October 26, 2020
Submeter Installation: How It Works
Submeters provide incredible cost savings and ROI for multifamily owners. But before you can leverage these benefits, you’ll need to install the right submeters properly. In this post, we review how utility billing companies and submetering technicians install submeters to ensure accurate reads and long-term ROI.
Today, we’re going to take a look at how technicians install submeters on multifamily properties. More than likely, this will be easier to understand if you have some background knowledge on submetering. So, if you’re new to it all, here’s how it works. Otherwise, let’s jump in.
Submeter System Design
Before you can start installing submeters, it’s important to design the submetering system around the unique requirements of the property. Most of the time, the installation process falls into two types of projects: new construction and retrofitting.
Installing a submeter during a new construction project involves designing a submeter system for a building that doesn’t exist yet. To manage this, submetering technicians will plan the installation after architecture and construction plans are finalized.
The building style and layout have a significant influence on submeter system design. High rise, mid-rise and garden-style apartments all have unique layout and utility requirements.
For example, apartment buildings in cities will save space by using centralized boiling systems that provide hot water from one central location. In contrast, many suburban apartments will have individual water heaters for each unit. Both applications require different submeter configurations.
After looking at the building designs, the technician and utility billing company will decide whether they need to install the meters inside or outside. Most apartments have them installed inside.
When you retrofit a community with submeters, you have to account for the fact that the property is currently occupied. These installations require a level of security, cleanliness and decorum because you have to enter someone’s home to perform the work. And now, with social distancing protocols in effect, you have to do all of this at an even higher level.
Retrofitting a submeter can be more complex than new construction. During new construction, the building developer has their own plumber to install things. Then, the submeter technicians will add the meters onto the plumbing.
In contrast, retrofitting jobs require certified technicians to work with a plumber to take the utilities offline, install the meters and then address potential failures in plumbing and applications.
Retrofitting a multifamily property can also involve working with older buildings. Trends in utility and building layouts change over time. The plumbing in a 50-year-old building will likely have different submetering requirements than one built last year. If you have a building with an older-style configuration, it’s important to work with a technician that knows your style of building.
Types of Utilities
There are three utilities you can submeter: water, gas and electric.
The submetering requirements of water and gas are fairly similar, though they do require different meters. They’re both consumables traveling through a pipe, and the submeters monitor the consumption for each unit.
Electric submetering, in contrast, is a completely different animal.
Submetering electricity requires a serious degree of caution and training. Unlike water and gas meters, electric submeters are usually installed in electrical rooms, surrounded by high voltage devices. All of this electricity poses a serious safety hazard if handled incorrectly.
Because of this, it’s absolutely essential to work with a certified technician. By partnering with a technician with the necessary skillset and training, you’ll be able to safely install electric submeters without any accidents or property damage.
Identifying Submeter Requirements
Once the technician has designed the system, they identify the requirements that will impact submeter selection.
There are a few factors to consider:
- The utility – each utility requires different types of submeters.
- The environment – outdoor meters need to be able to handle tougher conditions than indoor meters.
- Meter size – the meter needs to align with size of the plumbing it will be installed on.
- Fixture unit demand – the amount of demand you’re asking of your lines. This will also affect meter size.
Selecting a Submeter
Once you’ve determined the requirements of the meter, you’ll need to select a submeter to deploy on your property. A technician or utility billing company will be able to connect you with multiple manufacturers that carry that type of product.
Say, for example, you need a three-quarter inch, cold water, indoor meter for an apartment. This narrows your options from every meter on the market to a handful that meet this specification. The rest of your decision is based on quality and longevity.
The factors of quality and longevity directly influence each other. Cheap, outsourced meters are inexpensive to deploy, but have limited longevity. They’re essentially disposable, as you’ll probably need to repeat the entire process in just a few years.
In contrast, higher quality meters are more expensive to deploy, but they can deliver accurate reads and ROI for over a decade. They’re ideal for multifamily owners because they pay for themselves in one to two years and continue to deliver value for the rest of their lifecycle.
One other factor to keep in mind is whether the submeter is proprietary or non-proprietary. Some manufacturers design submeters to only be compatible with certain software and utility billing companies. If you install proprietary meters in your property, you’ll have limited options in selecting a billing company. You’ll also have little flexibility to switch billing companies, should an issue arise.
Whichever route you take, the goal is always to balance the delivery of high quality meters within a specific budget.
An automatic meter reading (AMR) system is a device that automates the collection of utility data from submeters. They’re designed to reduce labor costs associated with manual reads and improve data on utility consumption. They also eliminate the need to enter a unit to get a manual read. This helps landlords practice social distancing while still collecting submeter data each month.
Before installing the AMR system, the technician will program the electronics. This involves configuring the devices for automatic reads and pairing devices with units in the billing system. Each unit number and address must be identified in the software and then applied to the meter.
A common problem on new construction projects is that unit addressing can change during development. And if AMR devices are associated with the wrong address, tenants could be billed incorrectly. One way technicians get around this is by verifying with the fire department or postal service if they have approved the unit addresses.
Installing AMR Systems
To install an AMR device on a submeter, technicians connect them through a wire that allows the AMR system to access the submeter data. The AMR device needs to be configured to accept one of the two different types of submeter outputs: pulse and electronic.
Pulse submeters use a magnet to engage a contact switch that creates a pulse. This pulse represents a certain measurement of utility consumption. One pulse could equal one gallon, or ten gallons. Pulse meters offer a number of benefits, including greater resolution, lower prices, compact size and low cost touch pad circuitry.
In contrast, electronic output meters, also known as absolute or encoder meters, use digital switches or sensors to communicate the meter read. Unlike pulse outputs, they’re able to display their reads at any time and don’t require operators to multiply by a pulse factor to get total consumption. They provide less opportunity for tampering or data loss, lower battery drain and compact size.
For both types of submeter outputs, setting up the AMR to properly read a submeter’s pulse is essential to getting accurate reads.
Getting More Accurate Reads
AMR systems communicate submeter reads through radio frequencies (RF). Sometimes, after installing the submeters, poor reception can prevent this data from getting back to the gateway.
Technicians solve this by deploying a network of repeater-based amplifiers. These devices bridge the connection between the transmitter and gateway. They are typically plugged into the power in common area closets that hold internet distribution and cabling.
On new construction projects, technicians install AMR systems in unoccupied buildings with no electronics. This makes it fairly easy to achieve 100% reception. But when tenants move in, they bring electronics that can interfere with reception. Because of this, technicians should consider how the reception will perform both occupied and unoccupied. The goal with every AMR installation is to get 100% reception from every transmitter both during and after building occupancy.
Submeter installation is a complex but worthwhile process for multifamily owners. With the right equipment, skilled partners and careful installation, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of submeters for years to come.