AMR 101: The history and evolution of metering technology
Industry participants and those who would like to become involved with the automatic meter reading industry often ask the Automatic Meter Reading Association (AMRA) to explain emerging metering technologies.
Complying with their requests requires a discussion about data and hardware and also about how that data travels between the end-user and the entity that collects the information. Specifically, advanced metering technologies encompass devices, gateways, intermediate communications networks, backbone networks, head-end devices and legacy integration.
Do future trends favour automatic meter reading?
Although only 3.5% of meters in North America, and fewer than 1% in Europe, have AMR devices attached, numbers are increasing steadily and extensive trials in both areas are ongoing. Probably one of the most compelling reasons for the move towards AMR is the increasingly competitive, deregulated environment in which utilities operate today. "The factors that are propelling the trend are new, lower cost technologies, a need to reduce costs under performance-based regulation and the need to provide a richer array of service options to customers," comments Ralph Abbott of Plexus. Virgil Weed of Equimeter agrees. "As the energy businesses get more competitive, they will need to be able to communicate with the customer's location more frequently. The current trend of visiting the customer location once every five weeks or more will not suffice." Another benefit is mentioned by Daniel Pouliot of Nertec. "The technology must be totally remote to provide customers with at least flexible billing options (for example billing on a requested date or consolidated billing)." Of the three most common methods of collecting data from meters, AMR is undoubtedly the most expensive. Of course, the possibility of human error on the part of a meter reader has been eliminated, as have access problems. And the disadvantages associated with prepayment (customer dissatisfaction when credit runs out, or when tokens are difficult to obtain) no longer apply. "Although remote data collection requires a greater initial capital outlay, it results in a far more reliable and automated method of data collection and the payback period is relatively short," notes Martin Grossman of Jekyll Electronic Technology.
The impact of new technologies on the meter test industry
Metering International asked Lyndon Harfoot of MTE (Meter Test Equipment AG) in Zug, Switzerland; Charles S Weimer of WECO (Watthour Engineering Co Inc), Jackson, MS, USA; Joseph A Martin of Scientific Columbus Co in Dublin, OH, USA; and Graeme Mellis of Power Meter Technics CC, Gauteng, South Africa, to discuss these and other matters relating to metering accuracy. We are grateful to them for their input.
Metamorphosis in metering
The application of electronics to the process of electricity metrology has removed the restriction of only being able to measure kWh. Now all electrical variables can be measured with greatly improved accuracy. This in itself is a significant change, particularly for the utility's commercial and operational engineers. As in all rapid technological changes, however, management has been slow to exploit the benefits the new technology affords.
Measuring water consumption simplified with automatic meter reading systems
Charging by metered use is common throughout the western world, with the notable exception of the United Kingdom. Even in the UK, however, the benefits of measuring the consumption of water are increasingly being acknowledged.
Water utilities around the world are moving towards deregulation and privatisation, as are electricity utilities. In both cases the value of metering as a management tool in a commercially motivated industry is universally accepted. Metering systems can be used to monitor trends, extremes and general demand criteria. This information, together with the assessment of local or regional factors, can be used to assist in the optimisation of current plans and for the enhancement of future network management. When demand is reduced and wastage and losses are easily identified and controlled, the result is a reduction in source, storage, process and pumping costs. A further benefit is that sensitivity to cost encourages the availability of water-efficient consumer products. This in turn leads to savings in existing plant costs, and even the deferment or cancellation of new works. The need for increased storage in some areas can be contained, and reduced waste leading to lower pumping and processing costs could also apply. If demand is to be stimulated or moderated by price, tariff or penalty, consumers must have the freedom to choose, or at least have some control over, the circumstances in which a commodity is purchased. The `fair society' philosophy implies payment for consumption, and a choice of supplier. In order to be the supplier of choice, water utilities need to contain costs and offer improved customer service. Evidence from the USA and Europe indicates that a saving in customer support resources can be realised when an automatic meter reading system is installed. Water companies face the same problems as their electric counterparts when it comes to reading meters. Employing meter readers to visit sites and manually record meter readings is time-consuming (especially if access is a problem) and prone to human error in logging data, both at the meter site and when entering the information later into the billing computer. The move from manual reading to hand-held electronic reading, and ultimately to radio- or telephone-based systems, already a common feature in the electricity industry, is being made by more and more water utilities too. Although a substantial capital outlay is required in terms of meters, reading systems and installation, the technology is being developed at such a rate that cost effective approaches have improved viability, particularly in the areas of integrated systems and automation.