Smart Solutions to Global Problems

Conlog has been involved in the prepayment industry since its inception in South Africa in the late 1980s. Over the years, the company has grown to become a world leader in the electricity, water and solar prepayment field, providing innovative solutions and products to meet the growing needs of utilities around the world.

Boasting an installed base of over two million meters, Conlog spends some 6% of revenue on research and development, with the aim of producing new products and enhancements every six months.

In addition, under contract to South Africa’s parastatal electricity supplier Eskom, Conlog was the chosen supplier to develop the national specification for the credit transfer of prepayment - the Standard Transfer Specification (STS). Because of South Africa’s leading status in the prepayment industry, many other countries have adopted the STS as well, which helps ensure compatibility between competing products.

Franco Pucci, engineering manager for Conlog, said that because of Conlog’s extensive technology experience, it has been able to develop innovative solutions which meet the demands of the developing world, as well as the first world.

“The most popular electricity prepayment meter remains the single phase meter, however there is an ever growing demand for our split meters which were developed to enable increased security and, particularly on the international market, to address certain cultural issues,” said Pucci.

The split meter sees the user interface unit (UIU) being separated from the measurement and control unit (MCU). The MCU, which contains the measurement and control circuits, can be retrofitted into meter boxes, or placed in secure pole-mounted housing. Meanwhile the UIU is installed in the consumer’s home to enable easy access for token entry, as well as viewing the available credit and consumption rates.

The two units then communicate with each other over a pair of communication wires. Furthermore, the MCU utilises these wires to provide power to the consumers’ UIU, which further reduces tampering or faults. As the MCU is placed outside of the consumer’s property, it also makes for easier access for technicians.

Non-grid Electrification

“But these systems only meet the needs of consumers who are on the grid network and, with the growing demand for basic services, a solution was needed for rural, non-grid communities,” said Pucci.

Thus a secure solar prepayment solution was born – Powerhouse. Based on patented security technology from Conlog’s automotive era, the system eradicates theft through a patented security cut-out switch which is integrated at manufacture into both the panel and battery. Should the items be separated, they will no longer operate.

The solar panel then feeds electricity to a charge-controlled battery and prepayment device, which are integrated into a single housing. The consumer purchases a magnetic prepayment card token which, once inserted, enables the charge controller, allowing it to supply an output to the connected load.

Powerhouse controls a standard system of 200 Wh per day, with the capability of expanding to 400 Wh. The system is also pre-set, via pre-made ‘plug-and-play' harnesses, for two 8 A light socket outlets, an 8 A radio/television outlet and a 14 A outlet which could be used to operate a small cooking device.

On the water metering side, Conlog has also ensured that all needs are met with a variety of options, including bulk/industrial pre-payment systems, standpipes, which are installed at communal water supply points, as well as individual household sites via yard connections.

All the water products are based on similar principles, whereby they work off an encrypted Smart Token that transfers the credit purchased from the vending unit to the meter. This simultaneously uploads consumption registers and other data from the meter for transferral back to the vending unit, at the time of the end-user’s next purchase.

In addition, because the meters are currency-based, the system is user friendly and consumers are able to budget for their needs accordingly. The systems also feature multiple tariff levels, enabling water to be priced affordably and equitably.

Furthermore, as the materials have no commercial value the products are theft proof, whilst the meters and tokens are constructed for harsh environments and are able to withstand extreme heat, dust and use.

A perfect synergy

The nerve centre for prepayment is without a doubt the vending and management systems. Here Conlog has once again provided simple, yet effective solutions.

The vending units, which are used to issue water or electricity credit tokens to customers, are similar to a conventional credit card terminal and can be situated at various points convenient to the consumer. When a purchase is made, the unit stores all the sales data, which is transferred to the management system via modem, disk or radio.

Furthermore, depending on the installation, Conlog offers a variety of specialised types of vending units, such as touch-screen systems as well as PC systems, both of which enable full functional vending and management reporting.

The management system is an administration package for full revenue and management control – collecting, processing and storing all customer information and transactions from the prepayment meters and vending units. From this information a variety of reporting functions can be undertaken, such as water/electricity balancing, metering point history and vendor reports.

Because the systems are based on smart technology, they are able to interrogate the meter and provide a consumption record monthly, while the exception reports enable fraud to be minimised by tracking consumer usage and purchases.

To ensure the system easily integrates into the utility’s existing infrastructure, the management systems are available in DOS, Windows and SQL operating platforms.

Into the future

Conlog’s aim to remain at the forefront of the prepayment industry is seen with its range of new products.

Leading the way in the multi-utility metering market, with smart card capabilities, is the Ultima system. Offering prepayment for both water and electricity, with plans for future functions to be supported, the Ultima meter uses a single user interface for both services. In addition, the meter comes standard with both a keypad interface as well as a Smartcard reader that supports complex tariffs.

The Ultima management system manages both financial and meter-related information, thereby addressing both the commercial and technical needs of the customer. The system has full network communication capabilities and is fully compatible with Conlog’s existing devices as well as other manufacturers’ vending units.

Capable of handling hundreds of thousands of customers, the system supports unlimited step tariffs, with the ability to undertake predictive step tariffs whereby estimates are undertaken on the amount of future consumption for current and future months, based on the customers purchase history. Furthermore, when future purchases are made the system will compensate for errors in its estimates and adjust the monthly average.

Future plans also include the development of automatic meter reading (AMR). Although already in existence in post-payment markets around the world, Conlog is once again looking at a new and innovative development whereby the AMR is coupled with tokenless vending, which enables two way communication i.e. feed-back and feed-forward.