Types of metering devices

By Rory Macnamara

Does a water bill indicate an abnormal water consumption? The amount might not be pleasant for your customer to pay, but without it, one would not know that a pipe is leaking.

There are two common approaches to flow measurement: displacement and velocity, each making use of a variety of technologies. Common displacement designs include oscillating piston and nutating disc meters. Velocity-based designs include single- and multi-jet meters and turbine meters.

DSC 1939Municipal water meter.
Image credit: Rory Macnamara

There are also non-mechanical designs, for example electromagnetic and ultrasonic meters, and meters designed for special uses. Most meters in a typical water distribution system are designed to measure cold potable water only. Speciality hot water meters are designed with materials that can withstand higher temperatures. Meters for reclaimed water have special lavender register covers to signify that the water should not be used for drinking.

Additionally, there are electromechanical meters, like prepaid water meters and automatic water reading meters. The latter integrates an electronic measurement component and an LCD with a mechanical water meter. Mechanical water meters normally use a reed switch, hall or photoelectric coding register as the signal output. After processing by the microcontroller unit (MCU) in the electronic module, the data is transmitted to the LCD or output to an information management system.

Water meters are generally owned, read, and maintained by a public water provider, such as a city, rural water association, or private water company. In some cases, an owner of an apartment complex or commercial building may be billed by a utility based on the reading of one meter, with the costs shared among the tenants based on some sort of key (size of flat, number of inhabitants) or by separately tracking the water consumption of each unit in what is called sub-metering.

DSC 1938Domestic water meter.
Image credit: Rory Macnamara

Displacement water meters

This type of water meter is most often used in residential and small commercial applications as well as homes. Displacement meters are commonly referred to as positive displacement (PD) meters. Two common types are oscillating piston meters and nutating disk meters. Either method relies on the water to physically displace the moving measuring element in direct proportion to the amount of water that passes through the meter. The piston or disk moves a magnet that drives the register.

PD meters are generally very accurate at the low-to-moderate flow rates typical of residential and small commercial users, and commonly range in size from ⅝" to 2". Because displacement meters require that all water flows through the meter to ‘push’ the measuring element, they generally are impractical in large commercial applications requiring high flow rates or low-pressure loss. PD meters normally have a built-in strainer to protect the measuring element from rocks or other debris that could stop or break the measuring element. PD meters normally have bronze, brass, or plastic bodies with internal measuring chambers made of moulded plastics and stainless steel.

Velocity water meters

A velocity-type meter measures the velocity of flow through a meter of a known internal capacity. The speed of the flow can then be converted into volume of flow to determine the usage. Several types of meters measure water flow velocity, including jet meters (single-jet and multi-jet), turbine meters, propeller meters, and magnetic flow meters (commonly referred to as mag meters). Most velocity-based meters have an adjustment vane for calibrating the meter to the required accuracy.

Multi-jet meters

Multi-jet meters are very accurate in small sizes and are commonly used in ⅝" to 2" sizes for residential and small commercial users. Multi-jet meters use multiple ports surrounding an internal chamber to create multiple jets of water against an impeller, whose rotation speed depends on the velocity of water flow. Multi-jets are very accurate at low flow rates, but there are no large size meters since they do not have the straight-through flow path needed for the high flow rates used in large pipe diameters. Multi-jet meters generally have an internal strainer element that can protect the jet ports from getting clogged. Multi-jet meters normally have bronze alloy bodies or outer casings, with internal measuring parts made from modern thermoplastics and stainless steel.

Turbine meters

Turbine meters are less accurate than displacement- and jet meters at low flow rates, but the measuring element does not occupy or severely restrict the entire path of flow. The flow direction is generally straight through the meter, allowing for higher flow rates and less pressure loss than displacement-type meters. They are the meter of choice for large commercial users and fire protection, and as master meters for the water distribution system. Strainers are generally required to be installed in front of the meter to protect the measuring element from gravel or other debris that could enter the water distribution system. Turbine meters are generally available for 1½" to 12" or higher pipe sizes. Turbine meter bodies are commonly made of bronze, cast iron, or ductile iron. Internal turbine elements can be plastic or non-corrosive metal alloys. They are accurate in normal working conditions but are greatly affected by the flow profile and fluid conditions.

  • Fire meters are a specialised type of turbine meter meeting the high flow rates requirements for fire protection. They are often approved by underwriters laboratories (UL) or factory mutual (FM) for use in fire protection.
  • Fire hydrant meters are a specialised type of portable turbine meter attached to a fire hydrant to measure water flowing out of the hydrant. The meters are normally made of aluminium to keep their weight low and usually have a 3" capacity. Utilities often require them for measuring water used on construction sites, for pool filling, or where a permanent meter has not been installed yet.

Compound meters

A compound meter is used where high flow rates are necessary, but where at times there are also smaller rates of flow that need to be accurately measured. Compound meters have two measuring elements and a check valve to regulate flow between them. At high flow rates, water is normally diverted primarily or completely to the high flow element. The high flow element is typically a turbine meter. When flow rates drop to where the high flow element cannot measure accurately, a check valve closes to divert water to a smaller element that can measure the lower flow rates accurately. The low flow element is typically a multi-jet or PD meter. By adding the values registered by the high and low elements, the utility has a record of the total consumption of water flowing through the meter.

Electromagnetic meters

Mag meters are technically a velocity-type water meter, except that they use electromagnetic properties to determine the water flow velocity, rather than the mechanical means used by jet- and turbine meters. Mag meters use the physics principle of Faraday’s law of induction for measurement, and require AC or DC electricity from a power line or battery to operate the electromagnets. Since mag meters have no mechanical measuring element, they normally have the advantage of being able to measure flow in either direction and they use electronics for measuring and totalising the flow. Mag meters can also be useful for measuring raw (untreated/unfiltered) water and wastewater, since there is no mechanical measuring element to get clogged or damaged by debris flowing through the meter. Strainers are not required with mag meters, since there is no measuring element in the stream of flow that could be damaged. Since stray electrical energy flowing through the flow tube can cause inaccurate readings, most mag meters are installed with either grounding rings or grounding electrodes to divert stray electricity away from the electrodes used to measure the flow inside the flow tube.

Ultrasonic meters
Ultrasonic water meters use one or more ultrasonic transducer to send ultrasonic sound waves through the fluid to determine the velocity of the water. Since the cross-sectional area of the meter body is a fixed and known value, when the velocity of water is detected, the volume of water passing through the meter can be calculated with very high accuracy. Because water density changes with temperature, most ultrasonic water meters also measure the water temperature as a component of the volume calculation.

Two primary ultrasonic measurement technologies are used in water metering:

  • Doppler effect meters, which use the Doppler effect to determine the velocity of water passing through the meter; and
  • Transit time meters, which measure the amount of time required for the ultrasonic signal to pass between two or more fixed points inside the meter.

Ultrasonic meters may either be of flow-through or ‘clamp-on’ design. Flow-through designs are those where the water passes directly through the meter and are typically found in residential or commercial applications. Clamp-on designs are generally used for larger diameters where the sensors are mounted to the exterior of pipes, and so forth.

Ultrasonic water meters are typically very accurate, with residential meters capable of measuring down to 0.01 gallons or 0.001 cubic feet. In addition, they have wide flow measurement ranges, require little maintenance, and have long lifespans due to the lack of internal mechanical components to wear out. While relatively new to the American water utility market, ultrasonic meters have been used in commercial applications for many years and are becoming widely accepted due to their advantages over traditional mechanical designs.

Prepaid water meters

Meters can be prepaid or post-paid, depending on the payment method. Most mechanical type water meters are of the post-paid type, as are electromagnetic and ultrasonic meters. With prepaid water meters, the user purchases and prepays for a given amount of water from a vending station. The amount of water credited is entered on media such as an IC- or RF-type card. The main difference is whether the card needs a contact with the processing part of the prepaid water meter. In some areas, a prepaid water meter uses a keypad as the interface for inputting the water credit.


SANS 10400-W:2011 (Ed. 3.00)
The application of the National Building Regulations Part W: Fire installation.

SANS 1529-1:2006 (Ed. 2.03)
Water meters for cold potable water Part 1: Metrological characteristics of mechanical water meters of nominal bore not exceeding 100 mm.

SANS 1529-3:2006 (Ed. 1.01)
Water meters for cold potable water Part 3: Physical dimensions.

SANS 1529-4:2004 (Ed. 1.01)
Water meters for cold potable water Part 4: Mechanical meters of nominal bore exceeding 100mm but not exceeding 800mm.

SANS 1529-9:2008 (Ed. 2.01)
Water meters for cold potable water Part 9: Requirements for electronic indicators used with mechanical water meters, electronic water meters and electronic prepayment water measuring systems.

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