Challenges of getting good outcomes from traditional energy metering

Stock image from Canva for use with Wattwatchers blog post on building code compliance

In a four-part series of articles (this is Article 2), also available on request as an eBook, Wattwatchers explores the challenges and opportunities building owners, managers and installers face with electricity metering and monitoring for achieving and maintaining Net Zero, ESG and sustainability trajectories for the built environment.

ARTICLE 2: Built Environment Net Zero Series

Like the old lubricants advertisement punchline that declared ‘oils ain’t oils’, data from energy metering and monitoring can be variable too.

For a start, just because there is metering installed doesn’t mean the data is correct. 

For building sub-meters, if you’re starting to look at the electricity data for the first time, you can almost be certain that there will be data quality issues that need to be resolved.

Once a meter in a traditional system has been commissioned there’s usually limited ability to drill into the detail without going to site. 

For instance if you suspect a meter has an incorrect reading, you typically will need to check that the meter has the correct Current Transformer (CT) settings, and that the CTs are the right way and phasing is correct. 

Remote management needs the right technologies

For traditional systems, correcting data collection or confirming its accuracy almost always means a trip to the site, and then accessing the physical meter to scroll through meter data and settings. 

It’s hard to do quick remote checks, which means it only happens occasionally, such as when sites are designed to be managed remotely and have been maintained accordingly.

Meter failure and communications issues may also be present, and it’s often hard to tell until you start examining the meter data. 

In traditional systems, even where someone has been receiving alerts or notifications remotely, it’s highly likely that they are getting smashed by too many alerts, and have started to ignore them. There’s even a ‘condition’ documented for this, called ‘alarm fatigue’.

Getting data from existing building systems is not as easy as it sounds

Making use of your existing electricity data sounds like a good idea, right? 

If you’re in an A-grade premium office asset where you have sophisticated systems, and some budget to go with it, you probably can make this happen. 

Unfortunately, however, there’s plenty of assets where it’s hard to make a proposition stack up, including: mid-market office, schools, warehouses, business parks, solar systems, and distributed retail. 

If you’re doing work across a portfolio, where each building has a different system, then trying to do this can quickly become a complex, costly and slow process.

Operating with (or in spite of) a BMS or EMS

It’s likely that your metering will be connected to a BMS or EMS. 

These systems are NOT known for their interoperability, and it’s unlikely that you or your team will have the know-how and the site access to get a feed from the system.

So your first port of call will be the manufacturer. Then you’ll work through a process to understand what meter types are connected, and what metering points they are covering.

From there, you’ll need to engage someone who is qualified to create an automated schedule to send the data somewhere. This process typically takes months, costs a considerable amount for the professional services required, and in some cases may require hardware additions and software upgrades.

Ideally, all of your metering will be connected, but there are plenty of sites where there is a physical meter that does not have a ‘point’ in the BMS system. You then need to add it, which involves professional services, and potentially an upgrade in licensing to accommodate more points.

The actual cost of running metering through BMS and EMS systems are difficult to understand because they’re broken up, typically across: service contracts, capital purchases, project costs, certificate renewals and licence agreements. 

By contrast, software-as-a-service (SaaS) agreements can actually be far more transparent.

Making data use convenient across multiple different stakeholders

Frequently, to maximise its value and achieve performance and compliance objectives, data will need to be shareable across multiple and different stakeholders. 

To be technically viable and cost effective, such data sharing needs to be convenient.

If you’re driving ESG into asset management, you’ll have a busy agenda: rolling out renewables, doing efficiency upgrades on buildings, separating common-area and tenant loads, rating buildings, tracking progress and making disclosures to the public or investors. 

All of this menu for action requires effort, from the operations frontline through to corporate HQ oversight.

In property, multiple stakeholders are involved, each wanting different views, and often working in different platforms across all of the relevant players: facility managers, building managers, tenants, sustainability managers and more. 

Having a standard way to monitor electricity everywhere helps to make your investment go further, making the most use of software scalability, and getting data into forms that support decision-making by each of the different stakeholders.

Having good data for electricity plays a valuable role in validating multiple outcomes: the performance of solar, measuring the impact of efficiency projects, monitoring vehicle charging, and supporting disclosures to boards, financial markets and the public.

Real-time delivered via apps adds value for tenants

Data to support tenant engagement is becoming more important in property strategies, and real-time data is valuable to support feedback to tenants in mobile applications or onsite displays.

Increasingly, facilities managers are stretched across multiple buildings, and most individual buildings don’t have permanent facility management teams onsite (that’s a luxury for premium building stock). 

Something as simple as showing solar generation and building energy usage can not only support cultural change, but also can reduce the time to resolve technical issues. 

Let’s say a solar system trips, or is not restored after onsite works, then real-time app displays can provide necessary feedback to the people onsite, so they can raise a support issue, and have the solar fixed in a timely fashion. 

Ideally, software analytics would notify the solar contractor directly, but not all solar systems have sophisticated services attached.

Rolling up portfolios of property is costly with traditional solutions

Traditional systems tend to involve significant upgrades or technology additions on-premise to roll-up data across portfolios.

Costs can mount up quickly for items including BMS/EMS head-ends, BACnet gateway implementation, the addition of hardware gateways of various types, and the time (and expense) of-highly trained people to understand and configure it all.

Keeping things simple can help your investment to provide more value.

Using meter data agents and energy retailers is slow and not always convenient

It would be great if you could get all of the data you need from the heavily-regulated energy system itself.

But often the only thing you can be guaranteed to receive consistently is your bill.

Even trying to get billing data in some form that is convenient for software, like a spreadsheet, is difficult at best. There’s no established standard format, and the availability of this option depends on your size as a customer, and the services your retailer delivers.

For utility billing meter data, by contrast to your own sub-metering, you can generally get it a day late at 30-minute intervals, if you pay for the privilege. 

However, the data is not very granular, it’s not in real or near real-time to drive timely visibility, and it’s missing valuable data points, like voltage which plays a significant role in solar.

The next article in this series (Article 3) looks at key issues for solution buyers in sourcing best-in-class new technologies for energy metering and monitoring.

James Clements is Director of Net Zero Property with Wattwatchers.