How Sub-Meters in Commercial Properties Save Money & Headaches

In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know to get started with sub-metering, including:

What is Sub-Metering?

The main water meter for a residential or commercial condo property is generally situated in an underground chamber at the entrance to the property. Historically water utilities typically are not interested in reading and billing individual unit owners of the property. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any water utility in the province that would do this. They just prefer to have one point of contact and send one water bill to a condo management company. At the end of the day the water revenue is the same but the cost for the utility is drastically different in comparison between a single water bill versus many individual water bills for the property.

Sub-metering allows the installation of separate water meters in either multi-unit commercial or residential properties usually run by a condominium corporation. With sub-metering you can have a reading for each individual tenant rather than a grouped reading from the main water meter.

Sub-Metering Background

Of the three major utilities water, gas and electricity, water gets the least amount of attention in the energy sector since it’s the cheapest to buy. Yet residential and commercial properties require a combination of all three for the most part.

For many years commercial property distribution to individual unit owners have been accomplished through gas and electric sub meters but not water meters. Until recently, total water usage on a commercial property was typically divided equally between unit owners and billed accordingly.

This would be a fair approach if each individual unit had a similar business model. As an example, individual units would be all restaurants, all manufacturing or strictly all office use. This is rarely the case and that means that an accounting office with one bathroom will have the same water bill as a restaurant likely using a much higher amount of water.

Water meters have advanced from a simple dial that was read and billed quarterly. Water meters are accurate to industry standards including down to 1 litre/min flow rate as well as a reading resolution as low as 0.1 litre when read by the premise owner.

Gone are the days of meter readers having to enter homes or commercial businesses to obtain the reading from the meter register. Being able to obtain the reading remotely was another big step in the evolution of water meter reading since a major barrier to commercial sub-metering was location of the water meter. In commercial units, most times the water service and meter location are high up in the ceiling and it would not be cost effective for meter readers to carry around long ladders!

Benefits of Sub-Metering

The advantages for installing sub-meters for landlords and property managers are:

The advantages of installing sub-meters for unit owners are:

There are minimal disadvantages to sub-metering however from a budgeting perspective you will have to determine which data collection method best suits your needs as the capital cost of the installation can vary depending on how you want to read the water meters. Also, whether reading and billing using in house resources or contracted out, there will be some annual operating costs to be factored in when considering sub-meters. These line items will include generating and issuing water bills, investigating high bill complaints and water theft as well as normal water meter maintenance and repair as your meter system ages. During the installation of the sub-meters there may be temporary inconvenience to unit owners as water service will be required to be shut-off for about 30 minutes.

Reading Technology & Sub-Metering

Wired reading technology for commercial sub-metering is labour intensive, costly, and prone to tampering. The water meter industry has come a long way since the days of collecting water meter readings via pen and paper. RF water meter transmitters has revolutionized the water meter reading industry. Reading can be achieved either by the close proximity of the parking lot using unlicensed 910-920MHz technology or off-site data collection using cellular transmitting capabilities.

The newest sub-meter and reading technology incorporates features such as leak detection, no-flow detection and reverse flow detection. Additionally, these systems can data-log consumption hourly making it easy for property management to troubleshoot abnormal consumption based on the business type.

Best Practices for Successful Sub-Metering Projects

A good sub-metering project foundation starts with water meter selection. There are many choices when searching the internet for meters that measure or monitor your water usage especially in this day and age of iOT. Many times, these devices operate inferentially, meaning they don’t directly measure the flow and consumption. You will come across many different species of water meters including “clamp-on” and “insertion” type meters as you browse the web.

Our recommendation is to use what public water utilities throughout North America have been using for over a hundred years now to accomplish accurate water meter recording and timely reading and billing.

The two main types of water meters used by utilities today are either positive displacement or ultrasonic metering technology. Both are designed with a 20-year lifespan. Positive displacement meter accuracy will decline by 3-5% over it’s life whereas the ultrasonic holds its near perfect factory accuracy over its lifetime. The trade-off comes down to budget considerations as the newer ultrasonic technology is significantly higher in cost. The water meters will comprise a good chunk of your budget.

Another significant contributor to your budget will be determined by your reading system selection. As a general rule a system that requires the fewest reads/bills per year and also requires you to be at the property to collect the reading is often the lowest overall cost. This is typically a touchpad meter reading system that requires the reader to come to the property and probe every unit touchpad to obtain the reading. Conversely, obtaining cellular readings remotely offsite of the property will naturally be the highest overall project cost. The project cost will vary in between these two extremes based on reading interval requirements and the final selection of transmitter technology.

Water meter installations require the use certified water meter installer (5/8”-1” service size) or licensed plumber (all service sizes). Many authorized water meter distributors such as ESL have service groups that can help manage your overall project including unit owner communication, install scheduling as well as installation of the meters and reading system. Authorized distributors have in depth knowledge of the product and years of system integration experience minimizing any finger pointing should any bumps in the road are encountered.

Unlike residential homes whereby the water service almost always enters the basement from the front of the property, each commercial property is different and each unit within a property can

be unique in the way that the water service runs. If uncertain about the best approach, contact an industry professional for a consultation. Generally, consultations are low in cost (if any) and negligible in comparison to the project cost. It will help you to determine the best overall fit for your requirements.

Practical Case Study

Evans Supply Limited helped Commercia’s retail/office condo property sub-meter in order to reconcile their tenant usage to their municipal water bill and at the same time created fair and equitable billing for this 31-unit ground floor condo strip mall. Tenant business profiles ranged from a food market to a bookstore. Add to that a travel agency, a dentist as well as several hair salons, massage therapy clinics and restaurants. Some units like the hair salons and restaurant did not have a sub-meter set up so the buildings water bill from the city was split amongst the tenants. This meant that the hair salon, which used more water, was getting a much better rate then the bookstore which hardly used any. Installing sub-meters in each tenant’s unit allowed for accurate and fair billing when it came time to paying their water bills. Read more about how sub-meters saved some tenants money and helped property managers mitigate water loss in this buildings case study.

Get Started Today

For fair and equitable billing amongst unit owners within your condo corporation as well as headache free reading and billing management, get in contact with us today.

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