Has the on-line Meter Reading of water and heat Changed the Behaviour of People in Residential Buildings?
In the last 5 years on-line meter reading of water and heat has been installed in more than 10 000 apartments throughout the Czech Republic. The system allows users to track their consumption of water and heat in real time through a web application, aiming to motivate users towards savings as well as to conserve resources globally.
For better understanding, the demonstration images, taken directly from the web application, show what kind of information apartment users currently have available. Detailed water consumption graphs provide apartment users with up-to-date information on water consumption and enable them to respond to all kinds of breakdowns or disruptions. These especially include defects such as water flowing through toilets or water taps that result in losses. Housing unit owner association committees are provided with an integrated view of water consumption, which allows for quick detection of losses that can subsequently be reduced, as the system offers daily information on the difference between the main consumption meter value and the housing unit consumption total.
At buildings where this system has been implemented the level of losses has subsequently been reduced below 5%, including buildings where the common, so-called dry–running, water-meters of class “B” were installed. The system also allows you to check water consumption at each individual meter, leading to quick detection of defects and water leaks. It is fair to say that the system has fully proved its worth not only for apartment users but also for unit owner associations, for which it has become an important water economy tool.
A different situation, however, occurs when meter reading of heat consumption is performed via indirect methods such as various radiator indicators or thermometers in various apartment rooms when degree day method is used. The heat in the apartment is the result of several factors such as radiator capacities, heat penetrations from neighbouring apartments or primary heat source control settings in the given building. Primary heat sources are mostly controlled by external temperature, while taking into consideration whether it’s a day-time and night-time. As seen in the illustrative picture, it is not always controlled by the occupier only.
We wondered how people behave, when such information is available to them 24 hours a day. That means they can monitor their consumption through a web interface on a computer and subsequently, on the basis of the collected data, correct their behaviour in order to reduce their water and heat consumption. Since the data collected at buildings are processed centrally, we can very quickly determine how much people in these on-line homes take interest in their water and heat consumption.
The results of our research reveal that only 8% of users take interest in their personal water and energy consumption, those who check their consumption at least 1 – 3 times a week. Furthermore, there is another group, consisting of 10% of users, those who enter the system at least once in a month. We can conclude that about 18% of apartment users take interest in their consumption and money spending. This finding does not sound too optimistic, but we, in the Czech Republic, are not alone in this. Recently revealed figures on the so-called smart meter introduction in the US suggest the same results.
For clarification, since 2009 about 50 million smart electricity and gas meters have been installed in the US. All affected consumers have access to their data via web interface and therefore are given the opportunity to check their consumption on-line. According to a survey, only 8% of such consumers made an attempt to check their consumption data 1 – 3 times a week. It can be concluded that the Americans do not attempt to take advantage of the available online data on their consumption to reduce energy consumption either.
I could mention several gas meter reading projects, where consumption data were made available in real time, so that consumers were able to monitor their consumption data via a web browser interface. The results of such projects were exactly the same – only 8% of consumers regularly monitored their consumption 1 – 3 times a week.
However, the question remains whether the on-line meter reading of energy and water consumption in residential buildings is of any importance or is it just an unnecessary luxury. The answer is clear – it certainly has. It provides consumers with information about their own consumption, without which it would have been very difficult to determine where and why losses occur. Thanks to on-line meter reading of water consumption, the janitors can detect losses and leaks very quickly as well as malfunctioning meters or meters that are tampered with. As far as heat is concerned, they can detect temperature conditions in the building, whether the rooms are overheated or, on the hand, not heated enough. Without information about the consumer’s consumption we can not encourage to savings, because we do not know how they behave. Making consumption data available in real-time is therefore clearly the right way to efficiently manage consumption.
But how to motivate consumers to save energy and water?
Based on my own experience and verified information from foreign sources I know that there are several ways to turn people’s attention to energy consumption and lead to the routines that would become part of their lives. Certainly, there may be more options, but we have clearly proven that the following ones work.
The first option, not really applicable in the Czech Republic, is the introduction of credit card electricity, gas and water meters. The principle is simple – if you have credit, everything works, if you run out of money, nothing works. No electricity, no gas and no water. It is a system that can work in social flats where they move bad payers. The system is harsh, few of us can imagine that. However, in England they have already grown quite accustomed to it.
The second option that works lies in displaying energy and water consumption in an online mode and converted to the money, preferably somewhere inside the apartment close enough for the eyes of its users. It’s not a theory. It was tested again in the US, where in 9000 households were given a box with a display, on which house electricity consumption data was shown on-line and directly in USD.
Users could immediately see how much their habits such as their TVs permanently on, their laundering, their freezers or their 25 °C in the living room cost them. This simple change in the data presentation forced up to 38% of households, where this data was displayed, to change their attitude and start saving on energy, reaching consistently cost savings of 10-14%. This is clearly a significant value.
The third option, which has been verified in practice and appears to be very effective, is to compare people´s household consumption with that of their neighbours. Yes, it is essentially a competition and people love to compete. They do not want to be worse than others, especially than their neighbours. This can be arranged in a very easy way. Users receive information on consumption of their neighbours who live in a similar apartment or house. It is, of course, done anonymously. Consumption comparisons motivate house users far more and towards much bigger savings than mere consumption information as such.
Let us now come back to the on-line water and heat meter reading in the current local Czech conditions. How to supplement existing online systems with tools that would help to make consumption data more accessible and, at the same time, encourage savings and improve the understanding of the importance of on-line meter reading? At this point it should be emphasized that there is still one more annoying factor that negatively affects the view of owners and apartment users of the on-line meter reading of heat and water consumption in residential buildings. This factor is called the “obligation to perform meter reading” and is given by law and various regulations. This makes a number of people feel that somehow meter readings must be performed so let´s make it as cheap as possible and don´t be bothered about it. This means that online meter reading system designers must offer some added value so that the investment in meter reading brings owners or apartment users some additional benefit, such as cost savings and increased building or apartment operation safety.
The solution leads to the use of modern technology and especially mobile devices. Tablets and smart phones are ideal for displaying heat and water consumption data. An application that processes consumption data may offer different views of individual meter values and display consumption in cash, providing users with information on housing costs immediately and motivating them towards savings. The displayed data must be simple and available at any time of the day. Mobile device applications must provide comprehensive yet natural overviews of customer´s energy consumption presented in money spent. Information such as: how I am ranked in the house consumption league, or, how I compare with similar apartments in the neighbourhood must also be included. Such displays may be of various kinds, they can even sort of entertain, but they really must be easy to understand.
Our company is working on such application and is expecting it to be available in April 2016. We’ll see if it makes some of our online customers change their approach to consumption. The journey to change consumption patterns may be a long one. However, certain encouragement we find in the ever-increasing popularity of mobile applications in our daily lives.
Czech company SOFTLINK, Ltd. has made development of its own radio communication technology since 1993. In the past 10 years, we have focused on the development of radio modules for remote meter reading of water meters, gas meters as well as electricity and heat metres. SOFTLINK develops software applications that provide users with automated processing and evaluation of data that are read on-line from various energy and water meters. SOFTLINK technology is implemented by customers such as the house condominiums, housing associations, administration buildings of the central or local government, managers of shopping centres and logistics parks. All our systems being developed are based upon online communication in real-time.