ADV1: Using timers to execute code asynchronously

It is advised to use timers that periodically execute a function to handle repeating tasks. Hardware timers work parallel to the CPU and consume few CPU resources. ESP32-S3 has 4 hardware timers, but each timer can execute multiple handlers. You can think about these handlers as they are interrupted handling functions, but instead of externally triggered interrupts, those are initiated internally by the hardware timer.
The idea of using the timer is to encapsulate a piece of compact code that can be run virtually asynchronously and executed is a precisely-defined time manner. In this scenario, we use a timer to update the LCD screen periodically. We choose a dummy example where Timer 1 is used to increment a value of the byte type, and Timer 2 reads this value and writes it on the LCD. Naturally, a collision may occur whenever two processes are to access a single memory block (variable). It is critical when both processes (tasks, asynchronous functions) are writing to it. However, in our example, the handler executed by Timer 1 only writes to the variable, while Timer 2 only reads from it. In this scenario, there is no need to use mutexes (semaphores). A scenario with a detailed description of when to use mutexes is beyond the scope of this example.


To implement this scenario, it is necessary to get familiar with at least one of the following scenarios first:

A standard LCD handling library is attached to the platformio.ini, and it is the only library needed. Timers are integrated into the Arduino framework for ESP32.

lib_deps = adafruit/Adafruit LiquidCrystal@^2.0.2 

Suggested Readings and Knowledge Resources

Hands-on Lab Scenario

Task to be implemented

Present on the LCD current value of the byte variable; update the LCD every 3 seconds using a timer. Use another timer to increase this variable every 1 second.


Check LCD visibility in the camera FOV. You may also disable LED if it interferes with the camera video stream, as described in the scenario EMB9A: Use of RGB LEDs.


We used to separate tasks, but for this case, complete code is provided in chunks, including LCD handling. It presents relations on where particular parts of the code should be located when using timers and how timing relates between components.

It is important, e.g. when LCD had to be set up and configured before asynchronous handlers execute writing to it, so set up order is meaningful!

Step 1

Include libraries:

#include <Arduino.h>
#include <Adafruit_LiquidCrystal.h>

Step 2

Define LCD configuration pins (see details and explanation in the scenario: EMB5: Using LCD Display):

#define LCD_RS 2
#define LCD_ENABLE 1
#define LCD_D4 39
#define LCD_D5 40
#define LCD_D6 41
#define LCD_D7 42

Step 3

Declare variables and classes (timers):

volatile byte i = 0;
hw_timer_t *Timer1 = NULL;
hw_timer_t *Timer2 = NULL;
static Adafruit_LiquidCrystal lcd(LCD_RS, LCD_ENABLE, LCD_D4, LCD_D5, LCD_D6, LCD_D7);

Above, we declare two separate timers: Timer1 and Timer2 as pointers. They are initialised later in the setup code.

Step 4

Declare constants that define how frequently timers will be calling handlers:

const int baseFrequency = 80; //MHz
const int interval1 = 1000000;  // Interval in microseconds = 1s
const int interval2 = 3000000;  // Interval in microseconds = 3s

The base frequency for the timers in ESP32 is 80 MHz. Each timer counts in microseconds, so we define 2 intervals: 1s (1000000us) for the counter increase and 3s (3000000us) for the LCD update routine.

Step 5

Declare and implement functions that are timer handles: timer calls the bound function every execution period:

void IRAM_ATTR onTimer1() //handler for Timer1
void IRAM_ATTR onTimer2() //handler for Timer2
In no case should you use float variables when using asynchronous calls such as timer routines (handlers) and ISR (interrupt functions)! This is because of the limitation of the ESP32 where type float is hardware implemented in FPU: FPU cannot share its resources among cores, and timer routines may switch from one core to another during consecutive executions, so in that case, your application can hang and throw an exception. An exception won't be seen on the screen as you're remote, so you may notice only the laboratory node becoming unresponsive. This kind of error is usually tough to trace.
If you do need to use floating point calculations in ISR or timer functions, you can use double as this type is not hardware accelerated in ESP32s and is software implemented. Note, however, that there is a significant performance drop between float (faster) and double (slower) calculations.
Timer handlers are marked with IRAM_ATTR to be kept in RAM rather than flash. It is because of the performance. Interrupt and Timer functions should be kept as simple as possible. A watchdog exception can be thrown if more complex tasks are to be done and handler execution takes too long, particularly when the previous execution is not finished before the next one starts. This sort of problem may require fine-tuning the timer frequency and eventually changing the algorithm to set up only a flag in the handler that is later detected and handled in the loop() function.

Step 6

Configure timers, start LCD and enable timers. Note the correct order: LCD have to be ready when the timer calls LCD.write(…);:

void setup(){
  //Timer1 config
  Timer1 = timerBegin(0, baseFrequency, true);
  timerAttachInterrupt(Timer1, &onTimer1, true);
  timerAlarmWrite(Timer1, interval1, true);
  //Timer2 config
  Timer2 = timerBegin(1, baseFrequency, true);
  timerAttachInterrupt(Timer2, &onTimer2, true);
  timerAlarmWrite(Timer2, interval2, true);
  //start LCD
  //start both timers

In the code above, Timer1 = timerBegin(0, baseFrequency, true); creates a new timer bound to the hardware timer 0 (first, timers are zero-indexed). The last parameter causes the timer to count up (false counts down) internally, as every timer has its counter (here 64-bit).
Following, timerAttachInterrupt(Timer1, &onTimer1, true); attaches function onTimer1 (by its address, so we use & operator) to the Timer1 to be executed periodically.
Then we define how frequently the execution of the function above will occur: timerAlarmWrite(Timer1, interval1, true);. The last parameter causes the timer to reload after each execution automatically. Timers can also trigger an action only once (you need to set up the last parameter to false). In our example, we wish continuous work, so we use true.
Note that at this moment, timers are not executing the handlers yet; the last step is required: timerAlarmEnable(Timer1);. This step is separated from the other configuration steps because the LCD has to be initialised before timers can use the LCD.

Step 7

This way, a main loop is empty: everything runs asynchronously, thanks to the timers. As suggested above, when timer handlers require long or unpredictable execution time (e.g. external communication, waiting for the reply), handlers should set a flag that is read in the main loop to execute the appropriate task and then clear the flag.

void loop()

Result validation

On the LCD screen, you should see values starting from number 3, then 6, 9, 12 and so on (=3 every 3 seconds). Note, as byte has a capacity of 256 (0…255), the sequence changes in the following increments once it overflows.


How many timers can I use?: ESP32-S3 has 4 hardware timers. You may trick this limitation by using smart handlers that have, e.g., an internal counter and internally execute every N-th cycle. This helps to simulate more timers in a software way.

Project information

This Intellectual Output was implemented under the Erasmus+ KA2.
Project IOT-OPEN.EU Reloaded – Education-based strengthening of the European universities, companies and labour force in the global IoT market.
Project number: 2022-1-PL01-KA220-HED-000085090.

Erasmus+ Disclaimer
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This publication reflects the views of only the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Copyright Notice
This content was created by the IOT-OPEN.EU Reloaded consortium, 2022,2024.
The content is Copyrighted and distributed under CC BY-NC Creative Commons Licence, free for Non-Commercial use.

en/iot-open/practical/hardware/sut/esp32/adv1_1.txt · Last modified: 2024/03/26 08:46 by pczekalski
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