New gas meter design lowers cost of construction


Cambridge, U.K. — (METERING.COM) — August 2, 2007 – Cambridge Consultants, a company that develops breakthrough products, creates and licenses intellectual property, and provides business consultancy in technology-critical issues for clients worldwide, is playing a key role in a project designed to improve the economics of the national Quantum gas prepayment scheme, which currently serves almost one in six gas users in the UK.

Cambridge Consultants has developed a new generation gas meter, to meet aggressive price/performance targets set by Quantum scheme operator Siemens Energy Services. The design substantially lowers the meter’s cost of construction, and incorporates many new features to simplify the back-office procedures associated with managing accounts. Together, these cost-saving measures could help to lower tariffs for the U.K.’s 2.3 million prepayment gas customers.

Commenting on the significance of the new design, Matt Hamblin of Siemens Energy Services said: "The rental costs of the smartcard-based gas meters used to manage the prepayment process represent over half of the total ‘cost to serve’ the consumer, and economies here have a big impact on the bottom line. A lot of the original prepayment meters are due for replacement in the next few years, and we commissioned this new meter design to allow the Quantum scheme to run more efficiently and cost-effectively."

The new meter, which is now in production, is called Q-Smart. Cambridge Consultants won the design contract on the strength of its ability to offer a complete range of electronic, software, power management, mechanical and industrial design skills, and for its extensive meter design know-how, which dates back to projects in the 1980s.

"The broad set of skills that we brought to bear on this project allowed us to rethink the design and make major reductions in build cost, while simultaneously improving performance," says Cambridge Consultants’ Martin Cooper, who led the product development. "We have eliminated parts, re-worked functions so that they can be performed by lower-cost components or software, and generally optimized the meter for high volume manufacture, in order to meet the project’s aggressive price/performance target."

Q-Smart reduces meter construction costs by around a third. Much of the cost reduction stems from the design of the meter’s electronic control circuitry, which is simpler than that used in existing Quantum meters. The circuitry has fewer components and requires only one major IC – a standard 16-bit microcontroller. This mounts on one low-cost single-sided PCB, replacing two used in other meters.

A lot of thought has also been applied to minimizing power consumption. The control software ensures that the control circuitry ‘sleeps’ for the vast majority of time. In conjunction with other power management techniques, this allows the new meter to operate for its entire life from a single cell, rather than two.

This circuitry manages the gas valve and flow meter – which is a conventional and low-cost bellows design – plus a man-machine interface with an LCD, pushbutton, and smartcard reader. The much-simplified meter design still meets the requirements of the ATEX explosive atmospheres standard, and includes powerful fail-safe features to protect the consumer.

The meter makes further contributions to cost reduction by eliminating common causes of service visits. Its reduced power consumption provides one major gain, as battery life now exceeds the target life of the meter itself – in excess of ten years – eliminating battery changes. Simpler mechanical construction has also eradicated some of the meter tamper faults that will currently close the valve and necessitate a service visit.

New facilities incorporated in the software eliminate further common causes of visits, such as a change in tenancy or gas supplier. Other new features include extensions in the command set that allow the Quantum processing centre to send messages to individual meters via the consumer’s smartcard. Among these is a ‘suspended disconnect’ facility that allows the energy supplier to postpone valve closure during holiday periods when it might be difficult to recharge the smartcard, or overnight when a service visit would be more expensive.