4th March 2020
Solving smart meter issues at Octopus Energy
Joe Grainger, Smart Meter Operations Manager
Hi, I'm Joe and I’m part of Octopus’ Smart Metering Team! It’s my job to resolve any issues that may crop up in the smart metering process.
First things first, it’s worth taking a moment to stress how much we love smart meters here at Octopus. This incredible tech has paved the way for some unbelievably innovative tariffs, which allow our customers to consume greener energy more affordably, and contribute to a smarter, greener electrical grid for everyone. Who wouldn’t want that?!
We’re also proud to have customers who are highly motivated to use smart meters - demand is high, and the vast majority of installations are totally smooth, so you can order your smart meter with confidence.
As someone whose job is to fix things when they go wrong, I wanted to talk about what happens under the hood - the issues that can occasionally crop up, and what we can do to help fix them.
The metering system is extraordinarily complex (this is generally down to security and Greg, our CEO, goes into more detail about that here). This can make pinpointing a particular issue challenging. Given this complexity, keeping customers in the loop while we are fixing them poses a bit of a dilemma - we understand that hearing “we’re still working it out” can quickly wear thin. Hopefully this piece gives you some idea about what we are actually up to!
How should SMETS2 meters work?
SMETS2 meters - the latest generation of smart meters - are still pretty new, so the infrastructure is constantly being improved upon. To understand what’s going on - it’s good to know a little about the infrastructure first!
First there's the meters themselves. There are numerous manufacturers and models, different firmware versions and different communication hub models. Then there are also different types of In-Home-Display (IHDs).
There are also different networks. There is the Home Area Network (HAN) in your home, which enables the smart meter to communicate with the In-Home-Displays.
Then we have the Wide Area Network (WAN). This is actually split into several constituent networks - the UK’s northern region uses a different protocol than that used in the ‘central’ and southern regions. Your meter uses the WAN to communicate with us, your supplier. Within this network, there are then various Communication Service Providers (CSP) that are used to transfer the information. The type of CSP depends on what's available in your region.
As a side note, WAN is not yet available in every postcode. In rare cases, we have to get the DCC to fix this before we can fit a smart meter. All smart meter interactions (not just consumption data, but all the commands given to meters, etc) are routed via both the DCC, a government-appointed company, and then the Adaptor - a security-audited company through which all of our communications with DCC are routed. (I told you it was complicated).
A smooth installation requires harmonious interactions between ALL of these various components.
In the SMETS2 system, all of these components were designed separately, but launched at the same time. They needed to function well independently as well as when they interact with each other, so there’s no surprise that the odd glitch needed to be identified and ironed out.
Now, if you encounter one of these issues, it will generally make its way to me or one of my colleagues. I’d now like to shed some light on what kinds of issues crop up, and what goes into resolving them.
The “Holy Trinity”
When trying to identify a SMETS2 issue, we check the “smart portal” (the platform we use to monitor and manage installations and the meters thereafter) and look for the "Holy Trinity" - the ‘Commission’, ‘Configuration’ and ‘Joining’ of the meter. For the meter to successfully communicate and the IHD to update, all three of these processes must be successful. First, the commission has to go through successfully for the configuration and the join process to begin. If the commission fails, the two other processes are likely to fail. Here's how the Holy Trinity should look when during an electricity installation:
It's useful to note that each phase of the “Trinity” is split up into various "service requests". If one of these service requests gets stuck or fails, the whole process fails. Here's what I see when looking at a successful installation.
The first stage in the "Holy Trinity" is Commission, which is made up of 12 service requests.
The second stage in the "Holy Trinity" is Configuration, which is made up of 17 service requests.
The third stage in the "Holy Trinity" is Joining, which is made up of 5 service requests.
We can see that for the meter installation to be a “success”, 34 steps must be completed successfully. And that’s just for the electricity meter!
To see an example of what happens when something goes wrong, check out the commissioning on this electricity meter below:
We can see that there's an issue on the 8.1.1 - Commission Device which requires our attention.
On another example below, we can see that the meter is stuttering its way through the commissioning orchestration:
Where we notice an error in the Holy Trinity, we need to determine the source of the issue. This process can be lengthy. There are multiple stages involving multiple organisations that must be processed, both to make sure we’re doing what we can to resolve the issue and that we’re not missing any critical information.
The first port of call is to check the smart meter portal provided by our Adaptor, TMA. In most instances, we’re able to resolve the issue by repeating a service request that had previously gotten stuck. The most common reason for the initial failure is that a service request sometimes “times out”. For every service request, there is a set time in which it must complete the action. If there is a temporary drop in signal strength, then the service request can get stuck, and the commissioning process will not continue. If we repeat the action, this gently reminds the meter that it still hasn’t completed the commission, configuration or join orchestration. If the signal strength is strong enough, we’re able to resolve most issues this way. Thankfully, we’re currently working on developing a fix that will apply a ‘repeat action’ automatically. If the repeat action method does not work, then it’s likely there’s a more complex issue at play. Typically, we’ll request a job report from an engineer. The purpose of this is to check to see if there’s any indication of a signal issue.
Device ID Errors
We’d also look at the photos of the meters, comms hub and IHD just to make sure that their device IDs correlate with the installation record. This is trickier than it sounds. During a dual fuel exchange, there are 5 devices installed (the ESME, GSME, PPMID, CHF and GPF) and each has a 16-digit code (For clarity, these acronyms are detailed below). If one digit is wrong, the commission fails. In most installations, the device IDs are scanned in directly from the meter so the risk of error there is significantly reduced. However, we have come across scenarios where engineers have had to manually input device IDs because their scanners weren’t working, and this sometimes results in failed installations. We’ve also had engineers report that certain meters are very difficult to scan, meaning that it is easier to input the device ID manually.
Here are the five different devices installed during a duel fuel exchange:
● ESME: Electricity Smart Metering Equipment - this is the physical electricity meter that records the amount of electric energy that is consumed by the property.
● GSME: Gas Smart Metering Equipment - this is the physical gas meter that records the volume of gas that is being consumed at the property.
● CHF: Communications Hub Function - The communication hub function (CHF) is what allows the smart meters and in-home displays to connect to each other across the home area network (HAN). It also allows the electricity meter to connect to the DDC network, which then allows us to take meter readings automatically and remotely.
● GPF: Gas Proxy Function - situated in the CHF, this is where the gas meter sends its information too. Which is then passed to the CHF and then passed through to us.
● PPMID: Prepayment Meter Interface Device - this is your In-Home-Display unit
If that doesn't work?
If these two common errors aren't responsible for the issue, and the answer still isn't obvious, we’ll raise it with both the portal and DCC. We’ll then work together with these organisations, sharing as much information as possible to determine what the issue is. The portal team will then work on creating a fix for the service request which can be applied automatically, in order to have the least impact on the customer. These instances often require a lot of analysis. The firmware, meter model, device IDs and service request all have to be detailed so that we can spot any trends with these components and see if this a local or more widespread fault.
Once a fix has been determined, we then have to test it to ensure this works. Importantly, when we repeat an action on the gas meter, it can take up to 64 minutes before we know whether this has been successful. When considering there could be 34 service requests to go through, knowing whether the commission has been completed successfully can take a long time.
In Home Display errors
The most common queries we come across are related to the In-Home-Display (IHD). We also have a series of checks we can run through to make sure the IHD is communicating correctly.
However, we still occasionally come across instances where, despite all communication checks being successful, the customer reports that the correct information isn’t displaying. Again, the challenge here is pin-pointing where the error is happening.
Like you, we’re super keen to resolve these issues because we understand how valuable a functioning IHD is. We’re in continuous discussion with the IHD manufacturers, who regularly spend time in our office, working alongside our smart meter team to ensure that every customer has a smooth journey. If you do have an IHD issue, it’s always really helpful to include the following:
● Send through a photo of the various screens to detail the issue;
● Let us know how far the IHD was from the Electric meter when you noticed the issue;
● Let us know how far apart the meters are from one another (if dual fuel)
● Let us know if any of the walls in between any of the items are heavily insulated in particular foil backed installation.
With an IHD issue, one important positive to remember is that if you have a smart tariff (OctopusGo, Agile etc) and we know the meter is commissioned, having an IHD that does not display the correct tariff will not impact the billing and you can still enjoy the benefits from being on the smart tariff.
Other commissioning errors
As mentioned above, there is room for a range of errors in such a complex system. If we cannot apply our Octopus certificates to the meter (this is a security measure that ensures that only we can read your meter), we will not be allowed to complete the commissioning process. If you look back over Image 5 above, thanks to the smart meter team’s hard work, we worked out that by re-sending a separate 6.21 service request outside of the commissioning process, DCC will check and re-apply the relevant certificates on a meter. Image 7 shows the result, a successful commission! In this case, the engineer visited on 08/01 because it was important that we spent time actually finding the solution as opposed to simply replacing the meter. For all we knew, replacing the meter earlier may have resulted in the same issue occurring. For this fix, we had to invite representatives from the Adapter to the office, and demonstrate numerous incidents in order to work out a solution. Now we know that when other customers have this issue, we can apply our tried and tested workaround.
The image above outlines some of the procedures we follow when a customer tells us that their installation hasn’t been successful. Since we started the SMETS2 roll out, we’ve come such a long way with ironing out those initial teething issues. We report every single issue that a customer experiences and this has helped us pinpoint where we need to focus our efforts. Ultimately, we’ve been able to make great progress and create lasting workarounds in order to minimise the impact on our customers.
At any given time, we have a hardworking team of extremely dedicated individuals working on resolving every SMETS2 related issue thats comes to us. If you do have an issue, please note that we will do what we can to resolve this for you - we know how important functioning smart meters are for both the individual customer and the future of energy more generally.
That being said, I’d like to reiterate that the majority of smart meter installations go through without a hitch. For every issue you see - many more customers will have had a hassle-free installation process - of course, they’re less likely to tweet/facebook/etc about it! Where there are issues, we’re generally confident that we have the knowledge and workarounds to fix them remotely. If we’ve done what we can, we’ll arrange for a site-investigation to be completed by an engineer.
Moreover, I’d like to reiterate that these kinds of issues are pretty standard with new tech. Many of these manual processes and fixes will be automated over time - but until then, it’s sometimes a case of eliminating variables and trying over and over again until we get it right.
Although these issues are already uncommon and getting rarer every day, Octopus is particularly affected because our fantastic tariffs - Agile, Go and Outgoing - all require fully-functioning smart meters. We know how frustrating it can be waiting for issues to be resolved, especially if you’re waiting to be switched onto a smart tariff. That’s why we’re investing millions of pounds in building up our own smart installation and smart issue resolution teams - in order to speed up and improve the installation process, and fix these kinds of problems as quickly as possible.
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