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Unlikely heroes: how the humble meter could hold the key to better network performance

Posted by on in Heat 2014
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By Casey Cole, Guru Systems

Casey Cole is Managing Director of Guru Systems. He blogs on low carbon at carbonlimited.co.uk and tweets on @carbonltd.


 

Metering and billing (M&B) is often seen as a necessary but rather dull cog in the district heating machine. For many heat network operators, heat metering is nothing more than a tool for ensuring customers are billed for the heat they consume. But it’s far more important than that. Heat metering can be used to monitor network efficiency, which can spell life or death for district heating schemes. Unfortunately, getting this performance data out of heat meters isn’t always easy.

On most district heating networks, an internal or external M&B team will collect aggregate consumption data once a month and use it to generate bills. Aggregate consumption figures can be useful, but heat meters can tell us a lot more. In fact, they can tell us almost everything we need to know about the technical performance of district heating schemes, including flow rates and flow and return temperatures in each flat, on key network branches and within plant rooms. Armed with this information, network operators can pinpoint problems and inefficiencies, and ensure networks deliver “lean heat.”

Many landlords and energy services companies (ESCOs) already recognise the importance of high efficiencies and lean heat. For landlords, lean heat means providing value for money, especially to the fuel poor. For commercial ESCOs, it means delivering profit margins while maintaining reasonable prices. But without data on system performance neither aim can be achieved. Without good data, network operators are flying blind, with the potential for even small schemes to lose staggering amounts of money. A 100-home scheme we assisted recently had managed to lose £65k in 14 months, simply because their tariff had assumed a much better efficiency than was achieved in practice. They’d billed their residents every month according to aggregate consumption, but they hadn’t had access to performance data and so didn’t know their tariff was wrong.

While heat meters can provide essential data, most of it stays locked up in the meter because of antiquated data collection systems. Some operators rely on customers to provide their own meter readings or they send an operative to walk round sites with a radio receiver to collect readings from each meter. Most schemes use an M-bus system to collect data. Based on a 20-year old German standard, M-bus networks are designed for periodically collecting aggregate consumption data over a 2-wire bus. While these various methods have the benefit of simplicity, they’re not up to the job of providing real-time performance data to DH operators.

More intelligent methods of data collection are needed. One method is to connect ordinary heat meters to networked smart meters, as we’ve done with Octavia Housing and Insite Energy in Wembley. While these smart meters are usually part of a pay-as-you-go utility system for residents, the fact that they’re networked means we can use them to extract real-time performance data from the heat meters. This transforms the ordinary heat meters from unintelligent counters, simply totting up aggregate consumption, into the foundation of a hugely valuable performance monitoring system.

By also connecting the smart metering system to the heat and gas meters in the plant room, we can get a complete picture of plant and network efficiency. The operator can immediately see whether the network is providing lean heat, not just as monthly aggregates but hourly across the days, weeks and seasons. Moreover when technicians make changes, such as closing bypasses or tweaking controls, the effects on network efficiency are clearly visible. This allows operators to achieve higher efficiencies and, crucially, maintain them.

In the past, heat metering has been little more than a tool used by the M&B team to generate bills. But heat meters can do a lot more for us. By connecting heat meters to a more modern network, we can obtain invaluable performance data and ensure that we are delivering lean heat. 

Comments

  • Guest
    AP Friday, 17 October 2014

    Heat networks can lLose upto 50% of the energy input ed to it therefore metering end demand consuption is key in driving network efficiency. The difficulty is that metering infermation is not freely available to to data protection lays.

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Guest Sunday, 19 November 2017

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