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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribunePacificorp's new smart meter (left) and the older/current version.

Smart meter fears persist

Despite assurances and a paucity of serious blazes reported, the potential for a smart electrical meter to catch fire worries Gold Hill resident Marty Becker.

This summer, Pacific Power will swap out existing meters for its 88,000 customers in Jackson County with new ones that relay information through a cellular connection, but some residents are skeptical about the safety claims of the digital meters.

“Fire is our concern,” said Becker, 58, who lives in a remote wooded area. “We just don’t want it here.”

Becker is one of many customers in Jackson County concerned about fire dangers from the new meters, even though Pacific Power officials say their Aclara meters are the latest technology and won’t cause the kinds of fires that plagued the earlier generation of meters years ago.

“Absolutely not,” said Cory Estlund, manager of field support for Pacific Power. He said his company hired a third-party firm to thoroughly test the meters, which are certified by Underwriter Laboratories and the American National Standards Institute. The manufacturer is also required to test each meter before shipment. Pacific Power waited until the smart meter technology matured enough before deciding to deploy them to its customers, Estlund said.

When crews go out to houses, they will make a visual inspection of existing meters to determine whether there are any problems. If the old meter passes the visual inspection, the crew will pull it and install the new smart meter. If an issue is found with the old meter, Pacific Power will bring in a local electrical contractor to make any repairs necessary to the box to make sure it’s a safe installation.

Estlund said Pacific Power will pay for any costs to repair the electrical box.

In Lincoln City, a trial run of installations found the bases of some meters pulled out completely when the meter was removed because of extensive rusting that wasn’t visible during the initial inspection.

“We pay for those repairs,” he said.

Other meters had layers of paint over them that hid decades of rust, Estlund said.

If a technician sees an existing installation that is defective on the homeowner’s side of the connection, the new smart meter will not be installed until the homeowner addresses the problem.

While there is always the chance of a faulty installation, Estlund said it would be highly unlikely to cause a fire, though he added, “You can’t say never.”

A News 12 report from New City, New York, Dec. 29, 2017, described an Aclara meter, similar to the one Pacific Power plans to install locally, arcing and requiring replacement by Orange & Rockland Utilities. It was one of four meters that were found to be arcing out of 53,000 installed by the utility, with two being faulty meters and two being technician error, according to the report. The arcing didn’t cause a fire in any of the incidents.

Another report, Jan. 3, from Fox4 in Clay County, Missouri, described a new smart meter catching fire, though Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative officials said the problem wasn’t the meter but a wiring issue.

In 2014, Portland General Electric replaced 70,000 residential smart meters after three small meter fires were reported, with minor property damage in one case. But those models were the older technology.

Becker, however, remains concerned and said he wants to keep his existing analog meter. He is willing to pay the $137 opt-out fee as well as the $36 a month extra to pay for a meter reader to come to his property.

But he said he’s concerned that Pacific Power will replace his existing meter with another type that might require him to replace his electrical box.

Estlund said that if Becker chooses to opt out, he will be able to keep his existing analog meter that has the familiar spinning wheel.

“We’re leaving what’s there in place,” he said.

Addressing another concern of Becker, Estlund said the male prongs on the back of the new meters are the same as those on the old meters. The prongs plug the meters into the electrical box.

Pacific Power will have a team of 60 workers who will replace meters in late June through September. Josephine County customers will get their meters in the fall.

The meters send out a radio signal, which among other things gives customers the ability to check on their power consumption, including through an app on their phones.

About 1 percent of customers have so far decided to opt out of the meter replacement, with some expressing fears about radio signals. However the radio frequency of a cellphone puts out 1,100 times more energy than a smart meter, according to Pacific Power. Standing 2 feet in front of a microwave oven creates an exposure 550 times that of standing 2 feet from a smart meter. A Wi-Fi system puts out about 2.2 times more energy.

At a recent Medford City Council meeting, Councilor Kevin Stine asked Pacific Power representatives about the dangers of smart meters catching fire.

Stine said he had been alerted by a local resident, but after looking over information online and from the utility, he concluded the fire danger was no longer an issue with the new meters.

“I’m not concerned about people’s houses catching fire,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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