Thought Leadership

Reading the meter

By Colin Walls

I remember reading a book about nuclear power, which had been written in the 1950s. It confidently foretold that an era of cheap energy was about to commence – so cheap that electricity would not need to be metered. I, for one, am still awaiting this golden age. Of course, things did not work out like that and meters for gas and electricity are still with us.

The technology of those meters is changing fast …

In the UK, at least, electricity and gas meters were traditionally inside a house. Typically, they were tucked away out of site – under the stairs was a common location. From time to time, a meter reader would arrive at the house, armed with a flashlight, to take a reading. If nobody was at home when they called, they might leave a card for the householder to record a reading and return in the mail.

As utility companies made increased use of computers, less readings were taken and more estimated numbers were used. This was OK, except the consumers’ bills became less accurate when fewer and fewer meter readings were made. The result was a trend to install meters outside of houses, so that readings could be taken without the householder’s involvement.

This was OK for some years, but now we have the Internet. This gives the utility companies [of which there are now a great many, as privatization and consumer choice are de rigueur] the excuse to make no readings at all. The result is the sequence of events that I experienced yesterday:

  • I receive an email from the gas company asking/telling me to take a reading
  • I head of down 2 flights of stairs and through the house to the back door and outside to the meter box
  • I go back inside to find the special key
  • I make the reading, writing it down as I cannot remember a 4 digit number for very long
  • I head up the 2 flights of stairs to my office
  • I log on to my account and enter the reading
  • Instantly, my new bill is calculated

This all seems rather hard [to me]. But the good news is that progress is on hand.

A major area of growth in the world of embedded systems is smart energy, smart grid and the connected home. Broadly the idea is that appliances will provide data about their energy usage and the householder will have all the information they need to to make energy efficiency decisions. Meters will communicate directly with the utility companies so no human effort will be required to monitor usage and assemble accurate accounts.

Mentor Embedded is very actively involved in this technology. A press announcement gave the broad details of the work being done to the Nucleus RTOS product line to support developers working on connected home technology. A recent Web seminar outlines some details of Smart Energy Profile (SEP) 2.0, which is key to interoperability of devices.

Products are already coming on to the market. An example is an domestic electricity meter, built using Nucleus RTOS, which incorporates cellular telephony technology. This device simply sends a text message to the utility company from time to time. The meter is a direct replacement for existing equipment and may be installed with minimal effort. Thus, they can have up-to-date meter readings without any additional wiring or hassle.

Leave a Reply

This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at