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The Apple-ization of Smart Sub-meters Helps Reduce Energy Costs

January 8, 2014 By Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan

What meter manufacturers have learned from pervasive consumer technology, and how it could benefit your business.

One of the quickest ways to raise the eyebrows of today’s smart-phone wielding generation is to show them a picture of earliest cell phones from the 1980s. It’s easy to forget that these brick-like devices were once the height of innovation, now that so many of us run our personal and professional lives from a piece of kit that is smaller than our hand.

But the pace of change and innovation that has characterized personal mobile technology has been notable in its absence from other areas – and metering energy consumption is one of them. If we look to the installed base of electricity meters across the US, for example, much of the technology dates back to the era of phones shaped like a house brick.

It’s not that innovation has been absent from the industry. Far from it. Sub-meters, like phones, have gotten smart. There have been plenty of advances in the way that data about energy usage is gathered, cleansed, distributed and analyzed to help organizations identify their consumption levels and reduce them accordingly. There is far more opportunity for interaction with that data, and real-time monitoring than the first manufacturers of energy meters could have imagined.

But until now the drive for wider deployment of smart sub-meters has largely been absent. After all, the US has enjoyed decades of relatively low-cost energy, and in such an environment there is little incentive to reduce consumption. Standard meters have done a perfectly adequate job of measuring consumption for billing purposes and so they have remained in situ.

But that’s changing. Rising energy prices are a global phenomenon, and for many organizations they have become a profit-sapping budget line. Reducing energy consumption is a key way of controlling costs and maintaining profit margins in a difficult economic environment.

At the same time there are a number of state and federal directives on carbon emissions and energy consumption starting to emerge. Achieving compliance with these requirements generally requires a new system or method for energy management to be monitored effectively so that any improvements can be measured and verified.

In the light of these changes, it is becoming clear that the installed meter base is not up to the task. Too many organizations do not have the visibility needed to make useful evaluations about how, when and why they use energy in every part of their business and in every location. They have an overall figure – usually too high for comfort – but not the granularity that tells them why a store in Wilmington uses twice the power as an equivalent outlet in Wichita. Or that an unexpected dip in the South West division’s profits is caused by a new maintenance team in Albuquerque leaving the lights on all night.

Equally there is no way of knowing whether reduced power consumption in the Michigan office is due to an energy management program or the late onset of Fall and a delay in switching on the heating system.

Fortunately, the transformation from mechanical meter to smart sub-meter over the past 30 years has been accompanied by similar levels of innovation in meter design, installation and commissioning functions. Not only does the technology now exist to deliver this level of data and analysis to facilities managers, operations managers and heads of finance, it has never been easier to get such technology installed on-site.

So we see sub-meters that are highly modular. Like the old sub-meters they provide the information from individual circuits, so users can distinguish between power used by the chiller cabinet, and that used by the bakery oven for example. But, being modular, they can monitor up to 20 circuits from a single location. Such meters cut down on cabling requirements as there is only one device to connect, they save space and overcome the practical hurdles of retrofitting in cramped cupboard-like electrical rooms, and in a major rollout they can reduce installation time by up to half. For organizations with a geographically dispersed estate, that’s a pretty major saving.

But meters are also being designed with the end-user in mind. So they offer exactly the level of functionally needed for the task, but don’t require an advanced degree in engineering to install. Test pages on installation, for example, mean that electricians can tell if the meter is working or not at the time of installation – rather than running remote tests later on. They include phase indicators to make sure that the right electrical phase is connected, pulse test functions to check cabling is complete, and an ability to auto-diagnose whether the accompanying current transducers are installed correctly.

But again like the smart phone, the most profound change in metering technology over the past 30 years is that the real value derived from metering hardware, is that it houses incredibly sophisticated software. This software is the real game-changer.

So there are meters that contain data verification algorithms that improve the reliability of the data that they send out. If energy management programs are to be effective they must be based on accurate data that correctly reflects usage patterns. Too often in the past this information has been compromised. With the latest smart sub-meters, data analytics packages are fed only with cleansed, relevant and accurate information.

Equally, meter communications have been transformed in recent years. There is less and less need for proprietary communication protocols, as IP and related standards are included in meter design to make it much easier to interface with energy management software and building control solutions. The wide-scale use of IP also makes it straightforward to access usage information from a web-browser or to transfer data in standard file formats to specified file locations in the existing IT infrastructure.

In other words, innovations in metering technology make it easy to integrate the data analytics and management information they produce with existing business software. For energy or facilities managers trying to convince the CFO of the need for an upgrade, that can be a powerful argument.

It also provides a strong degree of future proofing. With the new innovative meters, upgrades are achieved by updates to firmware rather than replacing meters and changes can be handled remotely. Combine that with a modular design, and it’s possible for a store to be refitted or a building to undergo a change of use without re-installing the entire metering base. Instead, the relevant modules can be remotely commissioned or decommissioned to accommodate the new use.

So forget the idea that meters are a complex engineering challenge. That picture is as relevant to today’s market as the block-like phones of the 1980s. Smart sub-meter manufacturers have adopted the consumer technology playbook: get smart, get easy and stay innovative. It’s a win-win for them – and a win-win for their customers.

Richard Morgan is sales director for ND Metering Solutions.



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