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Increasing Efficiencies for Utilities: Connecting Smart Meters to Rugged Mobility

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Smart meters are now commonplace in residential, commercial, and industrial applications nationwide. Utilities have discovered a variety of benefits that make collecting status and usage information efficient while eliminating hazardous situations for technicians. Electric utilities can monitor their operations in real time to understand conditions and to schedule maintenance based on real world conditions of individual components while customers benefit from online access to their usage data and other services enabled by smart meters.

Connectivity

Smart meters deliver two-way communication between the meter installed in homes and commercial environments and utility providers. The use of smart meters has grown substantially over the last several years as nearly 60 percent of the nation’s 150 million electric utility meters have communication capabilities.

While many utilities have connected their smart meters by installing fixed network routers and collectors on nearby power poles and other utility infrastructure, many utilities still employ mobile data collection for their electricity, gas and water meters, otherwise known as drive-by meter reading.

Itron is a world-leading technology and services company and a leader in smart metering technologies that have replaced many of the millions of traditional electric meters in North America. As Tim Wolf, director of marketing, smart grid, for Itron explains, “With Itron’s mobile solution, utility companies equip vehicles with Panasonic Toughbook rugged laptops and tablets and collect the data simply by driving down the street. They are able to gather tens of thousands of reads in a single shift, providing a huge efficiency gain compared to traditional manual meter reading.”

Smart meters have evolved and expanded their operational capabilities beyond simple quantitative data into other aspects as the landscape of the power grid has become more complex. Newer capabilities include different kinds of wireless connectivity including meters equipped with cellular communications that allow management and data transfer independently of the location of reader vehicles. And some meters now include edge computing capacity that allow utilities to monitor and manage usage based on current local conditions. The increase in the use of household solar energy generation has boosted the need for better understanding how individual homes are consuming and creating electricity, and smart meters provide the platform for more effective management of these distributed generation assets and the grid management challenges they create. Additional functionality is also being included so that meters can participate in what is known as smart homes. To that end, some meters now include Zigbee or Wi-Fi radios that connect the meter to in-home automation.

Mobile connections

The addition of radio communication that makes electric meters smart has increased the efficiency of installation and maintenance as well. “Installing a smart meter generally takes about 15 minutes,” says Wolf. “The technician can use a tablet or laptop to configure the meter and it automatically registers on the network.” After the initial setup technicians are unlikely to have to access the meter physically unless it is somehow damaged or needs to be removed. This also keeps technicians out of what can sometimes be hazardous conditions that might be present in residential property.

Electric utilities continue to utilize rugged tablets and laptops for their technicians in the field so they can collect data and perform maintenance as necessary. The ability to effectively use their devices in vehicles and outdoors in all kinds of weather conditions is essential when installing and maintaining the system under some of the harshest of weather conditions. Rugged enterprise ready devices should be impervious to wet and cold weather. They must be able to withstand tough conditions like drops and falls without damaging their screens and cases. And bright sunshine that makes consumer grade tablets unreadable can’t interfere with technicians’ ability to read the screens and do their job.

The increased deployment of smart meters allows utilities to become more efficient and proactive by creating multiple ways to connect to and service their customers and deliver enhanced services. As smart meters gain more functionality by virtue of the computing capabilities that give them their smarts, Wolf says these meters are gaining a reputation as not just cash registers that record usage to create a customer bill, but actual grid sensors to help the utility understand what’s going on with their distribution networks, whether that’s a power outage or a voltage problem. And technicians using rugged tablets and laptops are critical to ensuring these systems operate reliably and deliver the return on investment that utilities and their customers expect. 

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