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Remote reading of water meters in the municipal world

10/1/2022

More than ever, cities around the world are feeling the need for water meters and an efficient metering system. Our societies are increasingly aware of the importance of protecting this essential resource and avoiding waste. This is why cities are gradually moving from annual or quarterly meter reading for billing purposes to continuous meter reading for proactive management of drinking water distribution. In fact, having access to hourly consumption readings for an entire fleet allows for rapid reaction in the event of leaks, abusive consumption, or equipment breakdowns. Moreover, this data is invaluable when it comes to planning changes to the distribution network or reviewing the pricing model. 

Standards and technologies

The next generation

Remote reading of water, gas or electricity meters has been in place for a long time in Europe and elsewhere in the world, particularly because of the high cost of water and electricity, when compared to North America. In these countries, we have seen a transition from a manual reading model, to a wireless reading model via a vehicle equipped with technologies to read nearby meters(drive-by), to a remote reading model via fixed networks. We are talking about antennas deployed in the city to receive messages from the meters scattered on the territory.  

This last model is the most efficient because it allows you to collect continuous readings without having to move anyone.  

The first fixed network remote reading solutions were developed by the industry with so-called "proprietary" technologies. Each manufacturer had its own standard that only worked for its own meters, thereby tying its customers to the life of the reading solution. We had to choose the right supplier and live with their decision for 10, even 20 years. Each supplier having its own technology, it was necessary to have different antennas throughout the city for different remote reading applications, which became difficult to manage for a city's IT teams. 

The emergence of standards

This is when new "open" wireless communication technologies emerged, first in Europe, allowing not only water meters, but gas or electricity meters from different manufacturers to be read on the same wireless infrastructure. In fact, cities can now develop other applications far beyond remote reading via a single, standard municipal telecom infrastructure based on these standards. We install antennas once for remote reading of water meters and reuse the same network for all kinds of smart city projects for the next 20 years (garbage level in containers, water levels, smart parking, etc).

LoRa and Sigfox

So what is it specifically about? Well, two global standards now have the majority of the market for remote meter reading by fixed networks, namely LoRa technology (and its communication protocol LoRaWAN developed by theLoRa Alliance) and Sigfox technology, both developed first in Europe and spread quite widely now. In 2021, there were 60 million meters of gas, water and electricity read wirelessly in France of which 60% were read by LoRa or Sigfox. These two technologies consume very little energy, have a very long range but can only carry small amounts of data, which corresponds quite well to a use case like remote meter reading. 

The cell phone?

But since cellular technology is quite ubiquitous, why not use it for remote reading? We would avoid having to deploy antennas to cover a city? Well, each wireless technology has properties, strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered. Cellular (LTE, LTE-m, 5G) can transfer a lot of data, which is ideal for applications like video transmission from surveillance cameras for example. In fact, the more it goes, the more cellular bandwidth increases, paving the way for applications that carry more and more data. But there is a price to pay for all that bandwidth. That's because the more data a wireless technology can carry, the more power it consumes and the less distance it travels. That's why mobile operators around the world are deploying lots of new antennas to support 5G. 

So what is the impact on remote meter reading? Well, since the radio transmitters that read water meters and transmit the readings are battery-powered devices, a less energy-intensive technology is better. Also, since water meters are often in basements, the longer the range of wireless technology, the better it will work. Unlike video transmission, remote meter reading requires very little bandwidth because only very small amounts of information are transmitted. 

Finally there is the cost component. The power and high bandwidth of cellular have a higher cost than technologies like LoRa or Sigfox which makes it a questionable technological choice for remote meter reading.

Access to data, but at what cost?

It's all very well to remotely read water meters via an open and standard communication technology, but you still need to have access to the data. Well, here again the industry has been trying to tie up its customers for years by only allowing access to the reading data via their software and web portals. Indeed, the format of the data sent by wireless message being still too often the well-kept secret of the wireless transmitter manufacturer, it is impossible for a customer to have access to the raw data directly, or to choose another platform to display and manage his readings without first retrieving them in the (paying) software of the meter or wireless transmitter manufacturer. Nowadays, more and more water meter manufacturers like Neptune, Badger or Mueller systematically refuse to share the "decoder" (the recipe to decode the message containing the meter reading) with anyone, under the pretext that it would be intellectual property. But when you think about it, the data should belong to the customer, not to the manufacturer. And the customer should be able to dispose of it as he pleases without having to pay the manufacturer to have access to it, every year for the next 20 years...

The coming of real open solutions

In 2018, as X-TELIA began the deployment of its LoRa network in Quebec, all this issue of proprietary technologies and access to raw data, and requests from several cities pushed us to develop a totally open and non-proprietary remote water meter reading solution. The reading is done by LoRa technology, and the access to the data is done via a Web and mobile Web portal. The solution is compatible with various LoRa transmitters and water meters from most manufacturers. The big difference for a city is that the data belongs to it at all times, and it can access it directly from the LoRa network, without having to go through our Web management platform. The city is therefore free to change platforms as it pleases, the day it finds one that suits it better. Gone are the days when customers were tied for a minimum of 20 years to a paid water meter manufacturer's platform without the option of changing. Gone are the days when the raw reading data was only available to the meter reading solution manufacturer and the customer had to pay for a subscription to the portal to access it. Gone are the days when you had to be married to a meter or reading solution manufacturer. Today, cities that have adopted the X-TELIA solution have a choice of water meter supplier and can change suppliers at any time. The same goes for the management platform. They own the data and that's good. 

Water meter reading by LoRa module
X-TELIA transmitter, encoded water meter

To learn more about this new approach adopted by more and more cities in Quebec and elsewhere, or to get a demo of our open water meter reading platform (compatible with most water meter manufacturers), contact us at
: info@x-telia.com.

X-TELIA is a Quebec-based technology company specializing in Internet of Things and LoRaWAN solutions. It supports companies and cities that want to deploy wireless applications based on highly secure, low-cost and low-power long-range connectivity. X-TELIA offers the Quebec market solutions that have been proven elsewhere in the world, as well as leading-edge expertise to facilitate the shift to the Internet of Things. X-TELIA also operates a next-generation wireless network dedicated to the Internet of Things, specifically designed to support new applications that make cities smarter, industry more efficient and citizens safer.

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