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    Smart meters for a smarter and more sustainable future

    Ben Lawrence

    While in Australia, utility metering seems to be stuck in a bygone era, there are a number of technologically-inspired changes afoot that are designed to encourage users to change their behaviour. It is this drive for increased user accountability, combined with recent technology advances, that is leading to a slow, but sure, change in the way we approach energy management. 

    According to electricity provider Ausgrid, there are currently three main types of energy meters available on the Australian market. These three types of meters are the standard accumulation meter, the interval meter, and the much newer, smart meter.

    In the classic accumulation system, the tenants of a building are charged a set amount after a pre-determined amount of time, usually a month or quarter. To check the usage, someone from the energy provider must come out and read the meter – a relatively expensive, and at times, time consuming task.

    According to Margrethe Ingemann, marketing manager of SUMS Group (previously known as Watersave Australia), one of the key issues with accumulation systems is the historical nature of the data contained in the bill. In other words, there is nothing a user can do to change their usage after the fact.  

    “The usage has already been done. It’s historical data and you just have to pay your bill, there’s no way to change your behaviour,” says Ingemann.

    Accumulation meters then led to interval meters, which, as the name suggests, take a reading of the energy usage at pre-determined intervals, usually around every 30 minutes.

    This method allows the user to interact with the meter themselves to monitor their energy usage and allows them to pay different rates for different usage periods.

    The latest generation of smart meters build upon the innovative interval meter concept even further, collecting data in (almost) real time.

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    The latest generation of smart meters build upon the innovative interval meters even further, collecting data in (almost) real time. Image: Wikipedia

    Since they are based on electronic componentry, these smart meters can be programmed to synchronise with a range of other electronic devices, such as phones, tablets, or computers.

    For the end user, this means a host of accessibility options for gathering energy usage data, including setting up alerts, and on-the-go energy management via app.

    THE APPEAL OF NEW WAYS OF METERING

    Interval meters help to alleviate the issue of incorrect billing to some extent, but they still require direct interaction with the meter.

    Smart meters however, make it instantly possible to monitor energy usage in a much more user-friendly and accessible manner. With smart metering, energy management becomes easy and intuitive.

    VENTILATION

    Supplying fresh air to the inside of an enclosed space doesn’t sound like a complicated process, and it’s not – building ventilation is a concept that has been known for many centuries and most buildings are designed to adhere to certain levels of basic ventilation requirements.

    The automation of ventilation, however, is relatively new, and something that has only recently started to gain traction in the Australian market.

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    With smart metering, maintaining this climate becomes automated, with the systems only ventilating where and when necessary, again reducing the impact on both the environment and wallet

    Products such as the Automatic Ventilation Controllers from Arens International and the Healthbox 3.0 from Renson are not something you would find in an ‘average’ apartment, however, they are gaining popularity, especially in some higher-end multi-residential buildings.

    As Warwick Jackson from Arens International points out, night cooling is key when it comes to automatic ventilation control. Effective night cooling through a smart ventilation system delays the need for air-conditioning the following day, significantly reducing the carbon footprint and energy bill of a multi-residential structure.

    Night cooling also forces an air change. As we spend more and more of our time indoors - up to 85 per cent according to Roel Berlaen from Renson - we become more aware of the importance of a healthy indoor air climate. With smart metering, maintaining this climate becomes automated, with the systems only ventilating where and when necessary, again reducing the impact on both the environment and the hip pocket.

    RENSON_Healthbox-3-0_user-app.jpg
    Products such as the Automatic Ventilation Controllers from Arens International and the Healthbox 3.0 from Renson are not something you would find in an ‘average’ apartment, however, they have become popular in some higher-end multi-residential buildings

    WATER

    In terms of water management, a traditional, centralised water heating system keeps water heated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. On a multi-residential scale, this means thousands upon thousands of litres of water is being constantly heated.

    As an individual under a centralised regime, users are penalised for the inefficiency of the system, because while most people only use hot water a handful of times a day, a few minutes at a time, they still pay for the bulk of the water to be constantly heated.

    In fact, according to some figures enough hot water is lost in some centralised systems to heat approximately 113 showers every day.

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    Enough hot water is lost in some centralised systems to heat approximately 113 showers every day

    “Non-stop water heating just isn’t sustainable,” said Darren Fletcher, national product manager, Stiebel Eltron.

    Instantaneous electric water heating systems heat water when you need it, as you need it, and maintain the desired temperature as the hot water is being used, unlike other systems that are constantly heating and re-heating water to maintain the optimal water temperature.

    The fact that the system is powered electronically, rather than by gas, means that it can be powered by renewable sources, such as solar or wind.

    The efficiencies of the instantaneous electric water heating systems are translated into a lower electricity bill, and in this case, a lower energy bill means a lower impact on the environment.

    Later this year, Stiebel says it will be releasing a new electric water heating product onto the market called the DHE Connect that will feature Bluetooth connectivity and app operability.

    So, while most people are unlikely to be standing in the shower with their waterproof smartphones changing the temperature, it does make it much easier to monitor individual water usage and manage the water temperature.

    CONVERGENCE OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN BEHAVIOUR

    While a move away from centralised systems may be step in the right direction, this improved energy management is facilitating a change in human behaviour.

    There seems to be a consensus amongst advocates of smart metering, that if you provide the ability for consumers to monitor and manage their energy use behaviour, they will make a positive change in that behaviour.

    One concept is the SUMS portal - an online platform that enables this change in behaviour.

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    The efficiencies of the instantaneous electric water heating systems are translated into a lower electricity bill, and in this case, a lower energy bill meaning a lower impact on the environment

    The SUMS portal is an online platform that provides water, gas, and electricity time-of-use data right to your fingertips. Either integrated into your existing system, or on the SUMS portal itself, you can track your water, gas, and electricity data all in one place, with customised alerts for optimal energy management and awareness. At the time of writing, over 700 organisations were making use of the SUMS platform to save money, time, and ultimately, natural resources.

    WHERE TO NEXT?

    Regardless of the type of multi-residential development it is used in, smart metering should never be considered as a standalone solution. The installation of smart metering needs to be done in conjunction with a change in attitude away from short-term savings and toward the long-term environmental efficiencies and overall consumer cost impacts. 

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