Meter Upgrades: Advancements in smart metering and billing technologies

Advancements in smart metering and billing technologies

In the city gas distribution (CGD) industry, an accurate measure of gas supplied and consumed is essential for achieving operational efficiency. However, the existing metering technologies and equipment are prone to errors and wear and tear. This leads to leakages and incorrect meter readings which creates a gap between the gas supplied and consumed. As a result, checking the lost and unaccounted-for gas (LUAG) becomes a challenge for operators. Therefore, emphasis is being laid on the deployment of new techniques and smart meters. These upgraded techniques ensure accurate measurement of gas consumed, which is billed for revenue collection and for the proper reconciliation of accounts.

Technology upgradation

The natural gas industry is gradually making a shift from conventional metering to smart metering solutions. Earlier, the collection of meter readings was a manual process which involved visiting the customer premises. This often resulted in objections from customers and lack of access to meters installed inside the premises due to unavailability of the owner. Thus, bills were made on estimates resulting in over/undercharging. Besides, the increasing number of gas connections has made the collection and billing exercise more tedious. In light of these challenges, CGD operators are testing advanced technology solutions, smart metering devices and innovative equipment to streamline operations. A look at some of the options that are gaining traction…

Automated meter reading (AMR) devices are innovative technology solutions that offer remote readings of meters. These devices are retrofitted along with meters through which gas consumption data is transmitted to the operator’s central database using radio frequency. This automatic collection of data ensures accurate measurements, which are then used for billing purposes. It thus eliminates the need for manual readings. Depending on the metering needs, these AMR devices can be used in different modes. For instance, they can be used for walk-by and drive-by data collection. Here, representatives of the gas distribution company are equipped with a hand-held unit along with a smartphone that has an application installed on it. The meter reader walks/drives through a guided route and meter data gets collected though a wireless network. The collected data can then easily be sent to the central control room through a smartphone over a secured internet connection. Another mode in which AMR devices can be used is for data to be directly interfaced with the central database. Here, data on a 24-hour consumption profile is communicated via SMS-based metering through a GPRS to the control centre.

Another technology being deployed is the optical corrective reading device. These devices are installed on meters and are capable of reading numbers and converting them into electronic data. This electronic data is then transmitted to the control room using a wireless network. It also offers the facility of an alarm in case of tampering.

Besides innovative technologies, new types of equipment such as thermal meters, ultrasonic meters and prepaid meters are being deployed to control LUAG. Prepaid meters allow users to purchase gas as and when needed for certain durations. They can be recharged regularly, depending on consumption. They also help track real-time usage and are “smart” enough to send recharge reminders once credit falls to the programmed threshold level. These meters are more suitable for non-resident Indians, who do not use their gas connections for more than a few months in a year and, therefore, do not wish to pay recurring bills for their gas meters. Other upgraded meters such as ultrasonic meters and thermal meters are being tried and tested in India on a pilot basis. Ultrasonic meters are non-invasive as they have two transducers which can be clamped onto a pipeline to measure the velocity of flow, without being in contact with the fluid, using ultrasonic waves.

Conclusion

Innovations in metering and billing solutions offer operators the opportunity to improve their operational efficiencies. However, it is often the case that consumers are averse to retrofitting new devices or replacing the existing ones. This undermines the effectiveness of the technology. Therefore, the deployment of meters for a large consumer base continues to be a tedious task for operators. The high price being charged by the companies for the meters also acts as a deterrent to their wider deployment. For operators using conventional billing systems, greater uptake of information technology solutions can prove to be advantageous. Billing software such as SAP with an interface with AMR meters and data analytics can be deployed for improved efficiency.

Based on a presentation by

Sushil Kumar, Deputy General Manager (Marketing-JV), GAIL (India) Limited, at a recent India Infrastructure conference