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What’s the Difference Between PLC and RF for Smart-Meter Backhaul?
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The use of power-line communication (PLC) and low-power radio frequency (RF) as the communications media for smart grids holds many advantages over the twisted-pair RS-485 network. Due to the absence of data cabling between nodes, PLC and RF are easier and less expensive to install, and provide better communications security over RS-485.
Low-Power RF Networking Technology
Low-power RF networking refers to the use of 315-MHz/433-MHz/780-MHz/2.4-GHz frequencies with transmit power equal to or less than 50 mW. Low-power RF modules may be embedded within electrical meters, to enable the use of wireless data communications in automatic meter reading (AMR) for power-consumption monitoring and data collection. Such modules can be embedded directly into the meter during production and installed on-site without laying cables when deploying.
Matured, wireless mesh networking technology allows the concentrator to communicate with all of the meters within its network control. This kind of low-power RF network is best suited for deployment within a restricted range that has a concentration of a large number of low-power communications modules (e.g., within a single floor of a building or a room of networked electrical meters).
Low-power RF networking also features low power consumption, auto-routing networks, two-way real-time communications, and mobility. RF modules can easily embed into electrical meters, data concentrator units (DCUs), and electrical appliances.
Because low-power RF communications use publicly available radio frequencies, other devices that utilize the same frequencies will inevitably cause signal interference. In addition, RF signals are vulnerable to obstructions, such as walls, which cause signal instability and result in shorter effective communication distances.
Frequency hopping can alleviate that signal interference. However, when other devices also use frequency hopping to counter interference, this in itself introduces more interference. Hence, it’s difficult to resolve the problem of mutual interference.
The fact that RF signals are vulnerable to obstructions limits their use in smart-grid applications, too. For example, thick walls often impede wireless communications between different floors (i.e., between the basement and the ground floor), resulting in unstable or no communications at all. PLC networks can easily resolve such problems.
PLC Network Technology
PLC offers a unique means of communication for a power-supply system, which takes full advantage of the wide coverage of power-line installations without having to lay dedicated cables. The technology has attracted the attention of power producers as well as users. Like RF wireless modules, it’s easy to embed PLC modules into electrical meters.
Thanks to mesh networking, DCUs can exchange data with all of the electrical meters within its network of control. Power lines go through floors and walls in the building. Therefore, theoretically, as long as there are power lines, it’s possible to achieve communications over them.