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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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