Do future trends favour AMR?

This is the second instalment of our industry survey on automatic meter reading.

Communication systems

A wide variety of communication systems is available for automatic meter reading. Radio and telephone seem to be the most common systems in use, but polyphase meters have also been interfaced to CDPD, cellular, distribution line carrier and CEBus local carrier. In addition proprietary bulletin board systems the Internet and intranets are increasingly being used to support certain data intensive, large user applications.

Our panel obviously had widely differing views of what they regard as state-of-the-art communicating meters today. O'Brien's comment that there is no one `state-of-the art' communicating meter, because up to now there has been no clear indicator of which communication medium is preferred by utilities, was echoed by several panel members. It does seem, however, that water utilities are favouring radio-based systems, a situation confirmed by Archibald.

Gestler believes this is because water utilities prefer to operate their own stand-alone systems. "This is the reason that radio has far surpassed telephone systems even call-in phone systems which require no local telephone company involvement. It seems logical, and is even lower cost, to use call-in telephone for indoor set meters, as installed in cold climates. However, our experience is that this is not the case. The same can be said for joint utility sharing of an AMR system. Although offering obvious economic advantages, there is very little sharing evident to date."

Kercher holds that in the US market, a licensed frequency is a must. And Bottorff comments that battery powered meter units with 20 year life, hybrid systems combining radio and telephone technology and allowing a choice of one-way or two-way communications, depending on the user's needs, are the state-of-the-art.

"Given that almost anything is technically possible, we need to establish where the confluence of cost and technology that presents the most appealing solutions at this time exists," says Abbott. "There are some very attractive emerging, low cost two-way radio products entering the market in 1997. Most use spread spectrum technologies. Power line (mains) communications is achieving renewed attention.

"We believe that two-way paging products are very promising now, with further advances on the horizon. Embedded Personal Communications Services (PCS) radio applications are a bit further out on the cost scale, but should become more attractive. Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) technologies will provide more bandwidth on telephone twisted pair. Satellite technologies, now justified for some high value remote applications, will become more widespread as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations of satellites find their place in orbit in the next few years."

Goodman is of the opinion that most utilities will require AMR systems which support multiple communications options. And a combination of communication technologies is favoured by Weed, who believes that the state-of-the-art in meter communications is a hybrid fixed network system that utilises direct sequence spread spectrum technology (preferably in a licensed band) in conjunction with a telephone based system. "The radio based units would be utilised in densely populated areas and the telephone system would be utilised in dead areas and lower density areas."

Although acknowledging that competing communications technologies for AMR each have their own advantages, depending on local circumstances and commercial priorities and constraints, Wilkinson favours the telephone network via a modem in the meter. "This offers a meter operator/utility a solution that can be implemented with the least set-up cost and with the least logistical problems. Telephone AMR with the right kind of modem also involves a low annual operating cost. The telephone network in developed countries is extensive, reliable and calls are cheap and getting cheaper. Various modem designs can share an existing telephone line to a metered premises without disrupting the subscriber's use of the phone. This technology obviously eliminates the single largest installation and annual running cost of AMR."

Looking to the future

Kercher sums up his view of the future in one succinct sentence: "The meter function will no longer be necessary." Fitzsimons suggests that highly integrated, two chip, combined meter and RF communicating devices offering two-way communication to every meter, with a variety of services being provided and utilised, will be the preferred system in the next decade.

Haynes sees a range of technologies converging to produce the automated building. "I believe that two different solutions will be offered, a truly state-of-the-art solution requiring special cabling, and therefore limited to new construction and extensive refurbishment, and a more practical system delivering integrated building automation services using conventional wiring systems in older buildings."

Then there's the use of digital wireless equipment, i.e. stripped down cellphones, a solution favoured by Mahoney. Fund suggests that in the very near future cable will take on an added role, and certainly wireless communications via the Net, because telephone is being inundated and radio bands are `loaded' at present.

A strong reason for the continued popularity of hybrid fixed network systems was voiced by Weed. He believes the radio will have to be two-way licensed band, because as more people get cellular communication devices (phones, pagers, modems etc) there will be too much interference to use unlicensed bands. Tele-phone devices (two-way) will still be needed to get the readings in dead areas.

The wider availability of ISDN and fibre optic cable and their connection to meters should make AMR an increasingly economic proposition, according to Wilkinson. Richmond feels that somewhere between a quarter and a half of US meters will be automated in the next decade a considerable increase on the present count of less than 5%.

What are the factors that will drive utilities to incorporate communication in their meters? The obvious ones are to cut costs, to reduce fraud, and to produce revenue by providing a service to customers and to others who want to communicate with those customers. The ability to provide enhanced customer services at a competitive price will be a key factor in retaining existing customers and winning new ones in deregulated markets.

Utilities will be driven by a range of other factors, depending on the environment in which they do business. Haynes includes among them the need to identify inefficiencies such as cable faults, meter faults and line leakage.

Once again a distinction is made between water and electricity utilities. Water costs are increasing at a much higher rate, due to clean water regulations and scarcity of supply, and Gestler feels the resulting peak rate billing or limits on consumption will require AMR capability. And Archibald sees a future where meter reading may be done by independent companies, who will want to use technology to reduce costs and improve profits.

From Abbott's point of view the single most important factor now, as it has always been, is the issue of cost versus value. The cost of incorporating communications is coming down while the value is going up. The desire of utilities to provide added revenue services which `ride' on the AMR system will not diminish.

Weed reminds us that some gas utilities can charge transport customers the cost of providing the service, and insist that these customers have an AMR device on their meter. Since the customer is paying for the device, the AMR system becomes easy to justify, both for industrial and residential markets. However, as utilities merge and form energy companies, they will be able to use one system to read and control multiple meters, which will dramatically reduce the cost of establishing the AMR system.

He also believes that customer demand will drive AMR in future. "Today customers are locked in to one gas provider for 1-5 years but, as residential deregulation takes hold, they will be willing to pay to switch gas providers quickly."

The driving force behind utilities incorporating communication in their meters, according to Richmond, will be the strategic advantages gained by understanding, maintaining and satisfying a progressively aware consumer base. "Discussion in the press regarding deregulation is contributing to the education of end consumers. Access to consumer consumption data will be crucial for utilities who need to provide new services and cut energy costs in order to remain competitive."

Smart Energy International gratefully acknowledges the panel's contribution in the preparation of this article. Panel members are Tim O'Brien of Ampy, Ken Kercher of Datamatic, Steve Bottorff of Hexagram, Sue Fitzsimons of RAMAR Technology, Rikard Svensson of RADIUS Sweden AB, Daniel Pouliot of Nertec, David Haynes of Exicom, David J Gestler of Sensus, Ralph E Abbott of Plexus, George Archibald of Severn Trent Water Ltd, John Mahoney of Fisher Pierce, John R Goodman of ABB Network Partner, Sandra Goeken Martis of Nexent, Virgil Weed of Equimeter, Robin Wilkinson of Coherent Technologies, Jerry Fund of Computer Metering Corporation, Peggy Richmond of American Innovations and Randy Smith of Global Energy Metering Service.