Just How Smart are Smart Meters?

Smart meters are viewed with suspicion, undeservedly so. Here's a bit of intel about why you should have one on your homestead.

An Itron Smart Meter Gracing My Home
An Itron Smart Meter Gracing My Home

Smart Utility Meters - the Beginning of Skynet?

Smart utility meters engender various reactions and emotions, depending on how each person views technological advances and the potential for personal privacy intrusion. At one end of this spectrum are those who view smart meters and related technology as Skynet from the Terminator movie franchise. On the other are people who embrace the technology and look forward to more cool features. I place myself fully in this category.

Frequently expressed concerns (FEC)

Having spent nearly 30 years in the electric utility business, I understand what smart meters can and cannot do. Outside of utilities, there's a distinct lack of knowledge about smart meters, leading to suspicions, conspiracy theories, misinformation, and, frequently, distrust.

Let me recite and address frequently expressed concerns in the spirit of sharing knowledge.

Someone will hack my computers via the electric meter

I suppose it's theoretically possible to hack the firmware of a smart electric meter, but even if it's possible, why would the hacker bother? These evil geniuses want to hack millions of people at a time, not just one. They may be crooks, but they understand the ROI of their efforts, so they go for the big score. Bottom line: No hacker is going to hack your meter.

Someone with intercept my electric energy usage

This is a variation on the first FEC. One customer told me that crooks would intercept the data and know when they weren't at home, enabling them to break in. ROI anybody? Your typical burglar also understands ROI. They'll simply hide in the bushes and watch for you to leave. No hacking skills required. Bottom line: No burglar is going to snag your electric use data.

The utility will know what I am doing every hour of the day

If any utility employee with system access so desires, they can pull up the consumption data for your home and see your use by the hour. But ask yourself this question, "Why would they want to do that?" Bottom line: Yes, the utility will know your use by the hour, which leads to the most accurate bill possible, not knowing when you use the bathroom (yes, a customer made that claim to me).

The meters emit dangerous EMF

No, they don't. But, they send the data via radio signal and that creates EMF. No, they still don't. How do I know? Because the vast majority of smart meters communicate back to the utility over the power lines. This technique goes by the moniker of Power Line Carrier or Communication (PLC, not to be confused with Programmable Logic Controller or Perdue's Luscious Chicken). Besides, even if the meters did rely on radio communications, the communication may happen once an hour. In the meantime, you've had that cell phone stuck to your head nonstop for hours. Bottom line: EMF ain't a problem or an output of a smart meter.

People and organizations can spy on me easier

One customer called me to let me know that the government was spying on her via her electric outlets and microwave. Uh-huh, right. Technically improbable, if not outright impossible. Bottom line: No one will spy on you via the smart meter, especially not with Alexa, Siri, Gustav, and so forth, listening for commands via your smartphones and connected devices.

Wrapping up the FECs

I've never heard a complaint or concern about smart meters with any basis in fact or technical feasibility. So, rest easy that you are safe with one of these beauties installed in your meter pan.

The Benefits of Smart Utility Meters

Okay, mister retired utility guy, how do we benefit from having a smart meter installed as consumers? I'm glad you asked! Let's dig in a bit and find out.

No more meter reading errors

No one needs to enter your data by hand or uploading it from a meter reading device, both of which are prone to error. Your utility knows to the kWh exactly how much you used and bills correctly every time.

No more monthly visits from the meter reader on your property

I've frequently run into folks saying that the meter reader has no business or right coming onto my property. Well, they actually do have both as a condition of service. But, for those with this point of view, you'll love your new smart meter!

Shorter, more localized power outages

Believe it or not, until smart meters came on the scene, your utility did not know if your power was out. They relied on customers calling in and saying the lights were out. Today, smart meters feed outage management systems that tell the utility when there is an outage, where it is located and exactly how many people are affected. Depending upon the sophistication of the utility's systems, they may even know the cause and send crews with the parts and pieces to fix the problem. It was a dream come true for those of us who communicate with customers during outages.

Screenshot of the Xcel Energy Outage Map available to consumers powered by smart meter data
Screenshot of the Xcel Energy Outage Map available to consumers powered by smart meter data

Troubleshooting energy use, AKA high-bill complaints

With the detailed consumption patterns provided by smart meters and an understanding of what in the home uses watts and how many, utility customer service folks can accurately diagnose what's causing your unexpected consumption. Stuck sump pump, burned out water heater element, HVAC use...I've helped many customers identify faulty equipment and appliances this way.

Improved energy conservation

The utility can also provide you with the data in the context of taking energy conservation steps. Systems exist that can analyze your use and recommend steps you can take to lower your bill.

Screenshot of my Utility energy dashboard powered with smart meter data
Screenshot of my Utility energy dashboard powered with smart meter data

Catching nefarious types

Utilities can help customers detect power theft, and law enforcement agencies catch bad guys, especially those in the pot and crack businesses. Let's say you have a cabin you don't use as often as you like, but you leave the power turned on to keep pumps and other equipment running. A common way of reducing an electric bill is to run an extension cord to the neighbor's house and use theirs! Isn't that special? Get a bill for the cabin with unexpected use? Just might be that mean old neighbor you never liked anyway.

Law enforcement agencies can use power consumption to locate pot growers running banks of grow lights or meth labs running. Back in the heyday of moonshine, the "revenuers" would keep an eye out for people using lots of sugar and corn, a surefire indicator that they had a still running back up the holler.

Just so you know, agencies generally must get some court permission to request utility data, so relax!

Not Smart, Just Average

I like telling folks that these new meters aren't that smart. In fact, they're closer to average. Yes, they send data in a different format, but neither the meter nor the utility acts on the data without letting you know first. Unless, of course, you have a pot farm or meth lab going. Then all bets are off.

Opt-in for the smart meter if given a choice. The benefits are real, but the concerns are not.