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Testing Power – Getting Smart Meters Right

August 12, 2020

Our Business Development Manager for Smart Technology Solutions, Matt Dillane, discusses a key challenge faced by smart meter manufacturers: testing.

Testing Power – Getting Smart Meters Right
When you’re looking at a product, it’s rare to look back at the process taking it from idea to reality, to the point where the user is finally experiencing it. There’s no doubt that one of the key stages in this journey is testing. Testing ensures a product works as it should and, crucially, that it is safe to use. But arguably, the more common a product is, the less likely it is for people to think about this long process, moving from a concept to something that is fully tested and assured for use. As smart meters become more and more of a staple within households, they too will surely fall into this category. 

The concept of testing can be summed up by a simple question: “does the system behave as specified?” To answer that question, we need to focus on two ideas: "specification" and "people". Testing activities cannot be meaningful unless there are specification requirements to test against – namely, how the system should behave in certain situations and the experience of people executing those tests are considered.

This obviously applies to smart meters; they need to be tested to make sure they are accurate, reliable, and safe, as any malfunction could mean incorrect data is recorded, leading to incorrect bills which could result in significant economic and reputational damage. However, when we talk about testing, smart meter manufacturers and energy suppliers face a range of difficult and complex challenges. 


Regulations & specifications


To make sure smart meters are safe and perform as expected, meter manufacturers and energy suppliers need to follow several, often complex, regulations, protocols and specifications. This means that smart meters need to be fully tested before entering the market. Meters need to accurately follow the required standards, such as the Measuring Instruments Directive (MID). Then they must make sure that the firmware in the device is developed, tested and integrated appropriately. All of this happens before we even consider DLMS/COSEM protocols, companion specifications, or even SMETS2 and CPA approval. Naturally, this means a considerable amount of investment, in both time and money, is required for a smart meter to get out there in the world.

We can add a further layer of complexity, such as GBCS (the Great Britain Companion Specification). The GBCS requirements specify how a smart meter must securely communicate between the consumer's home and the Data Communications Company (DCC) infrastructure. Within those specifications are DUIS (DCC User Interface Specification) and MMC (Message Mapping Catalogue). At this stage, we go beyond profile data and metrology and enter the realms of key encryption and complex communications. The GBCS and DUIS specifications are highly regulated and controlled. However, they are not immune to change, updates and additions, so smart meter manufacturers must be constantly aware of what’s happening in terms of changes to regulations and specifications.  


Changes & updates 


Whilst changes in these specifications and regulations are fairly infrequent, when a change does occur, this must be reflected in the smart meter’s firmware. At this point, the cycle of testing will begin again, and costs will continue to accrue. 

There are also increasing pressures on energy suppliers to make sure the changes that have occurred in a meter’s firmware are implemented in the supplier's metering stock. This in turn means the energy supplier needs to carry out some form of due diligence on the smart meters. They are also responsible for deploying firmware updates. It’s not unreasonable to say that an energy supplier is not a device testing house and does not have the bandwidth to perform such exhaustive testing, although it is clearly their responsibility. There is also a level of engineering expertise required from an energy supplier that traditionally they don’t have.


Lack of expertise 


Amongst all of these challenges, there is real concern that there is a lack of testing being carried out prior to the deployment of smart meters. This could be for a number of reasons, but there is considerable pressure on all parties to deliver based on the smart meter targets set out by Government. There is also a perception that this expertise is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  


Expertise, knowledge and process are inevitably major parts of the testing challenge. A diverse range of knowledge is needed to successfully test smart meters and ensure they reach the necessary standards laid out by regulatory bodies like SEC., The various standards and regulations which smart meters must abide by means testers must be able to work with profile data and metrology but also with communications encryption and emulation. This is in addition to the regressive and destructive testing capabilities which provide greater assurances as to the quality, availability, reliability and scalability of these operationally-critical smart meter devices. 

Naturally, this kind of expertise doesn’t come cheap. Costs, including salaries and specialised equipment, can soon add up when trying to secure these varied skillsets and resources for testing activities. With this in mind, many smart meter manufacturers have opted for highly-simplified automated testing solutions, which not only carry out a range of testing activities but do so in a way that produces results more quickly than more extensive testing. Of course, the right people are needed to operate such systems, which means that a lack of expertise remains a key issue faced by manufacturers. 

Critical Software’s work in developing smart meter testing solutions represents one cog in a wider machine enabling more efficient quality assurance. Our SMITEn testing infrastructure has provided clients with a fully integrated toolkit supporting a range of test scenarios for SMETS1 and SMETS2 smart meter devices. This includes emulation of many devices and end points, useful for manufacturers whose equipment does not currently have a live connection to the Data Communications Company’s network. 

To find out more about what we can offer when it comes to smart meter testing, take a look at our testing offer below.