The More Data The Merrier: Smart and Submeters

By Claire Swedberg | Dec 15, 2015
More the Merrier.jpg




Utility companies have driven smart-meter installation in homes. Now, touting the amount of useful data smart meters can provide, utilities and building owners are setting their sights on commercial and industrial buildings through submetering. As the technology gets smaller, smarter and easier to install, smart meters are likely to become ubiquitous in most buildings, especially those with multiple tenants.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. electric utilities installed nearly 52 million smart meters in 2013. About 89 percent of those were residential customer installations. However, the use of advanced metering infrastructure—smart meters and the related communications networks that connect them with utilities—is growing in commercial and industrial markets as utilities and users seek ways to measure and reduce consumption in large facilities.

The submeter trend varies by region, depending on the utility company, incentives and mandates. The majority of commercial and industrial submeters are being installed in California and Texas, according to the EIA. Those states have separate provisions for submetering electricity and water.

According to a report from Navigant Research, the worldwide revenue from smart meters for commercial and industrial customers is expected to be $19.1 million between 2012 and 2020.

Energy management—utility side

Submetering allows individual tenants to be monitored and billed for their actual energy usage. Submetering systems in commercial and industrial buildings enable utilities to better understand volume and demand, which allows them to manage infrastructure upgrades and assign rates, said Evelyn Sahaja, owner of lighting and controls design company InLightIn Design and advisory member of the IES Testing and Procedures Committee for SSL. She said the use of submeters answers questions such as: When are peak demand times? How much energy must be generated to meet that demand? In many cases, the use of submetering can go hand in hand with mandates, load-shedding and demand-response technologies.

Utility companies are still largely responsible for data collection, and often, they share the data and analysis with customers for a fee.

Energy management—customer side

While much of the support for smart meters has come from the utility side, customers can reap the greatest benefits with a commensurate amount of investment.

A smart-metering system consists of the electronic meter and the network to carry that data. With multiple submeters within a building, users can track power-usage data for each tenant, separate space or each appliance in the building. Data transmission to a server can be performed wirelessly or using a cable connection.

New smart meters offer energy management for large buildings in ways old meters could not. For example, they can track individual heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) units; lighting; electric vehicle charging stations; and other powered devices. They also can track power-generating equipment, such as solar panels, that send power back to the grid as well as supply the building.

The meters can be part of a network, or they can be connected directly to a server. One smart meter offers limited benefits, but when a network of meters is in use, the information gathered can yield information building managers never had before. Utilities use the data to better manage their own services, while building managers can identify and manage their own inefficiencies.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said Paul Torcellini, principal engineer for the Commercial Buildings Research Group, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 

NREL has been using meters to track building energy consumption, which has led to unexpected discoveries. For instance, Torcellini recalled a retail location that was experiencing a peak in energy usage around 10 p.m., after the store closed. The researchers learned that company workers were using that time to plug in and charge all of their equipment (such as floor cleaners and electric forklifts) while the lights inside the store and in the parking lot were in full operation as well.

The peak power consumption each day or month matters, since utility companies typically use this data to determine the demand charge on the monthly bill. While much of the electric bill centers on total energy use, the maximum amount of power drain within a single hour is calculated for the demand charge.

Torcellini said that’s one way utility companies pay for their infrastructure expenses, since they need to have the transmission lines and other equipment in place to manage maximum power consumption. 

With that in mind, the example company consuming a large amount of power at 10 p.m. could bring down electric bills by spreading out equipment charging through the night, for instance.

Smart meters can also reveal that there are other times in which power use spikes. By collecting and analyzing that data and finding alternatives, buildings can cut costs.

No matter the type of meter, once it’s pulling and loading data, the user can start saving money. For instance, a building may have four HVAC units operating, each with a submeter, and the readings could indicate that three are running 20 amperes (A), while one is running 40A.

“If you didn’t know that data, you wouldn’t know that you have a potential problem,” said Michael Ruark, an energy consultant for MeasurLogic, an energy management technology company.

No matter the type of meter, once it's pulling and loading data, the user can start saving money.

Smart meters are also often used with solar power installations—
especially in cases in which a user may be selling power back to the grid. With a smart meter, the installations can track how much they are using, how much they are selling, and how those numbers vary and what their payback is from solar installations.

“In the private sector, I’m seeing requests for [smart metering] in large facilities [those with multiple buildings] and LEED smart homes or homes with solar,” Sahaja said.

Subbing it out

Submeters provide data in several tenant-based scenarios. In some cases, building tenants each have a meter in place managed by the utility, and they pay their utility bill directly to that company. In this case, even if they determine a way to save on the energy bill, such as installing a more efficient cooling system, the landlord is unlikely to credit them back.

However, some landlords pay a single amount for the building, then bill each tenant for the power they use. In these cases, the building owner may be more inclined to take part in energy-consumption modifications to the building that might benefit both the tenant and that building owner.

Many buildings are already using such systems, while others will join them in anticipation of the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act of 2015, which requires high-performance energy-efficiency measurements for tenants by September 2016. This will mean that every new building will need separate metering for each tenant. In that way, landlords can charge tenants for their power consumption in addition to the space they occupy or the number of individuals in an office space.

A valuable asset—contractors

Smart and submeters provide the opportunity to help customers save money. After evaluating the data that smart meters provide, electrical contractors can recommend controls or energy-efficient improvements that can target key areas of electricity usage to keep down those costs.

For instance, many facilities are moving away from motion-detection lighting to vacancy lighting only. That ensures the lights don’t come on every time an individual walks into the room, but only when that individual flips the switch. If the system then detects that the individual has left, the lights automatically go out.

Contractors can offer to install vacancy lighting controls or, in some cases, simply switch the relay behind the motion sensor (factory default is switched to motion detection only) to save the customer money.

“Contractors should always be on the lookout for these kinds of ways to save,” Torcellini said. 

Many customers might rely on contractors to inform them of these energy-savings options.

There are traditional products—such as E-Mon and D-Mon meters from Honeywell International—as well as more recently developed wireless or wired sensors. For instance, MeasurLogic offers a smaller product that can be hooked up to a local area network or wireless router to get sensor data back to a server.

“Electrical contractors and building-automation people offer a great opportunity for us,” Ruark said. 

They serve as a sales force to customers who may not have determined their submetering interests and install the devices according to the customer’s needs. 

In addition, if a company is employing an auxiliary power supply, it can be plugged into the meters to power them.

“There are a lot of great meter manufacturers out there,” Ruark said, adding that contractors should look for the one that is easy to install and provides the most functionality. He said that can be a benefit to the contractor and the customer, who can then receive some of the savings with a shorter installation time.

Sahaja said that electrical contractors that offer integration services will have to familiarize themselves with how customers pull data off of the meters for the development of dashboards and user interfaces. In many cases, software developers, instead of electrical contractors, will offer solutions for data management.

Wherever you fit into this process, this relatively new market holds a lot of opportunity for electrical contractors.

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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