ESP8266 MicroPython Simple MQTT Client

I’ve got my second voltage monitoring ESP8266 up and running. Power comes from my lead-acid battery array stepped down with a DC buck converter, and data communication is over WiFi. I could work with MicroPython over WiFi using WebREPL, where I confirmed I can obtain a value from ESP8266 ADC. Next step: report that ADC value via MQTT.

The instance of Mosquitto MQTT broker I’ve got running in a docker container is password restricted, so I called docker exec on my running Mosquitto container to obtain a command line inside the container, and from there run mosquitto_passwd tool to create a username and a password for this ESP8266.

Then I have to figure out how to make use of that new name and password. I had assumed there would be a MQTT client library for MicroPython and I was correct. In fact, there were several! One of my top web search results went to a page on Random Nerd Tutorials, which used That probably would have worked, but it hasn’t been updated in three years so I looked for something more recent. Continuing my search, I found a MQTT page on documentation for the mPython board. It’s not the hardware I’m using but from that page I learned MicroPython developers maintain a GitHub repository micropython-lib for useful MicroPython code libraries outside of core MicroPython project. This collection of libraries included a simple MQTT client.

Running the MQTT publish example, an exception was raised when I called connect(). This is a minimalist library so the MQTTException class was equally minimal: only a value of 5 was returned as the error code. It’s not very descriptive but I had guessed it was because the example code didn’t include the username and password I had setup for this client. Putting those in eliminated exception 5, which is good, but now I’m looking at a different exception: 2. I have no further guesses and need to go online for research.

Finding the MQTT specification online, I went to the section describing return code values for MQTT connect. This table listed 5 as “not authorized” which makes sense for lack of username and password. But error 2 is “identifier rejected” which is a puzzle. Officially, the error condition is “The Client identifier is correct UTF-8 but not allowed by the Server” but my client identifier is a straightforward string. Trying a few different client identifier strings didn’t make a difference. Suspecting it’s a problem in my MQTT broker, I tried the Mosquitto public test server and got the same error. What’s going on?

The answer is a known bug in this simple MQTT library, filed as issue #445. Apparently a recent release of Mosquitto tightened up spec compliance requirements and this simple MQTT library does not conform. It has something to do with keepalive and specifying zero is no longer tolerated. Specifying a nonzero value allowed my connection to succeed without error, but I understand it is only a hack because I’m not actually doing any of the other work to actually keep alive at my specified interval. Since this particular project is going to report an ADC value and immediately go into deep sleep, it also means I would immediately disconnect from Mosquitto MQTT broker and disconnect from WiFi. So I don’t think I’ll get in trouble for lying with a keepalive interval, as long as I bail before my lie causes a problem.

But this little adventure with MQTTException reminded me of one advantage of using MicroPython: getting access to exception handling mechanisms!

Switching to ESP32 For Next Exercise

After deciding to move data processing off of the microcontroller, it would make sense to repeat my exercise with an even cheaper microcontroller. But there aren’t a lot of WiFi-capable microcontrollers cheaper than an ESP8266. So I looked at the associated decision to communicate via MQTT instead, because removing requirement for an InfluxDB client library meant opening up potential for other development platforms.

I thought it’d be interesting to step up to ESP8266’s big brother, the ESP32. I could still develop with the Arduino platform with an ESP32 but for the sake of practice I’m switching to Espressif’s ESP-IDF platform. There isn’t an InfluxDB client library for ESP-IDF, but it does have a MQTT library.

ESP32 has more than one ADC channel, and they are more flexible than the single channel on board the ESP8266. However, that is not a motivate at the moment as I don’t have an immediate use for that advantage. I thought it might be interesting to measure current as well as voltage. Unfortunately given how noisy my amateur circuits have proven to be, I doubt I could build a circuit that can pick up the tiny voltage drop across a shunt resistor. Best to delegate that to a dedicated module designed by people who know what they are doing.

One reason I wanted to use an ESP32 is actually the development board. My Wemos D1 Mini clone board used a voltage regulator I could not identify, so I powered it with a separate MP1584EN buck converter module. In contrast, the ESP32 board I have on hand has a regulator clearly marked as an AMS1117. The datasheet for AMS1117 indicated a maximum input voltage of 15V. Since I’m powering my voltage monitor with a lead-acid battery array that has a maximum voltage of 14.4V, in theory I could connect it directly to the voltage input pin on this module.

In practice, connecting ~13V to this dev board gave me an audible pop, a visible spark, and a little cloud of smoke. Uh-oh. I disconnected power and took a closer look. The regulator now has a small crack in its case, surrounded by shiny plastic that had briefly turned liquid and re-solidified. I guess this particular regulator is not genuine AMS1117. It probably works fine converting 5V to 3.3V, but it definitely did not handle a maximum of 15V like real AMS1117 chips are expected to do.

Fortunately, ESP32 development boards are cheap, counterfeit regulators and all. So I chalked this up to lesson learned and pulled another board out of my stockpile. This time voltage regulation is handled by an external MP1584EN buck converter. I still want to play with an ESP32 for its digital output pins.

Move Calculation Off Microcontroller to Node-RED

After I added MQTT for distributing data, I wanted to change how calculations were done. Using a microcontroller to read a voltage requires doing math somewhere along the line. The ADC (analog-to-digital) peripheral on a microcontroller will return an integer value suitable for hardware registers, and we have to convert that to a floating-point voltage value that makes sense to me. In my first draft ESP8266 voltage measurement node, getting this conversion right was an iterative process:

  • Take an ADC reading and convert to voltage using a conversion multiplier.
  • Comparing against voltage reading from my multimeter.
  • Calculate a better conversion factor.
  • Reflash ESP8266 with Arduino sketch that includes the new conversion factor.
  • Repeat.

The ESP8266 ADC is pretty noisy, with probable contributions from other things like temperature variations. So there was no single right conversion factor value, it varies through time. The best I can hope for is a pretty-close average tradeoff. While looking for that value, the loop of recalculating and uploading got to be pretty repetitious. I want to move that conversion work off of the Arduino so it can be more easily refined and updated.

One option is to move that work to the data consumption side. This means logging raw ADC values into InfluxDB and whoever queries that data is responsible for conversion. This preserves original unmodified measurement data allowing the consumers to be smart about dealing with jitter and such. I like that idea but not ready to dive into that sort of data analysis just yet.

To address both of these points, I pulled Node-RED into the mix. I’ve played with this flow computing tool earlier and I think my current project aligns well with the strengths of Node-RED. The voltage conversion process, specifically, is a type of data transformation people do so often in Node-RED that there is a standard node Range for this purpose. Performing voltage conversion in a Range node means I could fine-tune the conversion and update by clicking “Deploy” which is much less cumbersome than recompiling and uploading an Arduino sketch.

Node-RED also allows me to carry both the original and converted data through the flow. I use a Change node to save original ADC value to another property before using Range to convert ADC value to voltage. Now I have a Node-RED message with both original and converted data. Now I need to put that into the database, and I searched the public Node-RED library for “InfluxDB” and I decided to try node-red-contrib-stackhero-influxdb-v2 first since it explicitly supported version 2 of InfluxDB. I’m storing the raw ADC values now even though I’m not doing anything with it yet. The idea is to keep track so in the future I can explore voltage conversion on the data consumption side.

To test this new infrastructure design using MQTT and Node-RED, I’ll pull an ESP32 development board out of my pile of parts.

Here is my Node-RED function to package data in the format expected by node-red-contrib-stackhero-influxdb-v2 InfluxDB write node. Input data: msg.raw_ADC is the original ADC value, and msg.payload the voltage value converted by Range node:

var fields = {V: msg.payload, ADC: msg.raw_ADC};
var tags = {source: 'batt_monitor_02',location: 'lead_acid'};
var point = {measurement: 'voltage',
      tags: tags,
      fields: fields};
var root = {data: [point]};
msg.payload = root;
return msg;

My simple docker-compose.yml for running Node-RED:

version: "3.8"

    image: nodered/node-red:latest
    restart: unless-stopped
      - 1880:1880
      - ./data:/data

Routing Data Reports Through MQTT

Once a read-only Grafana dashboard was up and running, I had end-to-end data flow from voltage measurement to a graph of those measurements over time. This was a good first draft, from here I can pick and choose where to start refining the system. First thought: it was cool that an ESP8266 Arduino could log data straight to an InfluxDB2 server, but I don’t think that is the best way to go.

InfluxDB is a great database to track historical data, but sometimes I want just the most recent measurement. I don’t want to have to spin up a full InfluxDB client library and perform a query just to retrieve a single data point. That would be a ton of unnecessary overhead! Even worse, due to the overhead, not everything has an InfluxDB client library and I don’t want to be limited to the subset that does. And finally, tracking historical data is only one aspect of the system, at some point I want to take action based on data and measurements. InfluxDB doesn’t help at all for that.

To improve these fronts, I’m going to add a MQTT broker to my home network in the form of a docker container running Eclipse Mosquitto. MQTT is a simple publish/scribe system. The voltage measuring node I’ve built out of an ESP8266 is a publisher, and InfluxDB is a subscriber for that data. If I want the most recent measurement, I can subscribe to the same data source and see it at the same time InfluxDB does.

I’ve read the Hackaday MQTT primer, and I understand it is a popular tool for these types of projects. It’s been on my to-do list ever since and this is the test project for playing with it. Putting MQTT into this system lets me start small with a single publisher and a single subscriber. If I expand on this system, it is easy to add more to my home MQTT network.

As a popular and lightweight protocol, MQTT enjoys a large support ecosystem. While not everything has an InfluxDB client library, almost everything has a MQTT client library. Including ESP8266 Arduino, and InfluxDB in the form of a Telegraf plugin. But after looking over that page, I understand it is designed for direct consumption and has little (no?) options for data transformation. This is where Node-RED enters the discussion.

My simple docker-compose.yml for running Mosquitto:

version: "3.8"

    image: eclipse-mosquitto:latest
    restart: unless-stopped
      - 1883:1883
      - 9001:9001
      - ./config:/mosquitto/config
      - ./data:/mosquitto/data
      - ./log:/mosquitto/log