How do Rain Sensors Work

How do Rain Sensors Work

The principles underpinning rain sensors are intriguing indeed

Often, when a weather forecast is provided, we are informed of a likelihood of rain - whether it be light rain turning into moderate rain, heavy rain, or even downpours. But what do these terms truly imply?

Drawing from the wisdom of Wikipedia, the definitions are as follows:

So, how do we quantify rainfall? According to meteorological terminology, 'rainfall' refers to the depth of rainwater that lands on a flat surface (with no loss due to seepage, evaporation, or runoff) within a specific timeframe. This is measured using a rain gauge, with readings typically taken in millimeters. Meteorological stations take measurements every six hours during periods of precipitation.

Now, let us delve into how rain gauges operate. Traditionally, there are two types: the siphon rain gauge and the tipping bucket rain gauge. However, with the advent of technology, we now see innovative varieties such as the infrared rain gauge and piezoelectric rain gauge emerging on the market.

The tipping bucket rain gauge

The tipping bucket rain gauge is a common instrument used to measure rainfall. This device typically consists of a receptacle at the top with a fixed surface area.

Rainwater collected in this receptacle flows through a funnel into a tipping bucket. The bucket is designed such that when the accumulated water reaches a certain level, its center of gravity shifts, causing it to lose balance and tip over. Each tip drains the water in the bucket, and this action triggers a magnet to pass over a Hall effect sensor, generating an impulse signal. By recording these signals, the device can keep track of rainfall levels. This process repeats itself, effectively documenting the entire rainfall event.

Such rain gauges are uncomplicated and convenient to use. Many weather enthusiasts have taken to constructing their own using 3D printers.

There are numerous advantages to the tipping bucket rain gauge:

  1. Accuracy: The design of the tipping bucket rain gauge allows for relatively precise rainfall measurements. As a fixed quantity of rainwater fills a bucket, it tips the bucket over, discharging the water while the alternate bucket starts collecting. Each tip can be precisely counted, enabling accurate rainfall measurements.
  2. Automation: This type of rain gauge can automatically log rainfall data, eliminating the need for manual monitoring or recording. This makes them ideal for use in adverse weather conditions or remote locations.
  3. Simplicity and Durability: The design and construction of tipping bucket rain gauges are relatively simple and robust, allowing them to operate under a variety of environmental conditions.

However, there are also disadvantages to the tipping bucket rain gauge:

  1. Precision issues: Although tipping bucket rain gauges can offer relatively accurate rainfall measurements, the precision may decrease if the intensity of the rain is very low, or in conditions such as snow or mixed precipitation.
  2. Mechanical failures: Since the operation of the tipping bucket rain gauge depends on the mechanical movement of the bucket, mechanical failures can occur. For example, the bucket may get jammed due to the accumulation of dirt or debris, or fail due to long-term wear and tear.
  3. Maintenance requirements: Tipping bucket rain gauges require regular cleaning and maintenance to ensure their accuracy and reliability. For instance, the accumulation of debris in the bucket can affect the accurate measurement of rainfall.

Siphon rain gauge

Siphon rain gauges are typically employed at professional meteorological stations. They are designed to continually record both the quantity of rainfall and its duration, providing insights into the intensity of the rain. This type of rain gauge primarily consists of four components: a rain collector, a float chamber, an automatic recording clock, and a protective casing.

As the rain commences, it enters the collector through the rain inlet at the top. The water then flows through a funnel into the float chamber. The chamber contains a float, which rises with the accumulating rainwater, simultaneously lifting a recording pen.

This recording pen is attached to a rotating drum, driven by an automatic clock. As the drum rotates, the pen delineates a curve on a piece of paper affixed to the drum. This curve represents the rainfall and its duration. Once the water reaches a certain level, say 10 millimeters, the water in the float chamber flows into a tube connected to the chamber. This triggers the siphon effect, rapidly draining the water from the chamber into a storage bottle. Simultaneously, the recording pen falls and starts recording the new rainfall quantity.

By examining the curve on the recording paper, we can discern various aspects of the rain, such as its onset and cessation, the volume of rainfall, and how its intensity varied over time.

Advantages of the siphon rain gauge include:

  1. Precision: The siphon rain gauge can provide highly accurate rainfall measurements, precise to the millimeter level.
  2. Capacity for high rainfall volumes: The siphon rain gauge has a large collection area and a siphon system capable of handling significant amounts of rainfall, ensuring its accuracy even during heavy rain.
  3. Versatility: The siphon rain gauge can measure not only rainfall but also snowfall and hail.

Disadvantages of the siphon rain gauge include:

  1. Regular maintenance required: The siphon rain gauge needs periodic cleaning and inspection to ensure its accuracy and reliability. If the siphon system gets blocked, it may affect accurate rainfall measurement.
  2. Large size: Siphon rain gauges are typically larger than other types of rain gauges, requiring more space for installation and use.
  3. Component wear: Parts of the siphon rain gauge may wear out over time due to prolonged use, especially the float drum and siphon system, necessitating periodic replacement.
  4. Potential temperature effects: Under extreme temperature conditions, such as severe cold, the performance of the siphon rain gauge may be affected, and rainfall measurements may be inaccurate.
  5. Not suitable for automated recording: The design of the siphon rain gauge makes it difficult to automate rainfall data recording, typically requiring manual reading and recording.

The Infrared Rain Gauge

In tandem with modern technological advancements, the demand for simpler, more convenient rain gauges has surged. At times, the mere knowledge of whether it's raining suffices, heralding the advent of optical rain gauges.

The infrared rain sensor embodies an ingenious device, exploiting the distinct characteristics of water, air, and glass in refracting light, alongside the formidable absorption capacity of water for infrared light, to measure rainfall. Within this sensor lies an infrared emitter, projecting infrared light onto a pane of glass. This light undergoes a phenomenon known as total internal reflection within the glass, subsequently captured by an infrared receiver.

The Infrared Rain Gauge1 The Infrared Rain Gauge2
The Infrared Rain Gauge3 The Infrared Rain Gauge4

However, this scenario alters as raindrops strike the glass, disrupting total internal reflection. Consequently, the intensity of the infrared light received by the receiver diminishes significantly. This fluctuation in intensity provides an understanding of the rainfall volume. Essentially, substantial changes in the received infrared light intensity denote heavy rainfall, while minor changes signify less rainfall, encapsulating the operational principle of an infrared rain sensor.

The most advantageous application of this rain gauge is in high-end automobiles, where the sensor autonomously controls the frequency of the windshield wipers, achieving intelligent rain removal.

Such a rain gauge product can also be procured from the DFRobot website:Intelligent Rain Detection Module

Merits of the infrared rain sensor include:

  1. Absence of moving parts: The infrared rain sensor lacks mechanical components, thereby being unlikely to malfunction due to wear or damage.
  2. Measurement precision: The infrared rain sensor can measure rainfall in real-time, as opposed to only after a certain amount has fallen, as in the case of a tipping bucket rain gauge.
  3. Ease of maintenance: Due to its simplistic design, the infrared rain sensor typically requires relatively minimal maintenance.
  4. Unattended operation: Being electronic, they facilitate remote monitoring and data transmission, proving highly suitable for use in harsh environments or remote areas.

Drawbacks of the infrared rain sensor include:

  1. Environmental sensitivity: Although the infrared rain sensor can provide accurate measurements, it may be affected by severe weather conditions, such as snow or ice covering the sensor, impacting its performance.
  2. Power requirement: In comparison to traditional rain gauges, the infrared rain sensor necessitates a power supply to function, potentially posing a problem in certain areas, particularly remote regions devoid of a stable power source.
  3. Cost: The infrared rain sensor is generally more expensive than traditional rain gauges, potentially limiting its usage in certain regions.
  4. Regular cleaning required: The operational principle of the infrared rain sensor mandates a clean surface. Thus, despite their relative ease of maintenance, they require regular cleaning to maintain accuracy.

The Piezoelectric Rain Gauge

The Piezoelectric Rain Gauge is a sophisticated tool, ingeniously utilizing the principle of momentum conservation for measurement, sans any moving parts. This device employs a piezoelectric transducer, translating mechanical motion, such as vibration, into electrical signals. As droplets descend upon the transducer, vibrations are generated, which are subsequently converted into electrical signals.

We can then discern the energy of the falling droplets based on the shape of these electrical signals, or voltage waveforms. Variations in the voltage waveform aid in the calculation of rainfall intensity. Given the constant velocity of droplets upon reaching the ground, influenced by their weight and air resistance, we can measure the impact force of the droplets using the law of conservation of momentum (P=mv, where P is momentum, m is mass, and v is speed), which in turn assists in calculating the weight of the droplets, and consequently, the precipitation.

Therefore, not only can the piezoelectric rain gauge assist in measuring the magnitude of rainfall, but it also enables us to understand the weight of each droplet, marking an exceptionally precise method of measurement.


  1. High precision: The piezoelectric rain gauge can accurately measure droplet size and rainfall speed, providing more accurate data on precipitation and rainfall intensity.
  2. Rapid response: Due to the immediacy of the piezoelectric effect, the piezoelectric rain gauge can monitor rainfall in real-time, responding swiftly to changes in precipitation.
  3. No moving parts: The piezoelectric rain gauge is devoid of mechanical moving components, thereby minimizing the likelihood of malfunctions due to wear or damage.


  1. Power requirement: The piezoelectric rain gauge requires a power source to function, potentially causing issues in certain regions, especially remote areas lacking a stable power supply.
  2. Environmental sensitivity: Although the piezoelectric rain gauge can provide precise measurements, it may be affected by adverse weather conditions, such as snow or ice potentially covering the sensor and impacting its performance.
  3. Cost: The piezoelectric rain gauge is typically more expensive than traditional rain gauges, potentially limiting its usage in certain regions.

Other rain gauge

In our quest to quantify precipitation, we are privy to a plethora of alternative methodologies. Among these, radar rainfall sensors and weight-based rainfall sensors stand out, each carving their own niche in various domains.


Equipped with these tools and techniques, we are capable of conducting precise measurements and logging rainfall data, thereby enhancing our weather forecasts with exactitude. Moreover, the widespread adoption and utilization of these instruments afford us a deeper insight into climate change, serving as our beacon for predicting and understanding future meteorological shifts.

Herein is a comparative analysis between infrared rain gauges, tipping bucket rain gauges, siphon rain gauges, and piezoelectric rain gauges, to better comprehend their respective merits, shortcomings, and applicable scenarios:

Infrared Rain Gauge Tipping Bucket Rain Gauge Siphon Rain Gauge Piezoelectric Rain Gauge
Precision High (real-time measurement) Medium (measures when water accumulation reaches a certain level) High (real-time measurement and logging of rainfall timing) High (real-time measurement, gauging based on pressure fluctuations)
Maintenance Minimal, but requires regular cleaning Minimal Considerable (includes replacing recording paper, etc.) Considerable (necessitates routine cleaning and calibration)
Durability High (no moving parts) Medium (tipping component may wear out) Medium (float and recording device may wear out) High (absence of moving components)
Power Requirement Yes No Yes Yes
Environmental Sensitivity High (adverse weather may impact performance) Low Low Moderate (could be influenced by snow or ice)
Cost High Low Medium High
Application Scenarios Urban meteorological monitoring, large-scale agriculture, remote areas, harsh environments Schools, small-scale farms, weather enthusiasts, educational demonstrations Professional meteorological stations, research requiring precise rainfall timing records Scenarios involving research and professional meteorological observation, necessitating precise quantification of raindrop dimension and velocity of precipitation.

For engineers, gaining knowledge of various methods of rainfall measurement facilitates a more profound understanding of sensor operation and the flexible application of these principles.