Public Lab Wiki documentation

Bucket Monitor

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The “bucket” is a low-cost, community-friendly air sampler that helps people measure toxic chemicals such as benzene and hydrogen sulfide in their air. Developed in the late 1990s, it was one of the first (if not the very first) do-it-together environmental monitors. Communities living near oil refineries and petrochemical plants gathered to build their own buckets. They established phone trees to make sure that, when noxious fumes enveloped their neighborhood, someone would take a sample.

Shannon Dosemagen and Gwen Ottinger, “Updating and Open Sourcing a Community Based Tool”


We believe the bucket is a critical part of the air quality toolkit. Over the next eight months we will be collecting documentation to create an open source, digitized manual and kit for the bucket monitor. We will be documenting bucket brigades as an organizing model, highlighting cases where groups have used buckets successfully to make change. We will be putting an open source version of the bucket in the Public Lab store and sharing design documents and part lists for anyone who wants to source materials and build it themselves.

Lastly, through our OpenHour calls, Q&A, and this project page, we will create a space for bucket users — past, present, and future — to connect with each other and share knowledge and best practices about this tool.

How it Works

How do I build one? The bucket is a “grab sample” tool that you can build using parts from your local hardware store. The original version used a Home Depot bucket, a Tedlar bag, a small vacuum, and a simple valve. There have been different versions over the years but they all work the same way:

Bucket diagram sketch

  • The vacuum sucks air out of the bucket.
  • The valve is opened and a sample of the air is pulled into the Tedlar bag
  • The bag is removed and sent to a lab for analysis.

Image courtesy of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), which published the original bucket brigade manual in 1999 and was one of the earliest groups to use this tool. Click here to read the full manual, reposted with permission:


What does the bucket test for?

Buckets test for chemicals (gases) in the air, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulfur compounds: for instance, hydrogen sulfide, perchloroethylene, vinyl chloride, toluene, and benzene. They cannot be used to test particulate matter (PM), heavy metals, soot, dust, or solids.

What is a bucket brigade? A group of people who are “on deck” to take an air sample in case of a suspected pollution event. The original bucket brigades used “sniffers” and “samplers” and envisioned a network of buckets supported by smell logs and complaint forms.

Project History

The bucket brigade model was developed by Denny Larson, by organizers at Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Communities for a Better Environment, and by Global Community Monitor, which stewarded the bucket project from 2001-2016 and until recently was the primary repository for this information.

Over the course of its fifteen year history, GCM worked with over 40 organizations worldwide to train people on the bucket brigade organizing model. Organizations that have successfully used buckets include:

More resources and groups who have experience with the Bucket:

Is Public Lab creating a bucket brigade? No. We are collecting documentation and best practices for how the bucket has been used in successful campaigns. If you are starting a bucket brigade and want to learn from past models, we hope this will be a useful resource in helping you get started.

Who is Involved?

This project is a collaboration between Public Lab and the Fair Tech Collective at Drexel University, and is funded by a grant from the 11th Hour Foundation. We are indebted to the work of Global Community Monitor, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Communities for a Better Environment, and self-organizing and regional bucket brigades around the world and are largely working within the frame that they have created, including decades of work building buckets, refining their design, and developing a model for integrating buckets into organizing.

If you have questions about this project, please email Katie Gradowski, Community Tech Fellow for Public Lab and Fair Tech Collective. You can connect with her on Public Lab at @kgradow1 or by email.

What are we working on now

  • May - June 2020: Research and development. Over the next two months, we will be conducting field interviews, connecting with users, posting initial documentation for the bucket manual and posting content online in the form of questions and activities.  We hope to run at least one OpenHour event focused on bucket monitoring.

  • July-August 2020: Kit development, lab testing, and organizing methodologies. Over the summer we will be working to document a “train the trainers” model, sourcing material for an initial version of the Public Lab kit, and researching affordable options for lab testing for groups who need support in getting their samples tested.

  • September - November 2020: Let’s test it out! Fall is for conducting field tests and finalizing documentation. Our hope is to partner with local groups who want to test this tool and provide feedback. If you’re interested in participating in this stage, email Katie or check this page for updates.

Project Outline

This project consists of four parts:

  • Open Source Bucket Manual: We will be creating a version of the bucket manual that can be easily accessed online, as well as a run of hard copies for distribution. This documentation will be open source and posted on the Public Lab website under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license (CC-SY)

  • Bucket Kit and Supporting Activities: We will be hosting a version of the bucket kit in the Public Lab Store and creating a set of activities and notes that describe both the technical setup and steps for how you can use the bucket to support action-based outcomes.

  • Documenting Network Models and Organizing Strategies: Bucket brigades operate on a “train the trainer” model, sharing tasks and activating community members to respond quicky in a moment of crisis. How does this work in practice? How have different places adapted the bucket brigade to fit the needs of their community? How can we best support each other, in learning from diverse approaches, celebrating successful outcomes, and identifying best practices? We will identify the current landscape of bucket brigades and identify possibilities for a future distributed support network.

  • Building out the Lab Network: Lab analysis is the most expensive step, and finding a lab that can run gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis for bucket samples can be a formidable challenge. As part of this project, we will research and identify potential lab partners for analyzing bucket samples.


Purpose Category Status Author Time Difficulty Replications
Smells that Kill: How to Identify Odours - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to Keep a Pollution Log - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to Build a Bucket Air Monitor - - @kgradow1 - - 1 replications: Try it »
How to Take an Air Quality Sample with a Bucket Monitor - - @A_SCH - - 0 replications: Try it »
Comparing air quality databases: a fun activity - - @bhamster - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to host a community meeting - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
Compare environmental test results to health standards - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to Set Up a Bucket Brigade - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to Use Your Bucket Data - - @A_SCH - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read an Environmental Impact Statement - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
A First Look at Technical Documents - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read a Permit Application - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read Environmental Test Results - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »

Activities should include a materials list, costs and a step-by-step guide to construction with photos. Learn what makes a good activity here.


Title Author Updated Likes Comments
Does keeping a bucket sample cold extend the time you have to get it to a lab for testing? @stevie over 2 years ago 1
Troubleshooting the Bucket Monitor @sarasage almost 3 years ago 3
Question about grab samples from the Bucket monitor tool: Which ones do I order? @amocorro about 3 years ago 3
Where can I get Hilton Kelly bucktes? @Stevenlee over 3 years ago 4
For the Bucket Monitor, how many tedlar bags do you need per-sampling? @mimiss almost 4 years ago 2
What diagnostic tools do you use when air sampling? @kgradow1 almost 4 years ago 1
How do you account for wind in an air study? @kgradow1 about 4 years ago 2
Updated list of EPA TO methods? @kgradow1 about 4 years ago 1
Do we need instrumentation-grade steel for an air intake valve? @kgradow1 about 4 years ago 3
Can we add a 2um filter to the bucket monitor to capture particulates? @kgradow1 about 4 years ago 3
Have you used the bucket air sampler or other grab sample tool? @kgradow1 about 4 years ago 11
Where do you send air grab samples to for testing? @stevie over 6 years ago 3
Are there groups who are currently, or have recently, used the Bucket for air sampling? @stevie over 6 years ago 0
How do I choose between different types of air canisters for grab sampling? @stevie over 6 years ago 0
When is it better to do grab sampling versus other types of monitoring? @stevie over 6 years ago 2
Where can you purchase a bucket for air grab sampling? @stevie over 6 years ago 5
What methods are available for doing air grab samples for hydrogen sulfide? @stevie over 6 years ago 2

Have you used the bucket?

If you have used buckets in your own work and want to be part of this project, please email Community Technology Fellow Katie Gradowski here. We view this as a living document and are eager to collaborate with past and present users.


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