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Weights and Measures Week 2015: On the Path to Tomorrow

Weights and Measures Week 2015: On the Path to Tomorrow

Guest blog post by Carol Hockert, Director, Office of Weights and Measures, National Institute of Standards and Technology 

It’s held annually during the first week of March to commemorate President John Adams's signing of the first U.S. weights and measures law on March 2, 1799, but you may not be aware of it. Weights and Measures Week is when we as a nation take a moment to sing the praises of our unsung heroes, weights and measures inspectors and other weights and measures professionals and recognize the well-lubricated machine that is the U.S. commercial measurement system. It is also a good time to reflect on how the ever-evolving commercial marketplace drives the need for continual changes in that system. 

Many may think that, aside from the occasional redefinition, the standard units of measure are more or less fixed and there is relatively little need to change. 

Not so! 

Certainly ensuring uniformity and making sure that the chain of measurements from their ultimate realizations all the way down to the consumer level is unbroken and as accurate as possible is a large part of what the whole weights and measures system is about. But, as new products and services come on the market, supporting measurement standards and practices need to be put in place to help ensure that people know what they’re getting and for how much and to ensure that businesses selling those products and services are able to fairly compete. 

To recognize this, the National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) has made this year’s Weights and Measures Week theme “On the Path to Tomorrow.” NCWM is a professional nonprofit association of state and local weights and measures officials, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers that develops model codes that states use as a template for new weights and measures-related laws. 

“During the 110-year history of the NCWM, we have seen a number of advancements, from mechanical devices to highly sophisticated software-based weighing and measuring instruments and now apps used on smart phones,” NCWM Chairman Ronald Hayes said in a press release. 

With technical guidance from NIST, the NCWM is working to help pave the regulatory path forward for startup companies like Uber and Lyft that are using GPS to calculate passenger transport fares, alongside more conventional methods of measurement. Once complete, the model regulations for these systems will be included in NIST Handbook 44 so that states can adopt them, in whole or in part, into their regulatory structure. 

Other examples of recent advances can be seen in the area of alternative vehicle fuels such as hydrogen and electricity. Several years ago, the NCWM voted to sell hydrogen by mass. Along with accompanying equipment and testing standards, this established a framework for the commercial sale and distribution of hydrogen as a vehicle fuel. 

And just last year, NIST engineers showed that, in theory, it is possible to measure quantities of hydrogen with an error of as little as 1 percent, paving the way for a hydrogen-fueled economy. NIST technical experts are planning to begin field testing using this new test equipment this spring. 

In response to the growing number of electric vehicles on the country’s roadways, the NCWM’s members agreed that electricity at charging stations popping up around the country should be sold by the kilowatt hour, effectively putting an end to time-measured subscription services in favor of a system based on how much electrical energy is actually transferred. 

But that work isn’t done. The NCWM is currently considering a proposal from a NIST U.S. National Working Group to adopt additional standards for electric vehicle fueling equipment for incorporation into NIST Handbook 44. 

These proposed standards will give weights and measures inspectors the tools they need to inspect refueling equipment for accuracy and compliance with other requirements, much like they would a gas pump. These standards will also provide manufacturers with information needed to design and install recharging equipment suitable for use in commercial refueling of electric vehicles; provide refueling stations with requirements for installation and advertising needed to help ensure consumers know what to expect when buying electricity and to facilitate value comparisons; and promote fair competition among stations. 

The NCWM will vote on the NIST Work Group’s recommendations at the NCWM’s 100th annual meeting this July in Philadelphia. Once the regulations are adopted, they will be incorporated into NIST’s Handbooks 44 and 130 and go into effect next year. 

So you see, the world of weights and measures is constantly having to evolve to keep up with new markets and to help those markets evolve in a way that is both fair and transparent. Consumers, retailers, and commerce itself all depend upon this system and the people whose job it is to keep it running. The future is coming, and weights and measures professionals will be there to help chart the path forward to tomorrow and the next day and the days to come. 

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