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OVERVIEW:
Fire and Electrical Hazards from ‘Smart’, Wireless, PLC, and Digital Utility Meters – Part 4

Nina Beety
July, 2019
PDF of full report

Continued from Part 3…

Inaction from regulatory agencies, exemptions and loopholes

It only took six GE dishwashers to overheat and one dishwasher fire to initiate a total recall. Nothing has happened with Smart Meters.

In California, the 2010 Vacaville death of Larry Nikkel in a Smart Meter fire1 was never publicly investigated by the local district attorney, the CPUC, or other officials. It was swept under the rug until it was uncovered and investigated by consumer advocacy groups in 2013. Likewise, no action was taken following whistleblower Patrick Wrigley’s stunning 2012 CPUC testimony about Smart Meter fires, overbilling, and other problems.

No State or federal action has been taken despite deaths, house fires, extensive damage to personal property, and failure of the meters themselves.

Utility companies appear to be exempt from National Electrical Code rules.

90.2 Scope
(B) Not Covered. This Code does not cover the following:
(5) Installations under the exclusive control of an electric utility where such installations
a. Consist of service drops or service laterals, and associated metering, or
b. Are located in legally established easements or rights-of-way designated by or recognized by public service commissions, utility commissions, or other regulatory agencies having jurisdiction for such installations, or
c. Are on property owned or leased by the electric utility for the purpose of communications, metering, generation, control, transformation, transmission, or distribution of electric energy.2

Are utilities covered under state or local electrical code rules and if so, how are these rules enforced? If not, what rules govern their practices, and who monitors compliance?

Meters have been exempt from UL certification, and the new questionable 2735 certification is voluntary and ineffective. When people file complaints with consumer agencies, they’re generally told Smart Meters are exempt or not under their jurisdiction. The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has now said it is willing to take complaints, but time will tell whether it takes action on complaints.

News media censorship and failure to investigate

In-depth news media reporting on fires has been infrequent. The Firebaugh story is a refreshing exception. Actual investigation or follow-up is rare. The utility companies are often given the last word in news coverage, and their explanations are reported as fact. This is public relations, not journalism.

An example is the censorship and slant by the Detroit News in reporting on the Michigan House Energy Committee in 2017.3. It did not report on Fire Chief Duane Roddy’s testimony on the Smart Meter fire at his home. Instead, it wrote about public testimony, describing it as “fears”, “concerns”, “worries”, and “alleged health effects”, and it let utility company DTE have the talking points.

Orlean Koehle’s house survived the Santa Rosa fire but all the homes in her neighborhood burned. She found out her home was the only one with an analog meter; all the neighbors had Smart Meters. She wrote an editorial for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat detailing this, but the newspaper refused to publish it. The Siskiyou Daily News did publish it, but did not archive it on its website.

The California mainstream news generally focused on protests of the Smart Meter program, frequently using words such as “concerns” and “fears”. The news paid little attention to the actual issues raised by the public and experts, or criticized those who raised them without doing any investigation.

Regulatory commission defense of the Smart Meter program

The CPUC and its personnel have blocked investigation into Smart Meter program defects and defended the program, 4 a position duplicated across the country. An example of this happened with the Structure Group report on Smart Meter accuracy. The CPUC’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates attempted its own investigation, but had to abandon it because the CPUC commissioners would not support it.

The California Public Utility Code has a gaping regulatory hole. It does not compel CPUC investigations, no matter how many incidents occur, how many complaints are made, or what the nature of the complaints is. The CPUC “may” take steps when faced with health and safety problems, consumer fraud, and other problems, but those steps are optional, according to Sections 701, 762, and 768. This same problem is likely faced in all other states. In 2012, I outlined needed changes in the code, including thresholds for mandatory investigation of utility problems and timelines for action, and changing the language in the Public Utilities Code from “may” to “shall” on CPUC responsibilities.5

The CPUC refused to initiate investigations on Smart Meter problems despite repeated recommendations by the Office of Ratepayer Advocates (formerly the Division of Ratepayer Advocates) in 2010:

DRA recommends immediate Commission action to address concerns about RF interference and possible adverse impacts on health and safety. Such concerns have been raised in filings by local governments, and consumers, and by numerous individual customers in person at Commission public business meetings. This level of public concern warrants action by the Commission to determine if these concerns are well founded, regardless of CARE’s Application.

1. The Commission has a responsibility to protect public health and safety. Although DRA’s statutory mandate is to try to obtain “the lowest possible rate for service consistent with reliable and safe service levels” (Public Utilities Code § 309.5(a)), and in that role supports the provision of service that is safe and reliable, the Commission has the primary authority and responsibility to protect the health and welfare of California residents by ensuring that public utility service is safe and reliable. See, e.g., Public Utilities Code §§ 45113, 76114, 76215, and 768.166

In the Smart Meter opt-out proceeding (Application No. 11-03-014), Chairman Michael Peevey allowed utility companies and their experts to present evidence, and then improperly closed the proceeding, issuing a decision before the other parties had presented their evidence.7

EMF Safety Network: 8

In the 2014 California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Annual Report to the Governor and the Legislature states, “There was some concern regarding fires in smart meters but this was investigated by CPUC staff in 2013. Staff determined that, of reported fires involving smart meter installation, none were actually caused by the smart meter.” EMF Safety Network sent a records act request for the details of that investigation in 2014, which the CPUC has ignored.

California cities and counties which passed ordinances banning Smart Meters faced bullying by CPUC officials who claimed exclusive jurisdiction over utility companies, despite policing powers granted under state law to cities and counties (recently reaffirmed by the California Supreme Court), and local franchises with PG&E.

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Pennsylvania:

The commissioners’ mostly polite questions indicated they have no desire to undermine the statewide changeover to smart meters, which is mandated by a 2008 law. Smart meters have attracted opposition from some customers who worried about health effects of the wireless technology and loss of privacy, concerns that regulators say are overblown.

Robert F. Powelson, the commission chairman, said the meeting was intended only to gather information about the “isolated incidents” involving overheating meters, and public questions were not permitted.

…”This hearing is not a debate about whether or not to meter,” he said. “We are moving forward with metering in Pennsylvania.”

Commissioner James H. Cawley agreed. “We want this done,” he said. “We want it done safely, of course, because the benefits to customers are enormous.”9

The National Association of Regulatory Commissions conferences and meetings set national policy, and the utility industry, industry-affiliated groups, and commissioners lead the sessions. Public stakeholders are not heard or included.

PG&E/CPUC emails released due to San Bruno explosion lawsuits showed the cozy relationship between CPUC commissioners and staff and PG&E, and the joint maneuvers they took on many utility issues, including Smart Meters.

PG&E email July 2, 2010 on a meeting with former CPUC Chair Michael Peevey:

…SmartMeters – Mike [Peevey] grumbled about the CCSF PFM [City and County of San Francisco Petition for Modification] and the folks in Sebastopool [sp] who want to delay SmartMeter implementation. He implied that this wasn’t going to happen, and that by the time the Commission got around to acting on [PUC filings], we [PG&E] would have installed all of our meters…

Miscellaneous – Mike couldn’t hide his disdain for Mark Toney and TuRN. He was particularly incensed, along with Clanon [Paul Clanon, CPUC Executive Director], about TURN’s refusal to modify their website about opposition to SmartMeters. I’m not too concerned about TURN and the GRC [General Rate Case] at this point. I don’t believe we need them as a settlement partner with Peevey as the assigned Commissioner. 10

Florida Public Service Commission Chair Nancy Argenziano upon her retirement:

[M]ost of you will understand the relief I feel at leaving the fetid pit of the PSC. I tell you that in my weirdest nightmare, I would not have expected to come upon the corruption; the bought and sold nature of everything related to the operation of the PSC; the reduction of the office of PSC legal to the office of regulated utilities’ apologist; the subjugation of “the public” to the schemes of the regulated utilities, resulting in a de facto “Regulated Industries Service Commission”; the almost universal expectation that if you audition well, PSC employees and Commissioners will be rewarded with lucrative jobs with the utilities regulated; … I will be pleased to meet with any group which wants to understand the deep, dark, behind the scenes truths of what happens in your state government.11

Unsafe time-of-use rates

Time-of-use rates give cheaper rates at off-peak times — typically at night. They are being phased in to incentivize people to use appliances, such as washers, driers, ovens, and dishwashers, at night or other off-peak times.

UK fire officials condemned TOU rates in 2016, saying they were never consulted about this unsafe plan, appliances should never be run when people are sleeping, and this scheme would result in fires and lost lives.12

TOU rates are a major ‘green’ reason for Smart Meters. Proponents claim this will cut peak time energy use, but this isn’t a safe practice. British Gas said in 2016, “We have no plans to trial or launch any time-of-use tariffs that offer cheaper electricity at night.’13

Utility company lack of transparency and misinformation

Utility companies have blamed customers for most Smart Meter problems, including fires and electrical problems.

Florida:

But the Florida utility [FPL] assured residents that it was nothing to worry about, smart meters don’t cause fires….however a spokesperson for the utility said they’d responded to 30 complaints related to meter fires and that “you could have wiring issues if you have dimming lights or power issues on one end of your home and not the other.”14

Pennsylvania:

A Peco Energy Co. executive said Thursday the suspension of a ballyhooed smart-meter installation program would likely continue until early October while the utility evaluates what caused 29 of the devices to overheat and catch fire…Peco and representatives of the three biggest smart-meter manufacturers indicated the overheating problems are most likely caused by “external” problems in the panels mounted to walls into which the meter is plugged, not by a defect in the device itself.15

Texas:

Justin Ozuna with Oncor told News 8 that the company is aware of the fatality and is trying to gather more information, including when the meter was installed and other account history.

He also noted that smart meters operate in the same way as older, analog meters and don’t use any extra energy.16

Charles Phillips saw smoke coming from the transformer in his back yard one morning last November. When he went out to inspect the damage, he says he saw a CenterPoint Energy contractor at his meter box with a fire extinguisher.

“He told me it had caught on fire,” Phillips said. “He had talked to his boss. Evidently, he told him to put it out, which is what he did.”

But that was just the beginning. Inside Phillips’ home, two TVs were fried, his air-conditioner and garage door opener stopped working and all of the wires and cables hooked up to his electronics were melted from the jolt his electronics took when the smart meter on his home sparked a fire.

,,, But both CenterPoint and the subcontractor installing the smart meters across Houston say the damage is not their fault or their responsibility.

“People generally don’t think about that equipment being owned by them, but it’s the same with the water piping inside your home, the gas piping inside your home; it’s customer-owned equipment,” said CenterPoint Energy spokesman Floyd LeBlanc.

… LeBlanc says CenterPoint has had less than 100 reports of electrical fires caused during more than 1 million smart meter installations, but the power company doesn’t like to use the word “fire” to describe the problem.

“When we talk about fires, we’re talking about structures on fire,” said LeBlanc, explaining that there have been no houses that have burned in Houston, only electrical wiring, equipment and appliances.17

Nevada:

Egan and Smith said they take concerns over meter flame outs very seriously and have worked hard to determine the fault of each individual fire reported by the department. In most cases, the cause remains elusive. In others, outside factors played a role, Smith said.

In one case, the fire was helped along by water damage. In another case, the company had the burned out meter X-rayed and found the inside components intact, indicating the fire came from somewhere else. In another case, wind slammed a door shut, likely jiggling lose a connection in the meter and sparking the blaze, Smith said.

Often, the fire is started by arcing within the panel that the meter is plugged into. NV Energy realized this year, Smith said, and replaced many customer panels in order to reduce the probability of a fire.

“There’s many, many situations you have to study,” Smith said. “Each one of these conditions are unique. There’s not a common pattern that we have seen. We have not found an individual meter to be defective in all the meters we have studied this far.”18

Getting accurate information or any information has been difficult.19

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From Nevada:

NV Energy had been required to provide semi-annual reports on the meters to the Public Utilities Commission, but stopped filing the reports in June 2012.

Those reports contain somewhat haphazard data on meter malfunctions, using different terminology to describe meters that appear to have been damaged or destroyed by some sort of overheating.

In short, the company reported 45 “burned” or “smoked” meters between Jan. 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012. A total of 3,767 malfunctioning meters that succumbed to a variety of problems.20

Instead utility companies engage in endless public relations campaigns,21 and when they cannot avoid the lawsuits, the settlements are generally sealed and complainants gagged. This lack of accountability keeps secret the extent and severity of fire and electrical problems, adding to the public risk, and it further destroys the credibility of utility companies.

Insurance industry silence

With all the known fires, deaths, injuries, and property damage related to Smart/digital meters, the amount of claims must be staggering. Yet, the insurance industry and its investigators haven’t exposed this issue. Norman Lambe is a rare example. Why?

Former executives from utility companies, Smart Meter manufacturer Siemens, and Smart Grid companies Cisco and Accenture sit on insurance company boards of directors. These include

Liberty Mutual:

  • Tom May, Eversource Energy (formerly Northeast Utiltiies) — retired Chairman, President and CEO
  • Eric Spiegel, Siemens Corporation — retired President and CEO

The Hartford:

  • Michael G. Morris, American Electric Power Company — retired President and CEO, and former Chairman; Northeast Utilities – former Chairman, President, and CEO;
  • Carlos Dominquez, Cisco — 22 years including technology representative for the Chairman and CEO

USAA:

  • Admiral Thomas B. Fargo, Hawaiian Electric Industries — Director
  • John F. Young, Exelon Corporation — Director; Exelon Power — former President and CEO; Exelon Generating — former President; Exelon Corp. — former Executive VP, Finance and Markets

MetLife

  • Cheryl W. Grisé, Northeast Utilities — former Executive Vice President

State Farm:

  • Pamela B. Strobel, Exelon Corp.– former Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer

Geico is a Berkshire Hathaway company. BH companies include Berkshire Energy Company.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Conclusion

The electrician interviewed by the Reno Gazette-Journal said he still has a smart meter on his home.

“But I check it a lot,” he said, noting that if it is hot enough to hurt your hand or the screen goes black help should be sought.

“The lawyers say it’s a real low percentage, but when it’s your house a real big percentage,” he said.

City officials have not recommended that meters be removed. They are waiting for the Public Utilities Commission to decide whether an investigation is warranted. But if you’re worried about your smart meter, here is what you can do:

• If your meter is extremely hot, smoking or you notice signs of arcing, call 911 to have the fire department check it.

• If you are experiencing a problem, but have no immediate fire danger, you can call the Public Utilities Commission consumer line…22

This is the new “smart” reality, but the public has not been informed. People didn’t have to monitor analog meters for overheating.

From the British Columbia Report: BCUC and Smart Meter Fires: The Failure to Protect

… Who is watching out for us, ensuring that these devices that are being put on our homes without our permission, mandated by law, are safe? No one. This is in our hands and this report provides the means by which we can and must demand a recall.23

Its findings are a warning for every state and region:

  1. No agency is tracking fires;
  2. Regulations and laws are being broken with impunity, e.g. meters are being removed from the fire scene, electrical inspections are not being done;
  3. Reporting is haphazard at best;
  4. The meter is combustible, poorly designed, and not certified by any agency to be safe;
  5. BC Hydro did not perform its due diligence by having an independent Electrical Engineer inspect the meter prior to signing the contract. Rather, it accepted ITRON’s assurances;
  6. Smart meters have burned, melted and caused homes to burn. BC Hydro and [British Columbia Utility Commission] both deny this is happening.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Michigan Senator Patrick Colbeck testimony to Michigan House Energy Committee:

When I look at what happens with smart meters, in particular, I’m actually concerned it is putting our homes, our nation, and frankly some of the power suppliers at significant risk…That is a risk that is not entertained when you have an analog meter…Against this increased risk, there is little to no consumer benefit to the adoption of smart meters.24

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

  • Smart/digital meters are ignition sources installed on every building and many water lines.
  • Flame-resistant roofing material and “defensive” zones of cleared vegetation are useless if a building ignites from within and threatens homes and trees around it.
  • The most preventable fire hazard in every community may be Smart/digital utility meters.
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What is the extent of fires and electrical damage related to Smart/digital meters?

Were Smart Meters a factor in the recent California fires? If so, how much of a factor? These questions and many more need to be answered:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Fire season has begun. These actions must be taken now:

  • An urgent re-evaluation of the Smart Meter program and consideration of a repeal in light of program weaknesses, problems, and costs, using a process that facilitates public involvement.
  • Public investigations into electrical and fire problems associated with Smart/digital meters, with testimony by independent experts, whistleblowers, and public stakeholders.
  • A moratorium on further installations, including Smart/AMR water meters, and Smart/digital met metering on solar arrays.
  • Public investigations into overbilling, accuracy, health, security and other problems with Smart/digital meters utilizing independent experts, whistleblowers, and public stakeholders.
  • An immediate no-cost opt-out and replacement of electric, natural gas, and water Smart/digital meters with analog meters for all residential and commercial customers who request it
  • Public investigations into the California Public Utilities Commission and other utility regulatory commissions to discover the extent and length of knowledge of Smart Meter program problems, actions taken to block investigations, personnel involved, and coordination with utility companies and other state utility commissions.
  • Investigation by state insurance commissioners into insurance company knowledge of fires, deaths, and property damage related to Smart/digital meters.
  • Investigation of waivers granted from state electrical worker requirements for temporary meter installation workers
  • Prohibition against utility company personnel removing Smart/digital meters and other equipment from fire scenes, with substantial penalties for violations.
  • Re-evaluation of the National Electrical Code and utility company exemption.
  • Revision of state electrical codes and electrical worker qualification requirements to eliminate exemptions for utility companies
  • Mandated release of all utility company records and communications on damaged and malfunctioning Smart/digital meters, surges, electrical problems resulting in fires, property damage, injuries, and deaths including to pets.
  • Mandated disclosure of claims paid by utility companies for fire or surge electrical damage or appliance/electronics damage to property owners, insurance companies, and city, county, and state entities

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Nina Beety is an investigative writer and public speaker, and the author of “Analysis: Smart Meter and Smart Grid Problems – Legislative Proposal, 2012”. Her website is www.smartmeterharm.org. She lives in California.

This is a preliminary document, subject to revisions.

Resources on Smart Meter fires and electrical hazards include:

Footnotes:

1 http://stopsmartmeters.org/2013/06/21/when-smart-meters-kill-the-story-of-larry-nikkel-details-emerge-of-vacaville-ca-smart-meter-fire-death/

2 NFPA 70 National Electric Code 2008 (emphasis added)

3 http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/02/21/smart-meter-trial/98202698/

4 City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) petition to modify 09-3-026, 6-17-10

p. 1

The City requests an immediate suspension of PG&E’s further installation of SmartMeters until the Commission concludes its investigation into the significant problems created by PG&E’s deployment of its SmartMeters. In view of the problems already known to the Commission, it is unreasonable for PG&E to simply continue installing SmartMeters as if nothing is wrong. [initially, the petition focused on Smart Meter reliability and accuracy problems; later in the proceeding, the City added electromagnetic emissions from Smart Meters]

5 https://smartmeterharm.org/2012/12/14/report-smart-meter-problems-dec-2012/

6 CPUC Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA) response to Californians for Renewable Energy (CARE) application for modification, October 20, 2010 (A.10- 09-012), p. 5

7 San Francisco, Comments on CPUC Proposed Decision, Opt-out Proceeding, 12-11-11, p. 4-6

The City recommends that the Commission reject the PD [Proposed Decision] in its entirety for two reasons. First, the PD makes these findings without a hearing and without allowing the parties to this proceeding – other than PG&E – to submit any evidence. The Commission cannot make such a finding when it prevented the parties other than PG&E from making a record. …The parties were never given an opportunity to submit written testimony.

Despite this procedural posture, the PD would dispose of this case without a hearing. The PD determines that a hearing is not necessary because “there were no disputed factual issues material to the resolution of this application.” The PD, however, makes this determination based solely on the uncontested evidence submitted by PG&E in support of its application.

The PD errs by ignoring the many protests and motions filed in this proceeding…

… It seems obvious from the proceedings in this case that a complete record would show that there are disputed factual issues that require a hearing.

In issuing the PD without allowing the other parties to this proceeding to submit evidence the PD has denied these parties their legal right to be heard in this ratesetting proceeding.

8 http://emfsafetynetwork.org/smart-meters/smart-meter-fires-and-explosions/

Quote from CPUC Report to the Governor, see page 5: https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=3292

9 https://web.archive.org/web/20111210072634/http://www.wptv.com/dpp/news/region_c_palm_beach_county/some-homeowners-concerned-about-meter-installation

10 7-2-10 PG&E email filed ex parte on 12-22-14

http://emfsafetynetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/PGE-Letter-to-Mr.-Sullivan-Exhibits-1-17_-12-22-14.pdf
Brian Cherry to Thomas Bottorff (PG&E)

11 October 12, 2010

https://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2010/10/nancy-argenziano-resigns-from-psc-to- oppose-scott-and-corrupt-legislature.html

http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2010/10/nancy-argenziano-resigns-from-psc-to-oppose-scott-and-corrupt-legislature.html

http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20101023/ARTICLE/10231027

12 http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/bills/article-3505060/Using-washing-machine-night-cost-life-Firefighters-warn-plan-charge-different-rates-different-times-day.html

13 ibid

14 https://web.archive.org/web/20111210072634/http://www.wptv.com/dpp/news/region_c_palm_beach_county/some-homeowners-concerned-about-meter-installation

15 https://web.archive.org/web/20150326112331/http://articles.philly.com/2012-09-14/business/33818402_1_smart-meter-installation-program-smart-meters-new-meters

16 http://www.kens5.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/02/03/family-blames-smart-meter-on-house-fire-that-killed-74-year-old/22799387/ link no longer works

17 http://www.click2houston.com/news/local-2-investigates-smart-meter-fires

18 https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2014/09/21/reno-smart-meter-fires-widespread-first-feared/15897355/ (emphasis added)

19 https://smartmeterharm.org/2014/07/13/how-many-rf-pulses-per-day-from-a-smart-meter/ — one example

20 https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2014/09/21/reno-smart-meter-fires-widespread-first-feared/15897355/

21 For example, PG&E hired PR firm Edelman to counter public opposition to Smart Meters, and product defense firm Exponent as investigator when PG&E caused a gas explosion in Carmel, destroying a home.

22 ibid

23 http://www.stopsmartmetersbc.com/bcuc-smart-meter-fires-the-failure-to-protect/

http://www.stopsmartmetersbc.com/smart-meter-fires/

24 Sen. Colbeck was an aerospace engineer prior to becoming state senator.

Testimony to the Michigan House Energy Committee March 7, 2017

https://smartgridawareness.org/2017/03/13/secure-your-family-with-an-analog-meter/

25 http://thermoguy.com/wp-content/uploads/Smart_Meter_Fires_and_Installation1.pdf

https://smartmeterharm.org/2021/06/03/report-on-fire-and-electrical-hazards-of-smart-and-other-digital-meters-part-4/