When we think of flow metering for liquids, we rarely get past the industrial workhorses of the Magflow (Magnetic Flow Meter) or the turbine meter. I have no real beef with these; years of development has led to accurate and reliable meters and are still the meters of choice for countless applications.
However, lurking in the wings for many years has been the clamp on ultrasonic flowmeter. Often dismissed as being only for temporary installation and of dubious accuracy, this technology has advanced to the point that it is a viable alternative to "mainstream" metering, and when well installed can offer similar levels of accuracy.
Having worked with ultrasonic meters for over 20 years, I remember the difficulties of setting up and getting reliable metering values from the early units. I can also say that those days are gone, and with improvements in the metering technology as well as the interface, setting them up is more-or-less childs play (so long as the given child can use a screwdriver, measuring tape and keyboard).
The main advantage of the ultrasonic technology is that there is no need to break into the pipe to install the equipment. As well as offering higher integrity for hazardous materials or hygienic systems, they are ideal for retro-fit metering installations.
Here is an example of an ultrasonic meter Engineered Efficiency installed on a live fire water system at a Perth hospital.To install a more conventional flow meter would involve draining the line, cutting into the galvanised pipe (and compromising the galvanising), welding in flanges before fitting the meter and re-hydrotesting, with a likely project cost of over $5,000 and many hours downtime. We installed the ultrasonic flowmeter in less than half an hour with no system downtime, at a significantly lower project cost.
So what about the accuracy? This meter has an accuracy of around ±2% or better, which is fine for most practical purposes. Whilst not quite the accuracy of a magflow meter installed under ideal conditions, it is probably as good (if not better) than a poorly installed magflow meter done in haste as a retrofit.
So next time you are looking at a meter retrofit, or are metering a product where minimal pipe fittings is an advantage (hazardous materials, hygienic systems), run the ruler over an ultrasonic meter.
Customer smartmeters for the water industry have been around for some time, but have failed to gain much traction, despite the best efforts of suppliers and utility side metering groups alike. Defining the “business case” for deploying smartmeters in terms that make them competitive against other capital expenditure has failed. Is this is a case of a solution looking for a problem?
In pure terms of capturing data for customer billing, in most urban environments smartmeters will never stack up financially against having a person manually read the meter each billing cycle. Unless the cost of smartmeters falls by more than half, manually reading the meter four to six times per year over ten years will still be a lot cheaper than the additional cost of upgrading to a smartmeter.
The other problem is that water is cheap. Trying to justify smartmeters from the point of view of water savings or improvements in planning and capital deferral is even harder. There are so many other ways that this can be achieved without using smartmeters.
But maybe smartmeters are really just a cost of doing business. At the other end of the water delivery cycle, the installation of flowmeters and other sensors are rarely questioned from a business benefit point of view; it is simply expected that they will be installed and that the information will be used somehow to benefit the business.
And then there is the question of customer and regulator expectations as to how a utility should be operating. The creation and monitoring of websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and the like have been readily adopted by water utilities, along with many other companies and government services. I doubt there has been a thorough rationalisation of the business cost-benefits of managing these information streams, rather it is simply expected that it will be done.
So where does that leave smartmeters? As a metering device or a customer engagement tool they appear to be neither fish nor fowl, essentially falling down the crack between the operations and revenue sides of the utility business. But rather than building a case for smartmeters, perhaps we are better off building a case for smarter business that meets the expectations of customers and regulators. And if that business needs to account for water in real-time, effectively manage tax accruals, drive customer water efficiency, improve worker safety and streamline its billing and revenue collection, then smartmeters must just be part of doing business.