Smart meter showdowns: PUCs step it up on fire safety, health effects
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By Liz Enbysk
SGN Managing Editor
Smart meters are taking more heat, and fires are just part of it. But let's start there, because we'll be hearing more about it later this week when the Pennsylvania PUC holds a briefing on Peco's overheating meters. (If after reading this you want a shot of good news about smart meters, we found some. Click to page 2.)
In August, you may recall, Peco temporarily suspended its smart meter installations after fire marshals in Bucks County, PA raised concerns about newly installed digital meters overheating and causing fires. The utility has now confirmed that 26 smart meters (out of some 200,000+ installed) have overheated since March, although not all resulted in fires and only three in property damage beyond the meter area, according to a report in the Courier Times.
No surprise that coverage of the fires got the attention of the Pennsylvania PUC, which on Thursday will hold a public briefing with Peco and its smart meter vendors to hear what they're doing about the fire safety issues. And if you read the news account, Peco's response has been considerable, from replacing meters that failed to install wireless safety upgrades to swapping out meter models and retaining independent experts for forensic analysis and testing.
But what happened in Pennsylvania, of course, didn't stay in Pennsylvania. The fires attracted the attention of the Maryland Public Service Commission, which late last month held a hearing about fire safety with Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) and three other electricity providers. The Baltimore Sun quotes a BGE official acknowledging five cases out of 65,000 meters installed where "the temperature threshold was exceeded." And in all of those incidents, sensors in the meters detected the overheating and alerted BGE -- none of the meters experienced failure or damage.
There's more. Two weeks after news broke on the Peco fires, Commonwealth Edison said three of its smart meters were involved in small fires in the Chicago area. ComEd officials told the Chicago Tribune the fires were a result of how the meters were connected to the homes and businesses â€“ not the meters themselves.
And that's pretty much the same thing utility officials in Maryland and Pennsylvania have suggested. It's not the smart meters but aging electrical sockets in consumers' homes and/or pre-existing problems with customer equipment, installation or water intrusion issues that are causing fires.
But liability aside, does that make the situation any better? Writing about the fires on the IEEE Spectrum blog, Bill Sweet suggests: "This appears to be not just a matter of freak incidents that may or may not have taken place here or there. In a compilation made by the EMF Safety Network, which specializes in EMF and RF precaution, there are at least a couple of dozen smart meter fire reports from Australia to Canada and virtually all regions of the United States, and some of those reports concern a couple of dozen fire incidents. In some cases fires appear to have originated in the meters themselves, in other cases in appliances like microwave ovens or refrigeratorsâ€¦ because of power surges."
And Sweet concludes: "The last thing the smart grid needs is meters causing fires."
He's right, of course. First and foremost there's a public safety issue, but there's also the matter of public perception - whether the meters are to blame for the fires or not. To the last point, some recent headlines:
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|If 200,000+ meters where replaced with identical (non-smart) meters a handful of fires could just as easily occur. The jaws in the customer's meter base can become loose with age (poor connections overheat). Some jaws do not release and are damaged when the meter is removed, others are damaged when the new meter is installed. |
Of course, these customer panels have typically been in service for many decades. Paying close attention to this issue and making the required repairs, as needed, can impact the profitability of the installation company, as they are often paid on a per unit basis. Also, many local jurisdictions require an electrical permit to make the relatively simple meter base jaw replacements, adding delay, and customer inconvenience.
A northern California utility was successful in getting the local permitting authorities to wave the site electrical permit requirement, and gave their installation company an allowance to cover this work.
This additional attention can increase costs but may help smart meters avoid bad press, and fires, which can be even more costly.
|David Brown - 09/11/2012 - 07:44|
|SMART METERS ARE FIRE STARTERS|
|David Brown...What does meter overheating and sending of an alert flag have to do loose connections to the customer's meter base jaws? Neither PECO nor BGE has been able to explain their way out of a number of overheating meters that set off an Over temperature alert.|
The fact is CHEAP PLASTICS and Flammable electronics do not mix well with HIGH currents and attached on the side of ratepayers homes most made of wooden structures. Playing with statistics is to Obfuscate the Problem and the danger. The occurrence of ONE SMART METER FIRE is 100% Disaster for the Victim.
ANALOG meters are 100% mechanical with glass enclosures, they have nothing to contribute to the conflagration should one occur because of bad meter base jaws. If utilities want smart meters ...Remove them from the side of homes! put them up on the utility poles or inside utility transformer distribution boxes. Analog meters last in place 20 years plus, while smart meters become obsolete and require replacement in three to five years necessitating the fiddling around with meter base jaws, that would not otherwise occur. How can that ever work in favor of the ratepayer.
|George Karadimas - 09/11/2012 - 08:30|
|Faulty Meter Bases|
|I've seen that faulty meter bases can cause customer service issues, though nothing as critical as a safety issue. I've seen instances in which power if flowing to the meter but not to the house due to a faulty meter base. The meter base is the utility's responsibility to fix, yet a call center's 'ping' to the smart meter reveals no problems. So the call center suggests that the customer call an electrician. But the electrician arrives at the home, tracks the problem down to the meter base, tells the customer the problem is the utility's to fix, and leaves the customer with a bill. Though extremely rare, this can result in a less than satisfactory customer experience.|
|Paul Alvarez - 09/11/2012 - 09:35|
|RE Smart meters are fire starters|
|For a long time even the "analog" meters have had additional electronics in them. Many utilities moved to automatic meter reading (AMR) in the 90's. The meters looked nearly identical to the manual analog meter. The big difference between those early analog/digital AMR devices - is the addition a in meter disconnect switch, voltage, amp, KVA/TRMS, temp sensors and the TWO way communication with the utility. |
If the utility selects the good meter, the vendors build good meters, and the deployment is done properly - a smartmeter life can also be 20 years.
Because there have been fires on many different meters at many different locations - one of the items that should be done is to get a national reporting of the incidents with some very good carefully thought out forensics done on the problem.
If the problem is indeed in the meters - get them fixed, update the standards and the testing for those conditions.
My gut feel on this is that the problem isn't all meters. That instead it really is spread across several areas: (not necessarily order of importance)
1. Smartmeter electronics and internals having problems.
2. Prexisting problem with old meter base and wiring - IT DOES HAPPEN - I had a problem on my house nearly 30 years ago - before Smartmeters or AMR. But we caught the problem before a fire occurred. Utilities need to inspect base for defective wiring before installing smartmeters, they need to measure jaw clamp strength. Utilities can spot possible problem areas before even pulling an old meter if they include thermal cameras like Flukes or FLIRS in the tool kits and require the meter based to have a thermal picture taken and saved.
3. Process problem with installation of meters. What this means is that utitily workers are replacing meters on live houses by yanking and re-inserting the meter on the live house. And that has been going on for years. The problem now days is that we have air conditioning, more lights, heavier electrical loads then existed 30 or 40 years ago. Remember many of those service panels were 60A or 100A. Now 200A panels are common. Switching meters on live houses means arcing and surges that impact plugged in devices. I have THREE UPS that failed after meter switch outs. (not battery failures either). The process needs to be fixed and utilities need to request that breakers be flipped off before meters swapped and flipped back on afterward. That way they don't have arcing that kills the jaws.
|Dennis Heidner - 09/11/2012 - 09:56|
|RE:Smart meter fires|
|I strongly believe that a national level - by standards boards - not just a utility level investigation be done. |
If there are problems in meters fix them.
If the process is old meter bases - well - that may be pushed to the local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ's) for some kind of inspection and recert process. Certainly insurance companies would like to know.
If the problem is a process problem with meter change outs - that needs to be fixed (for all types of meters).
Instead of using the fires that have occurred as a means to stop any future deployment - we need to use the information to prevent future problems and be able to move forward safely. And yes, if the forensic show that the meters are at fault - then the responsibility for the fire damage would move to the responsible parties. If the fires start as a result of damage to jaws during the change out - then yes the utility may be the responsible party.
But you can't set the blame or fix the problem without looking at the parts, process and procedures at a national scale.
Since we do not want to stop progress forever - a good investigation needs to start up and be happening SOOON.
|Dennis Heidner - 09/11/2012 - 10:12|
|I live in Washington, DC. I was at home watching the news one afternoon in 2011 when the tv and all the power in the house went dead. I went outside and sure enough a PEPCO employee or sub-contractor had just pulled the meter. He had not knocked on either the front or back door. I have heard from others that PEPCO did this to them also or changed out a meter when nobody was home. This was my 3rd or 4th "smart" meter that I know of. |
|Chris Turner - 09/12/2012 - 04:44|
|chips get hot|
|The heat generated on the communication and monitoring circuits of a smart meter exceed the heat generation within the older mechanical devices. Combining this with an enclosed plastic dome (fuel vs glass where if a fire started it would run out of O2) can raise the temperature of the epoxy, solder, electrical components to a point resulting in a flash fire. Once the flame melts a hole in the dome the air will continue the combustion. I'd refer to UL testing reports on the subject. Luckily reports I've seen claim only property damage - but wait until the day some child sleeping in the house dies. That will be the darkest blackout day for the utility industry. |
|Gary Sorkin - 09/12/2012 - 11:16|
|why no details?|
|I have been trying to confirm that smart meters are the cause of about a dozen recent fires in British Columbia, but no details are kept. The Fire Commissioner has no codes. Yet the utility company paid for a report that says there have been no fires based on this same evidence. I then went to Ontario and got a similar response -- no datat. Elsewhere this data is not being kept, is not available, almost like a wall of silence. Engineers have taken meters apart and have found very basic design flaws that could lead to fires.Untrained installers jam meters into the base, causing damage. There are many things that could contribute but the bottom line is these things are dangerous.|
|Sharon Noble - 09/12/2012 - 20:39|
|overheating Smart meters|
|If certain smart meters are getting warm or hot, who is paying for that electric heat? I suspect the homeowner gets to pay. There have been many cases of customers seeing their electric bill go up after smart meters were installed. Many meters in rural areas don't reliably connect into the meter mesh network so additional radiated power is needed.Perhaps the meters are simply overpowered to extend their radiated power range.|
|Craig Kneeland - 09/25/2012 - 08:38||