Prior to becoming a full-time blogger, I worked for an electric utility for about five years. During this time, I experienced what it’s like for a large city to transition entirely from old-fashioned traditional electric meters to a new digital smart meter technology. There is a surprisingly large amount of misinformation about these meters, mostly based on speculation. Having seen, tinkered with, and supported these meters myself, I’d like to share a few advantages of smart meters.
As a matter of code, electric meters are supposed to be serviced at least once (or twice) per year for accuracy. This test takes no more than a few minutes, and allows the technician to determine whether or not a meter is providing an accurate reading to the customer. This is especially important come billing time, and a single miscalculation can result in a dramatically different bill than what the customer is used to.
Traditional meters are mechanical in nature, and because of this, they contain constantly moving parts that need to work in perfect sync in order to provide an accurate reading. Over time, these meters have a tendency to slow down, resulting in a lower reading than what’s actually used by the customer. In some cases, the meter can stop almost entirely, like a car that has engine trouble. Sure, it may kick in and register a few moments of usage here or there, but it could also crawl to a standstill. In these cases, the customer may or may not notice a change in their bill. Lower than expected bills should always be a cause for concern, especially if the change is significant enough to be unbelievable.
Unfortunately, most users will shrug off a small bill, and after a period of time the electric utility will notice the fault in the meter. Once the meter is calibrated, and a month of usage goes by, the utility then has the ability to calculate estimated loss based on the broken equipment. This estimate may take a few months of use prior to and one month (or more) after the breakdown to create a usage average that is then billed to the customer. The unusually high bill typically results in a call to the utility and a dispute to be filed.
Smart meters report their readings nightly using a radio transmitter installed on each device. Each transmitter communicates with adjoining meters to create a net grid of information that makes its way to the electric company. If a meter fails to register any usage, or reports a fault, the company can respond immediately and send a technician to investigate. When this happens, the customer generally doesn’t even notice that anything went wrong at all.
In addition, smart meters are digital by nature, requiring less moving parts, which makes them last longer and provide accurate results for greater periods of time between calibration.
Because smart meters report their own readings, the factor of human error never comes in to play. Meter readers have a number of difficult tasks assigned to them, including having to deal with aggressive dogs, extremely protective property owners who don’t want meter readers on their property, and locked gates. One way some of them get around this is by taking binoculars with them so they can read various meters from the neighboring yard. Unfortunately, this leaves some room for error, and this typically results in a disputed bill.
Reading a traditional meter is also a tricky thing to do. Each dial spins in a different direction, and determining whether or not a dial is on or just a hair before a particular number can be difficult, and cause a significant difference in the bill if the dial in question is high enough in the chain.
Smart meters come with a built-in outage detection, which can alert the electric company immediately. This means faster response times to outages, and a better method of narrowing down the cause for dispatch. When power goes out in your home, the problem could exist at your closest transformer, or a piece of equipment two miles down the road. In the past, this had to be determined by visual inspection and outage reports from callers. With smart meters, the technicians are given a better idea of where the source of the problem is.
The average transformer repair takes two to five hours, with more time required for extensive damage. This time is minimized if the technicians need to spend less time troubleshooting the problem prior to starting their work. This isn’t to say outage reporting is no longer necessary — it is. Hearing that a loud pop or bang occurred nearby from a caller is a very good way to determine where the problematic transformer is located.
There are some popular rumors spreading around about smart meters and what they’re capable of. In most cases, representatives in a call center can’t turn your power back on with the press of a button. There is still a physical lever that must be lifted, locked, and tagged by a technician for power to be restored.
Smart meters also have no control over your thermostat. This rumor was started because many electric companies provide free programmable thermostats to their customers that can, in the event of extreme power usage, turn off the customer’s AC for 15-20 minutes by radio signal. This isn’t a task the meter is capable of doing, and is in no way connected.
Smart meters also aren’t immune to fault. They require calibration and testing regularly. In some cases, a meter reader will still come by to double-check the reading. Locking the gate and ordering your attack chihuahua to bite meter readers isn’t going to improve the quality of your service, or the accuracy of your bills. Having a human double-check the meter is a good thing, so expect regular visits from the electric company, just as before.
Photo shared by Portland General.