In the past few years, meter deployment has seen significant traction in the city gas distribution (CGD) space. Smart metering solutions are also making inroads into the sector as utilities are shifting from diaphragm meters largely based on mechanical measurement techniques to more advanced automated meter reading (AMR). Smart meters provide an accurate measurement of gas consumption, which is billed for revenue collection, thereby aiding proper reconciliation of accounts.
- With the evolution of smart meters, new technologies such as AMR are coming into play. A CGD player can either procure an AMR meter with inbuilt meter reading capabilities directly, or it can alternatively upgrade the existing meters, which are four to five years old, by installing a meter interface unit. Meters older than five years generally are not compatible with AMR technology.
- The AMR system can be directly interfaced with SAP and billing software without human intervention. Further, large volumes of data are collected, which can then be analysed for getting insights into customer buying patterns, payment records and any incidents of gas theft.
- In addition, alarms can be configured to detect any incidents of meter tampering. A notification can be sent to the central server, allowing operators to take the necessary action.
- Another emerging technology is the optical character reading device that is installed in the existing meters. This technology allows meter readings to be directly fed into the central server using a mobile phone. This helps reduce human intervention and minimises the scope for error.
- New meter reading technologies and solutions are also emerging. Meter reading today can be done in walk-by, drive-by, or direct-to-server mode. In the walk-by and drive-by modes, a meter reader collects the reading just by passing through a designated route near the meter. The meter communicates the reading wirelessly to the hand-held devices carried by the meter reader. This device is further connected with a mobile phone, through which the reading is sent to the central server. In the direct-to-server mode, the meter automatically shares the reading with the central server using the internet. Further, the central server can be interfaced with SAP or billing software as required.
Aim of metering technologies
Key smart metering solutions
- Walk-by/Drive-through solution: The walk-by/drive-through solution uses a meter interface unit (MIU). The MIU is a radio transceiver that is attached to the meter. It communicates with the portable hand-held unit carried by the meter reader. The hand-held unit must be within a radius of 500 metres of the MIU to capture the signals transmitted by it. Once the signal is received, the meter reader transfers the data to the mobile phone through a Bluetooth connection. The mobile phone transfers the data to a data cloud using the GPRS signal.
- Fixed meter solution: The fixed meter solution operates in the same way as the walk-by/drive-through solution, except that the hand-held unit is replaced by a fixed concentrator. It is the fixed concentrator that transmits data to the cloud using the GPRS signal. This solution is preferred for high-rise buildings. External power supply and a suitable public space are needed for its installation. This solution can cater to 10-20 domestic customers only. Thus, a large number of fixed concentrators are required in a large geographical area. One of the key advantages of this solution is that meter readers are not required. With this solution, daily meter reading and gas reconciliation is possible. Also, real-time tampering alarms are available.
- Point-to-point solution: In this solution, data from the meter is directly transferred to the cloud. It deploys an MIU with an inbuilt GPRS modem, which takes the pulse from the meter and transmits it to the cloud. The MIU used in this solution has an inbuilt LED camera. It takes the photo of the meter index and then transmits that image. This provision is quite useful as the image is converted into text and this text is readily available for billing. Further, tamper alarms are sounded in real time. Although it is a very efficient solution, it is quite expensive. In addition, over a period of time, the meter index becomes opaque and camera efficiency deteriorates. Therefore, for longevity, this solution must be installed only in areas that do not face extreme temperatures.
- Prepaid solutions: It is the most advanced solution for smart metering. Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) is the only company in the gas segment that has installed prepaid meters. Currently, prepaid meters are operational in the Rewadi geographical area and IGL plans to install this solution in the Karnal, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar geographical areas as well. Prepaid meters come with an inbuilt valve equipped with a prepaid processor that communicates with the server on the GPRS/GSM/ LoRa network. Customers can recharge the prepaid gas meters online and when the credit reaches zero, the meter valve automatically shuts off. One of the key advantages of this solution is that the customer gets real-time information about gas usage. Further, there are no cases of under-billing, estimated/ wrong billing, reversal of bills, or house-lock problems. With these solutions, it is easier to identify slow-moving/faulty meters. All in all, prepaid meters make the billing process much easier.
Initiatives taken by CGD operators
Indraprastha Gas Limited
- Prepaid meters: IGL has deployed smart prepaid meters on customer premises to eliminate instances of inaccurate billing. These meters have an inbuilt valve, which is equipped with a processor to monitor the user’s credit balance. When the credit falls below the programmed threshold level, the valve automatically closes, thereby stopping the supply of gas. This allows the user to purchase gas as and when needed. The meter also sends recharge reminders once the payment is due. It transmits credit data recorded by the processor to IGL’s server through a communications network (GPRS/GPS/LoRa), thus enabling a remote monitoring facility.
- AMR systems: This is another smart technology deployed by IGL for remote reading of gas consumption data. These retrofitted devices record the amount of piped natural gas consumed by users over a period of time. The recorded data is then transmitted to the gas utility through a network communications system (which is either a radio frequency transmitter walk-by solution or a modern antenna solution). It eliminates the need for manual readings, ensuring accurate measurement for billing purposes. IGL has already implemented AMR systems for its commercial and industrial customers with consumption greater than 100 scmd, as well as for 8,250 domestic customers.
Mahanagar Gas Limited
LoRa WAN meters: Mahanagar Gas Limited (MGL) along with Tata Communications is planning to deploy 5,000 smart gas meters based on LoRa technology in Mumbai. The new smart meters will give households and businesses visibility and control over their gas usage, and will enable MGL to enhance its operational efficiencies. Customers will not have to manually check their gas meter readings, and the smart system will automatically track their gas usage. MGL has also implemented a mobility platform through which meter reading can be obtained and verified with a photograph of the meter. This has helped reduce the number of complaints regarding wrong metering and billing.
AMR systems: To achieve better results and reach a wide range of customers through calls and SMSs, spot billing was implemented by MGL field agents. It catered to the scattered customer base that was not covered in the mainstream meter reading mechanism. Further, around 152 industrial and commercial customers have been provided with a remote reading system. Diaphragm meters installed at commercial customer sites are planned to be replaced with smart meters to remotely obtain meter readings. AMR systems help in optimising the drawal of regasified liquefied natural gas for industrial and commercial consumers.
Given the government’s focus on CGD development, there is a need to improve the operational efficiency of utilities through better metering and enhanced billing techniques. Although several innovations have been introduced in metering solutions, the sector continues to face challenges such as leakages in pipelines, illegal connections, faulty RPD meters, low turndown ratio of turbine meters and inaccuracy of diaphragm meters. Besides, consumers are reluctant to retrofit new devices or replace existing ones. The high cost of smart meters also acts as a deterrent to their wider deployment.