Millions of homes now have smart meters and if you don't have one yet, you probably will.
Power companies are swapping out old meters -- for newer "smart" versions. The devices allow utilities to read your meter wirelessly without sending a meter reader.
But opposition is growing here and across the country warning of health and safety concerns. Some smart meters have overheated and caught fire.
"I was walking to the seventh tee, when the pro came up and said, ‘Jump in the car. We just got a call. Your house is on fire," Michael Capetto said.
He lives in Upper Makefield, near Philadelphia, where the utility PECO this past summer reported at least 15 smart meters caught fire or got so hot, the meters melted. Similar fires have been reported in other states too.
In Maryland, Jonathan Libber, an opponent of smart meters, knows of other serious cases of where smart meters overheated.
"They could hear the meter sizzling inside the casing like a piece of bacon," Libber said describing one such case.
Libber heads the group, Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, and is a former attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency. He warns the fires and overheating should be cause for concern.
"You've got safety issues. They've been linked to over 900 fires nationwide," he claims.
The concerns prompted Maryland's Public Service Commission (PSC) to hold hearings in August. Pepco, at the time, reported 15 cases of overheating; BGE with five cases of smart meters getting too hot, but no fires. The utilities suggested any overheating was not the fault of the meter, but often old wiring and infrastructure in the home's meter box.
"If the meter is not seated tightly, you can see the separating between the jaws and the blade that can cause some arcing issues there," described Marcus Beal, a Pepco spokesman.
Both Pepco and BGE do not use the same type of meters that caught fire in the Philadelphia area. After its hearing, Maryland PSC determined the smart meters do not pose an overheating problem.
That's not the only problem. A congressional report last year raised questions about cybersecurity and privacy. Hackers have already proven in tests that smart meters are vulnerable to attacks on the entire power grid and could lead to massive blackouts. At the very least, the meters, which provide hourly details on your electricity usage, could give a criminal who hacks in enough information to know when you're not home.
"It's a phenomenally powerful surveillance device as well as a tremendously powerful radiation emitter," Libber cautions.
The radiation comes from the radio frequency emitted by the wireless signal. That's how smart meters transmit data back to the utility through a secure network. Power companies say the levels are well within government regulations.
"Our meters are actually communicating at very low level, very low power, and this is so low, it's dramatically below cell phones, cordless phones, baby monitors," said Pepco's Beal.
The utility, which has customers in the District as well as Montgomery and Prince George's County in Maryland, says the meters transmit information every four to six hours adding up to mere minutes all day. However, Libber's group and other opponents have measured burst of radiation coming from the meters every few seconds, not hours. All day, every day. Like cell phones, there remains a raging debate about safety.
Garic Schoen believes his health suffered because of a smart meter. He has multiple sclerosis. Shortly after his smart meter was installed directly below his bedroom window, he claims his health declined.
"I started noticing greater fatigue,” Schoen said. “I began needing assistance when walking in public ... The second thing I noticed was difficulty concentrating.”
His medical records confirm the period when his health began to decline occurred shortly after the meter's installation. After a month of suffering, he got it removed.
"The first thing that happened was my physical symptoms began to improve,” he said. “Within a day, I noticed a change, and within a week, I'd say physically I was back to normal.”
In Maryland, the Public Service Commission ordered a temporary opt out for those who do not want smart meters. That follows several other states that have done the same over health and safety concerns. While the PSC says it has not found any convincing evidence of health risks, the commission acknowledged what it deemed a "good-faith belief on the part of some ratepayers to the contrary."
So far, only about three percent of BGE customers and about one percent of Pepco customers have chosen to opt out.
"RF is safe. The cybersecurity concerns -- we have taken the appropriate measures. Data privacy -- we take that seriously. We protect your information," Beal said assuring customers.
Maryland's PSC is now deciding whether to make the opt out permanent and charge customers an additional fee to cover the cost. The other option is to mandate smart meters, but with an RF free or reduced RF option.
"I don't believe they should charge for the exemption,” said Schoen. “I think you should be able to do that with no questions asked or no fee.”
Across the country, 36 million homes already have smart meters, with promises to save money and energy. These smart meters can talk to smart appliances such as a thermostat to adjust the temperature, tell an electric car when to charge during off peak hours or relay information on power outages and restoration instantaneously. But some worry whether all that comes at too high a cost.
Pepco info on smart meters:
Maryland Smart Meter Awareness:
Center for Safer Wireless:
From Maryland Public Service Commission:
"The Public Service Commission has, for the past four years, been engaged in the issue of smart meter deployment in Maryland. This demonstrates how seriously we regard this matter, and we have considered the testimony, input, and evidence from a range of stakeholders--including concerned citizens--as we have arrived at each decision throughout this lengthy process. There are still matters before us, for which we hope to have a final resolution in the near future."--PSC Chairman Kevin Hughes.
Statement on Behalf of the Maryland Public Service Commission:
Under the Commission's latest order, issued on January 7, 2013, one of two scenarios will exist for ratepayers in Maryland as an alternative to smart meter installation: a) keeping their current analog meters or b) requiring everyone to receive a smart meter, but with a radio frequency-free or reduced radio frequency operation. Proceedings will be held in the future to determine which scenario will be adopted. In the meantime, companies must continue to honor the requests of ratepayers for a moratorium (as outlined in the PSC's May 25, 2012, Interim Order).
As stated in the Commission's recent order, "Smart meters emit "non-ionizing" radiation, which scientists have studied extensively for several decades and found no evidence of harmful effects on human beings. Although we have not found convincing evidence that smart meters pose any health risks to the public at large, we acknowledge a good-faith belief on the part of some ratepayers to the contrary. If we ultimately decide to allow customers to retain their analog meter, this option will address any health concerns raised by the use of smart meters. However, if that option proves not to be feasible, we will provide customers with the option to require their utility to install their smart meter so as to minimize or eliminate RF emissions, such as by using an alternative data communications path or by locating the meter farther from the customer's home. "
After learning of smart meters overheating and fires experienced in Pennsylvania, the Commission convened a hearing on August 28, 2012, with the utility companies to specifically address any issues of electrical overheating or malfunction associated with the smart meters being installed. It was determined that none of the meters posed overheating problems similar to those associated with the incidents Pennsylvania.
The Commission is aware of concerns raised related to protecting the privacy of personal data generated by the smart meters. The utilities have submitted to the Commission cyber security plans, which are compliant with national privacy standards. Also, independent, third-party cyber-security firms are testing the utilities' data-protection systems.