Wi-Fi Smart Meters

By Jeff Goldman

May 05, 2008

For utilities implementing a smart grid, Wi-Fi offers a number of key advantages.

For utilities implementing a smart grid, Wi-Fi offers a number of key advantages.

From Corpus Christi, Texas to Anderson, Indiana, a number of cities across the United States are using Wi-Fi to deploy and manage smart meters for utilities including electric, water, and gas--and many more are in the pilot stage of similar deployments. While many utility companies use BPL (broadband over power line) for such deployments, Wi-Fi offers some unique advantages.

Denise Barton, director of marketing for Tropos Networks, says Wi-Fi’s key strength in this space is the fact that it can be used for more than just AMR (automatic meter reading).

“Once the city pays for it, they now have an asset that they can leverage for running multiple services,” she says.

Still, Wi-Fi can be advantageous even if AMR is the only application the city has in mind. In Anderson, Barton says, the Wi-Fi network was deployed specifically for AMR, with the expectation of saving as much as $18 million over a 15-year period.

“The reason for that savings is they don’t have to have feet on the street, and they’ll be able to improve the accuracy of meter reading, because instead of sending someone out once a month or once every two months to read meters, they’ll be able to do it whenever they want,” she says.

And when a Wi-Fi network is deployed just for AMR, it doesn’t have to be particularly robust. “In Anderson, it’s pretty flat, so they have about one router per square mile… it can be a relatively sparely populated mesh network, because there isn’t that much data that’s actually transferred for this particular application,” Barton says.

Improving accuracy

While minimizing the need for truck rolls is the most significant source of cost savings, Barton says improved accuracy can also be a huge benefit.

“Utility companies have a tremendous amount of loss of water—it’s not unusual for them not to know where five to 20 percent of the water is,” she says. “So being able to track it on a more real-time basis is very important, because it helps them to detect leaks and to isolate where there are problems.”

Improved accuracy can help with customer relationships as well.

“One of the reasons Anderson had implemented the system is that they had complaints from their customers: when they had to estimate the meter reads, some people were very upset because they were so far off… so just from a customer satisfaction standpoint, it’s a pretty big deal,” Barton says.

At the same time, some utilities choose Wi-Fi simply out of necessity. A housing development in Milpitas, California, Barton says, decided to install meters in the middle of people’s driveways, “which created a small problem—the meter readers couldn’t get at them,” she says. “So for that housing development, they deployment an automated meter reading network because there weren’t a lot of alternatives.”

And other cities like Lafayette, Louisiana use Wi-Fi not for AMR, but to support their mobile utility workers.

“The city is close to 50 square miles, and one of their challenges was that the utility workers had to keep driving back to a central office to get dispatch information, to file reports, to get access to documents like building schematics and city maps—so they’re using the network to enable the mobile utility workers to have access to that information in the field,” Barton says.

Monitoring usage

Tropos works with a number of different vendors to deploy the systems, including SmartSynch, Aclara, Badger Meter, Silver Spring Networks, and others. Aclara did the Anderson and Corpus Christi deployments, and SmartSynch is working with Burbank, California’s Burbank Water and Power on an AMR Wi-Fi network that’s currently in the pilot stage, with a full deployment expected by the end of the year.

SmartSynch CTO Henry Jones says that in managing a deployment like this, one of the key challenges for any utility is simply a bureaucratic one—they have to put a great deal of effort into balancing the needs of the various city departments involved, particularly when other agencies are also looking at using the network for applications like public safety.

“They have to be really careful in a city if they provide technology for the police department—your taxes pay for your police and fire, but your taxes don’t pay for electricity,” he notes.

Still, looking forward, Jones sees huge potential in these kinds of deployments. With support for additional wireless technologies like ZigBee and 6LoWPAN, he says, electric meters can also talk to individual devices in the home, both monitoring their electricity use and managing the devices remotely as needed.

“The new trend, the very active part of our market today, is creating meters that not only talk back into the utility, but also talk into the home,” he says.

Customers, Jones says, will then be able to monitor on a real-time basis not only their energy use in general, but the individual energy use of each major appliance in their house.

“That’s why this technology is so important: it connects utilities with their customers like nothing you’ve ever had before… putting this sort of technology in place is like having a utility meter reader at every home 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Jeff Goldman is a frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet.

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