ESP8266 Interrupts and Timers using Arduino IDE (NodeMCU)


In this guide, you’ll learn how to use interrupts and timers with the ESP8266 NodeMCU using Arduino IDE. Interrupts allow you to detect changes in the GPIO state without the need to constantly check its current value. With interrupts, when a change is detected, an event is triggered (a function is called).

Interrupts and Timers with ESP8266 using Arduino IDE (NodeMCU)

As an example, we’ll detect motion using a PIR motion sensor: when motion is detected, the ESP8266 starts a timer and turns an LED on for a predefined number of seconds. When the timer finishes counting down, the LED automatically turns off.

To create an interrupt, call attachInterrupt() and pass as arguments the GPIO interrupt pin, the ISR (funcion to be called) and mode. The ISR function must have the ICACHE_RAM_ATTR attribute declared. The mode can be CHANGE , RISING or FALLING .

Before proceeding with this tutorial you should have the ESP8266 add-on installed in your Arduino IDE. Follow this tutorial to Install ESP8266 in Arduino IDE, if you haven’t already.

Introducing ESP8266 Interrupts

Interrupts are useful for making things happen automatically in microcontroller programs and can help solve timing problems.

With interrupts you don’t need to constantly check the current pin value. When a change is detected, an event is triggered – a function is called. This function is called interrupt service routine (ISR).

When an interrupt happens, the processor stops the execution of the main program to execute a task, and then gets back to the main program as shown in the figure below.

Introducing to ESP8266 NodeMCU Interrupts: how it works

This is especially useful to trigger an action whenever motion is detected or whenever a pushbutton is pressed without the need to constantly check its state.

attachInterrupt() Function

To set an interrupt in the Arduino IDE, you use the attachInterrupt() function, that accepts as arguments: the GPIO interrupt pin, the name of the function to be executed, and mode:

GPIO interrupt pin

The first argument is a GPIO interrupt. You should use digitalPinToInterrupt(GPIO) to set the actual GPIO as an interrupt pin. For example, if you want to use GPIO 14 as an interrupt, use:

The ESP8266 supports interrupts in any GPIO, except GPIO16.

The second argument of the attachInterrupt() function is the name of the function that will be called every time the interrupt is triggered – the interrupt service routine (ISR).

The ISR function should be as simple as possible, so the processor gets back to the execution of the main program quickly.

The best approach is to signal the main code that the interrupt has happened by using a global variable and within the loop() check and clear that flag, and execute code.

ISRs need to have ICACHE_RAM_ATTR before the function definition to run the interrupt code in RAM.

Interrupt modes

The third argument is the mode and there are 3 different modes:

  • CHANGE: to trigger the interrupt whenever the pin changes value – for example from HIGH to LOW or LOW to HIGH;
  • FALLING: for when the pin goes from HIGH to LOW;
  • RISING: to trigger when the pin goes from LOW to HIGH.

For our example, will be using the RISING mode, because when the PIR motion sensor detects motion, the GPIO it is connected to goes from LOW to HIGH.

Introducing ESP8266 Timers

Introducing to ESP8266 NodeMCU Timers: how it works

For this tutorial, we’ll use timers. We want the LED to stay on for a predetermined number of seconds after motion is detected. Instead of using a delay() function that blocks your code and doesn’t allow you to do anything else for a determined number of seconds, we’ll use a timer.

delay() vs millis()

The delay() function accepts a single int number as an argument. This number represents the time in milliseconds the program has to wait until moving on to the next line of code.

When you call delay(1000) your program stops on that line for 1 second. delay() is a blocking function. Blocking functions prevent a program from doing anything else until that particular task is completed. If you need multiple tasks to occur at the same time, you cannot use delay() . For most projects you should avoid using delays and use timers instead.

Using a function called millis() you can return the number of milliseconds that have passed since the program first started.

Why is that function useful? Because by using some math, you can easily verify how much time has passed without blocking your code.

Blinking an LED using millis() (without delay)

If you’re not familiar with millis() function, we recommend reading this section. If you’re already familiar with timers, you can skip to the PIR motion sensor project.

The following snippet of code shows how you can use the millis() function to create a blink project. It turns an LED on for 1000 milliseconds, and then turns it off.

How the code works

Let’s take a closer look at this blink sketch that works without the delay() function (it uses the millis() function instead).

Basically, this code subtracts the previous recorded time ( previousMillis ) from the current time ( currentMillis ). If the remainder is greater than the interval (in this case, 1000 milliseconds), the program updates the previousMillis variable to the current time, and either turns the LED on or off.

Because this snippet is non-blocking, any code that’s located outside of that first if statement should work normally.

You should now be able to understand that you can add other tasks to your loop() function and your code will still be blinking the LED every one second.

You can upload this code to your ESP8266 to test it. The on-board LED should be blinking every second.

ESP8266 blinking on-board LED (attached to GPIO 2) using Millis

ESP8266 NodeMCU with PIR Motion Sensor

In this section, you’ll learn how to detect motion with a PIR motion sensor using interrupts and timers in your code.

Parts Required

Here’s a list of the parts required to complete this tutorial:

You can use the preceding links or go directly to to find all the parts for your projects at the best price!

Schematic Diagram

Assemble the PIR motion sensor and an LED to your ESP8266. We’ll connect the LED to GPIO 12 (D6) and the PIR motion sensor data pin to GPIO 14 (D5).

ESP8266 NodeMCU Interrupts and Timers with PIR Motion Sensor Schematic Circuit Diagram

Important: the Mini AM312 PIR Motion Sensor used in this project operates at 3.3V. However, if you’re using another PIR motion sensor like the HC-SR501, it operates at 5V. You can either modify it to operate at 3.3V or simply power it using the Vin pin.

The following figure shows the AM312 PIR motion sensor pinout.

AM312 PIR motion sensor pinout: GND, Data, 3.3V

After wiring the circuit as shown in the schematic diagram, copy the code provided to your Arduino IDE.

You can upload the code as it is, or you can modify the number of seconds the LED is lit after detecting motion. Simply change the timeSeconds variable with the number of seconds you want.

How the Code Works

Let’s take a look at the code.

Start by assigning two GPIO pins to the led and motionSensor variables.

Then, create variables that will allow you set a timer to turn the LED off after motion is detected.

The now variable holds the current time. The lastTrigger variable holds the time when the PIR sensor detects motion. The startTimer is a boolean variable that starts the timer when motion is detected.


In the setup() , start by initializing the serial port at 115200 baud rate.

Set the PIR Motion sensor as an INPUT_PULLUP .

To set the PIR sensor pin as an interrupt, use the attachInterrupt() function as described earlier.

The pin that will detect motion is GPIO 14 and it will call the function detectsMovement() on RISING mode.

The LED is an OUTPUT whose state starts at LOW .

The loop() function is constantly running over and over again. In every loop, the now variable is updated with the current time.

Nothing else is done in the loop() . But, when motion is detected, the detectsMovement() function is called because we’ve set an interrupt previously in the setup() .

The detectsMovement() function prints a message in the Serial Monitor, turns the LED on, sets the startTimer boolean variable to true and updates the lastTrigger variable with the current time.

After this step, the code goes back to the loop() . This time, the startTimer variable is true. So, when the time defined in seconds has passed (since motion was detected), the following if statement will be true.

The “Motion stopped…” message will be printed in the Serial Monitor, the LED is turned off, and the startTimer variable is set to false.


Upload the code to your ESP8266. Make sure you have the right board and COM port selected.

Open the Serial Monitor at a baud rate of 115200.

Arduino IDE Open Serial Monitor at baud rate 115200

Move your hand in front of the PIR sensor. The LED should turn on, and a message is printed in the Serial Monitor saying “MOTION DETECTED. ”. After 10 seconds the LED should turn off.

Interrupts and Timers with ESP8266 NodeMCU using Arduino IDE Demonstration

Wrapping Up

To sum up, interrupts are useful to detect a change in a GPIO state and instantly trigger a function. You’ve also learned that you should use timers to write non-blocking code.

We hope you’ve found this tutorial useful. We have other tutorials on how to handle interrupts using MicroPython and using ESP32: