had to be answered. The rest of this post will first focus on the critical design considerations of the product, and then delve into the nuts and bolts.
Installation and Configuration
I have suffered through a few IKEA projects. While it’s possible to build furniture with 25 ordered steps, that’s not my favorite way of spending a weekend afternoon. We know that people are buying this product to make their lives easier, so the installation should be easy and quick, taking a maximum of 2 minutes to complete.
It is very possible that procrastinators will be installing the monitor on their tank in the middle of the winter. Even using simple tools in freezing weather is miserable. Have you ever dropped a screwdriver in 3 feet of powdery snow? It’s not fun.
To prove it’s simple, here are the instructions for installation:
- Download the Tank Utility app on your cellphone or tablet.
- Configure the device with some easy prompts in the Tank Utility app.
- Click the sensor into the press-fit slot on your gauge.
Done. Wait … “Done” is not a step.
You don’t even need to run electricity to your tank. (More on this later.)
We’re currently focusing time on your ideal experience interacting with your new Smart tank. User-interfaces for electronics SHOULDN’T be confusing. For us, intuitive design is a top priority. We’ll provide insight into how we are exceeding expectations when we focus on software in Part 2 of the product intro.
I can’t tell you the propane level monitoring system’s price point just yet, but trust me: You’ll be curious how we were able to make a profit. Our goal is to help ALL propane consumers have visibility into their fuel levels, not just those that are willing to part with their hard-earned money.
So, how are we keeping the price down?
- We’re using pre-engineered printed circuit boards (PCBs) ideally suited for this application.
- We’re implementing some of the latest advances in 3-D printing to quickly refine the enclosure design.
- We’re relying on your existing WiFi network. You already have a WiFi network, right? If not, we’re also working on that.
Before we address the economics of global manufacturing, let’s remember that this is a totally new product which is creating jobs that didn’t previously exist. While we are fully committed to keeping critical jobs local – and our engineering and marketing team is here in the U.S. – I’d be surprised to find anyone who doesn’t own a single product that benefitted from global collaboration.
Reliability and Safety
We designed this device to get its power from standard-sized batteries for a number of reasons.
By having the propane level monitoring system run on batteries, the device is designed to be intrinsically safe. That’s nerd talk for “it won’t blow up.” Even though chances are slim, if we designed this device to be connected to an electrical outlet and lightning or a power surge entered the electrical supply, the device on your propane tank could ignite.
Consumers will also receive an alert when the batteries need to be replaced, which will rarely be the case because the device is in deep sleep mode most of the time, using very little power.
The device is also completely waterproof. Here’s a buried tank in Florida which was our inspiration for this design consideration.