Why Smart Metering

High quality energy and resource data is often hard to come by in buildings, both in commercial and residential settings. Traditional meters are typically "dumb", have to be manually read, and only provide very basic information that is rarely accessible in digital form. Smart meters take metering to the next level.


Smart metering has many facets and the underlying technologies can appear complex and expensive. Potential users of smart metering technology are also often confused by the myriad of offerings in the market from a range of suppliers, and have a hard time identifying the suitable technology for their needs.

MeterSmarter seeks to address these challenges by providing a supplier independent overview of technologies, use cases, benefits and best practices. The smart metering industry is in constant development and we're always striving to supply you with up to date information. If there is anything missing or you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out!


What is smart metering?

The term smart metering is used in a lot of different contexts, and can mean different things to different people. The core differentiator between smart and "dumb" meters is the capability of the former to capture and transmit data in an automated way to a central database, from where it can then be further processed (e.g. via means of an energy management platform such as EnergyDeck).

The image below shows the differences between the two approaches. "Dumb" meters rely on manual reading and "transmission" to the database, while this is done automatically by smart meters via either wireless or wireline communications (we explain the underlying technology in more detail in the Metering Technology section).


Typically, smart meters are read more frequently than "dumb" meters, but this is not a requirement per se. Smart meters might capture readings every day, hour, half hour or even on a minute by minute basis and below. The data can then be stored locally and transmitted to the database at defined intervals, e.g. hourly, daily and so on. "Dumb" meters such as a main building electricity supply without smart features are typically read once a quarter or only once per year, and sometimes never. The resulting much higher reading frequency of smart meters is a major intrinsic advantage of this approach, as it allows for identification of savings opportunities in a way that can't be provided  by "dumb" meters (we explain this in more detail in the Data Analysis section). 

Another specific aspect of smart meters is a two-way communication between the meters and the data collection systems, all the way though to the central data management system. This feature is really what makes those meters smart, as data and instructions can be transmitted back to the meter. In a residential context, this could be an instruction for the meter to switch to a cheaper tariff, or even to limit consumption.

In commercial real estate contexts, this return channel is less important. The reason for this is that more complex buildings are typically not managed by any individual meter (or a network of meters), but by a Building Management System (BMS), which has control over the central building plant and main equipment - and in many cases is connected to the meters for reading purposes.

The automatic meter reading capability of smart meters is also referred to as AMR. For the purposes of this website, we will refer to meters that have AMR capability as smart meters, regardless of whether they dispose of a return channel or not, as this is not a key requirement in a commercial building context.


Digital meters vs. smart meters

Note that meters with digital display aren't automatically smart. While the meter on the left in this picture is, it always depends on whether there is a communications module integrated in the meter that enables it to transmit data to a server. However, electromechanical meters like the one on the right are not smart in the vast majority of cases (these can still be automatically read by means of retrofit camera modules or magnetic sensors that measure the rotations of the spinning disc in the meter). 


In the US for instance, most meters that look like the one on the left are smart, while in the UK there are many residential mains electricity meters with digital displays that aren't. Sometimes it's possible to tell whether a meter is smart from supplier information or the model number. In any case if you get provided with up to date high frequency readings for your meter (ideally through a web interface), chances are high that it is smart.  


Submetering vs. smart metering

The term submetering is often used interchangeably with smart metering. However, submetering simply refers to the capture of data at a more granular level as far as the occurrence of the metric to be metered is concerned. For instance, in an office block there will almost always be a meter that measures the electricity supplied to the entire building, but often it is not possible to determine how much electricity is consumed per floor (tenant), or even at circuit level such as lighting, cooling, small power and so on. This is where submeters come in: they can be installed (and in most cases retrofit) to cover specific building zones or circuit levels, and provide very valuable additional information for building  consumption analysis.


Technically speaking, submeters aren't automatically smart - they could well be "dumb" meters (and sometimes they are). But in the majority of use cases submeters - especially when they are retrofit to an existing building - would be smart in the sense that they transfer data automatically to a concentrator or database.


What can be smart metered?

The answer to this question is simple: almost anything! While smart metering is often used in reference to electricity, other resources can be smart metered as well, including gas, heat and water. In addition, sensors are available to monitor temperature, air quality and flows, as well as lighting and so on. Almost anything that can be metered (and that refers to most things) can also be smart metered as this "simply" adds the automatic data capture and transmission to the user.

The table below gives an overview of the most commonly used types of smart metering. The Metering Technology section explains each of these in more detail.

 ResourceSmart metering potential
electricity_iconElectricityElectricity is the resource most commonly metered. Most main electricity supplies to buildings have meters, and circuits such as lighting or small power can be submetered (in a smart way), also as retrofit application. Smart meters for electricity are either installed as pass through meters (normally this has to be done by the energy supplier), or simple CT (current transformer) clamps, which are non intrusive and can be easily retrofit.
gas_iconGas/SteamGas is also regularly metered where it is a main supply. Gas metering technology is based on flow meters - these either measure the flow directly (pass through), or via ultrasound technology (which can be more easily retrofit). Gas is typically supplied centrally to the building plant, where it is converted to heat. Hence it is not normally necessary to submeter gas - though this can be done for the resulting heat.
heat_iconHeatHeat, i.e. the energy output from combustion of gas or other fuels can also be metered - and smart metered. Specialised devices need to be employed for this purpose, but this is worthwhile to e.g. determine heat losses between generation and consumption.
water2_iconWaterWater meters are based on flow metering (not dissimilar to gas metering). Smart meters for measuring water consumption are now being deployed to residential dwellings in a number of markets.
sun1EnvironmentalA wide and increasing range of environmental metrics can be easily smart metered, including temperature, humidity, air quality (e.g. to monitor the concentration of specific substances like CO2, NOx etc), illuminance (lux), wind speeds and so on. Sensors employed for this purpose are often inexpensive and transfer readings to a server via a wireless connection.
cpu4Anything else (nearly)Sensors exist that can measure and transmit data for a near limitless array of metrics, which go well beyond the list above. in the built environment, this could include information on physical presence, footfall, noise, even individual heart rates and so on. Thanks to the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), more and more sensors are coming to the market which are by default smart, as they utilise internet technology to automatically transmit data to the user.


>> Read on to find out about Benefits of Smart Metering