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DWZ – Wireless Dead Zones – an inconvenient truth that energy-tech companies do not want to talk about

DWZ – Wireless Dead Zones – an inconvenient truth that energy-tech companies do not want to talk about

No it’s not a virus. WDZ happens a lot with wireless devices. All of us have experienced WDZ with mobile phones and Wi-Fi routers. In lifts, underground car parks and if you are really unlucky at your office desk. Areas that have no wireless signal are called ‘wireless-dead-zone’ or WDZ for short as we call it.

WDZ is a major industry issue that needs to be addressed now if we are going to be able to scale efficiently.

Ask anyone selling wireless electricity metering devices what they think of their wireless product’s performance in the field, and you’ll get a variety of answers and some bewildered looks. Mention WDZ and you will get some uncomfortable looks. Over the past three years I have been asking that very question to people who do field installations of wireless energy meters. The answers are troubling and disturbing. It is an inconvenient truth that needs to be grappled head-on.

What installers are saying points to a very serious problem called WDZ which has been swept under the carpet for too long.

There is a disconnect between what technology companies are building to monitor energy wirelessly and the reality of who these work in the field. And there seems to be a perception by some in the wireless energy metering industry that “WDZ” is a “PR” problem to solve, not a product design one. The standard response is it works most of the time. Really? I contend that it is a product design issue not a PR issue. There is a better way.

In reality WDZ is a major problem for industries that monitor energy wirelessly like solar, energy management, internet-of-energy, or IoT. What is interesting is everyone in the game knows about WDZ but they never talk about it.

The elephant in the room – a major pain point in installing wireless energy meters.

The size of the problem is pretty significant. There are 11,000 solar installations a month in Australia. WDZ would cause up to 2 hours extra work per residential install. That’s 1,400 days of lost productivity a month if all solar sites used wireless electricity meters.

A wireless-dead-zone makes an Installer’s job harder and frustrating that Installers have to charge more. Ultimately the customer pays for this. If we want jobs to go smoothly WDZ needs to be addressed.

It is not that wireless meters don’t work — it is frustrating work to install them when WDZ emerge. Installation of connected meters should be like plug-and-play.

So the real point I am making is how much effort goes into making wireless meters work. Installers have many tricks to that. Installers can sometimes run an antenna to the outside of the meter box. For many devices this just isn’t practical. All this extra work means more things that can go wrong. Having antenna wires running within cabinets decreases safety and could be accidentally disconnected by other trades. If you see a antenna outside a meter cabinet its a good sign of a work-around for WDZ.

And of course when the cabinet is located in a bad place within the building, like a basement. Running an antenna will obviously not work. All this adds costs, which points to poor service and reliability. Eventually increased frustration and poor user experience.

You will typically find WDZ in sites with metal meter boxes, electrical cabinets or where you have really solid walls. Or in locations like basements or electrical rooms. Meter cabinets or electrical distribution boards with obstacles such as interior walls, solid exterior walls, metal studs and multiple floor levels really push wireless networks by reducing their signal strength.

WDZ is an industry-wide issue that needs an industry-wide solution, not in the future, but now. WDZ alone is one of the biggest problems the internet-of-energy industry faces right now if they want to use wireless.

So why the love affair with wireless energy meters? Well wireless should save-time and money because you avoid running data cables. In reality wireless is a good technology being used in the wrong situation.

There is a time and place for a wireless meter, but not every where every time. The issue isn’t that wireless can not be made to work. It is that sometimes wired would be a better option. 

Using wireless energy meters in faraday cage environments is just bad engineering and poor product design.

Wireless meters don’t perform in metal cabinets because they can’t break the laws of physics.

So selling meters that get installed in these situations requires additional work. Like drilling holes, running antennas there is a whole bunch of techniques that work.

Would it not be smarter to design a product that worked in wireless dead zones? 

Well one way to avoid WDZ is to use meters that use data wires, like your Ethernet at work. This is a really good solution for WDZ. Once you install the wiring it will work for years. The challenge is that the wiring needs to be isolated from the power. Should something go wrong inside the cabinet then you may find huge power surges traveling along the wiring. Potentially destroying equipment or worse killing someone. Done professionally data wires are a solution. Quality wired meters are isolated.

Obviously pulling wires (running wires) is expensive – it can add hundreds, if not thousands, to a straight forward job. Also wires may need holes to be drilled through walls. The danger is that you drill through walls you may hit unseen water pipes or other cabling.

There is a neat solution for wired meters, it is PLC. Power line communications (PLC) is a wonderful technology that uses electrical wiring as the “wire” to send data. I have seen many solar installers using this option instead of running wires. Unfortunately quality PLC kits start at $140 a pair.

Powerline communications (PLC) is a simple-to-install digital technology. PLC uses electrical power lines to create a data network that’s faster and more reliable than wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and Zigbee. PLC can improve the reliability and security of communication to connected devices in hard to reach spots like a meter box or distribution cabinet.

The main issue with using PLC is that you are adding more equipment into the solution which means more points of failure. Now you have a meter, and two PLC units to get to work. But a least it works.

So wireless energy meters for meter cabinets is poor product design.

What is needed is something that address Wireless Dead Zones (WDZ) and is not complex nor expensive that can cheaply and accurately measure electricity.

WDZ may be an inconvenient truth but it needs to be addressed if we are going to scale this industry.

 

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