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Smart Meter Fires: Yeah, They Happen

September 4, 2012
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The movement gathers outside the Schaefer Building on August 28

Holding a sign decrying smart meters—the new “advanced” electrical counters utilities around the country are installing on people’s homes—is the last place George Karadimas expected to be during his retirement.

“I never knew anything about these things until March, April of this year,” the former electrical engineer and Ellicott City resident says. “Then I happened to get on an internet radio show about problems people were having down in Texas, people who I happened to personally know. So I listened and I said ‘you’re off the wall.’ Then I studied it and I started freaking out myself.”

Karadimas was among about two dozen anti-smart meter activists who packed a hastily-convened meeting of the Maryland Public Service Commission August 28. The commission, having read about smart meter fires in Pennsylvania and PEPCO Energy Group’s decision to suspend installation of them, asked Maryland utilities for information on their smart meter programs.

“This is a preliminary gathering,” PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian told the crowd in the 16th floor hearing room. “We’re not going to hear from other parties today.”

That displeased the activists, one of whom, Harford County State Delegate Glen Glass, issued a press release afterward expressing his disappointment. “The testimony from BG&E and PEPCO confirms that Smart Meters are dangerous, intrusive, and have a tendency to break and overheat,” Glass’s email said. “I call for a moratorium to be placed on Smart Meter installation due to these facts as well as reports that fires have been a result of these devices.”

The anti-smart-meter movement has been building for several years, made up of people worried about microwave radiation (“I’m chemically and electro-mechanically sensitive,” one activist says) and the loss of privacy inherent in the hourly readings the new meters will broadcast back to the utility. The meters are meant to pave the way for per-hour changes in electricity pricing and goad customers into reducing their usage during higher-priced times of the day. That element of the plan—and the fact that it would shift the risk of higher energy prices from the utility (which was conceived in part to mitigate that risk) to the customer base (which pays the utility to manage that risk)—has been seldom criticized by the movement. The fires are a new thing.

Utility representatives told the commission they had not experienced any fires from the smart meter installations yet, although BGE has installed 65,000 of the binder-sized devices, PEPCO about 186,000.  BGE has replaced five meters that signaled high temperatures (just under the boiling point of water), but has had no fires and no failures, says Michael Butts, BGE’s director of business transformation. Three of the hot meters had “loose jaws,” he said—the connectors where the new meters meet the electrical box on the house.

Neither company uses the brand of meters—Sensus—that burned in Pennsylvania and which are subject to a whistleblower law suit in Alabama.

PEPCO had 15 overheaters, and no fires, Karen Lefkowitz, PEPCO’s vice president of business transformation said. Most of the problems there were at the connection to the house. “It’s the exchange process that introduces some risk,” she told the commissioners.

The old meters are taken out “hot”—with the power still running. Then the new meters are plugged in. The sockets in the houses, some of which may be decades old, do not always take kindly to such tampering. If the power going through them at the time of the swap is high, it may arc, pitting the wires and causing a hot spot. If the arcing continues—or starts up later because of a loose connection—the new meters, which are mostly plastic, can burst into flames.

It’s rare, but it happens.

“I have an unbiased opinion. I’m for technology. But the way this technology has been implemented has caused a disaster,” Karadimas says.