Smart meter flare-up

Consumer discontent creates collective of concerns
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
By Barbara Carss

Fire departments in Ontario have been asked to report fires or explosions associated with electrical meter installations to the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) so that further investigation can be conducted.

A fire marshal’s communiqué issued in early October announced the launch of a six-month monitoring period in an effort to identify patterns and determine if there is more widespread cause for concern following seven such incidents since May 2011.

“The OFM is aware the installation of smart meters in other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States has resulted in incidents similar to the ones that occurred in Ontario,” the communiqué states. “Although in Ontario, more information is needed to determine the scope and extent of the problem.”

So far, it would appear to be an issue in about 0.00015 per cent of cases based on seven fires/explosions among the approximately 4.5 million smart meters that have been installed throughout the province to facilitate time-of-use electricity pricing for residential, small business and farm customers. Although there are no statistics for earlier periods, knowledgeable observers speculate there were a comparable number of incidents involving the old model mechanical meters.

“Meter and meter base failures have always occurred. It’s not something that just started,” says Larry Herod, director of distribution services with Newmarket Hydro, one of the first local distribution companies (LCD) in Ontario to roll-out the smart meter program.

Coalescence of complaints
Consumer discontent is already apparent due to electricity cost increases arising from the time-of-use price structure. Other detractors express concern about heightened exposure to electromagnetic fields related to smart meters’ wireless technology.

Outside Ontario, that opposition now seems to be coalescing around unproven allegations of fire risk, particularly in the U.S. where there is typically more resistance to the idea of the government – in this case, represented by the local electrical utility – monitoring citizens’ activities.

“The fires have given people a new reason to try to block installations,” suggests U.S.-based energy management consultant, Lindsay Audin.

Smart meter installations have been temporarily halted in some areas of the PJM transmission region, which covers all or parts of 13 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., while investigators explore the source of the 26 fires that have occurred over the summer and early fall.

“It appears to relate to older homes with poor or very old wiring,” says Audin. “In several of the incidents, it was found the installer jammed the new meter into slots that were already bent, heavily oxidized or otherwise in a condition that didn’t merit changing the meter. In those cases, the old meter should have been put back in and the condition of the meter base should have been reported.”

Diligence and education required
In Ontario, the switchover of the vast majority of residential and small commercial meters within the past three years accentuates the same sort of vulnerability.

“The mere process of unplugging and plugging into a meter base is bound to expose some defects that could cause shorting, failure or fire,” says energy management specialist, Mike McGee. “(But) that’s not attributable to the smart meter per se.”

In contrast, Newmarket Hydro’s Herod says the electricity distribution company’s diligence while replacing meters helped to identify previously undetected fire risks.

“We took the opportunity when we were replacing the meters to do a visual inspection of the meter base and our installers found things like cracks in the meter base or loose connections that might have become an issue,” he says. “So, I’d argue the smart meter installation was also a preventative safety exercise.”

Herod also stresses the importance of awareness programs and the ongoing need to answer the public’s questions. For example, concerns about electromagnetic fields are partly attributable to the misconception that smart meters are in a perpetual state of transmission.

“They record and store a lot more data than was the case with the old models but the total transmission in a day, on average, lasts for one to 1.5 seconds,” he says.” There is more exposure all around us from things like cell phones, Wi-Fi, baby monitors and garage door openers.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management magazine.

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