Segment #3 – Investigation Scope

RESPONSE TO “BCUC’s Staff Report on Smart Meter Fire Safety Concerns

KEY:  Highlighted text is from Sharon Noble  Non-highlighted text is the draft report as written by BCUC staff.

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Segment #3

Investigation Scope

The scope of the investigation, a culmination of allegations made by a concerned citizen, is detailed below.

This investigation addresses the following questions concerning the fire hazard potential of smart meters:

1)  Are smart meters compatible with the meter sockets2 into which they are plugged? Do smart meters have thinner blades than legacy meters?

Comments: The later reference on Page 5 to CSA standard describing compatibility does not mention the meter “stabs” and whether there is adequate quality control or quality assurance during the design, manufacture, testing and installation of the meter and the meter stabs, e.g. Texas Court Case. A serious random check of the meter and the stabs may well have discovered discrepancies. These tests which do not appear to have taken place in Texas, seem to point to delegation of task with limited verification by the Utilities. What is meant by ‘legacy’ needs to be clarified.  In this report it’s being used as a synonym for ‘analog’, which implies non-combustibility, whereas in the Tariff ‘legacy’ includes first generation ‘non-smart’ digital meters which are combustible.  The two meter categories being considered when investigating fire safety should be ‘incombustible’ (analog or electro-mechanical) and ‘combustible (digital or electronic).

2)  Do smart meters have design flaws which result in meters being a fire hazard?

Among other issues, the BCUC questions and answers do not address the  design, testing, certification and the operation nor the legality of the meter’s built-in disconnect switch. It is being used by the Utilities as a “Service Disconnect Device” at the Customer Service Point, and therefore it must satisfy the all of the Code requirements for such a device. I suspect that the switch will more often be a point of catastrophic failure because of its moving parts, its design and as the meters remain in service, and the switch is being used for un-approved application, its failure rate will increase. Note that Quebec Hydro has issued in 2014 an alert warning that 24,760 smart meters need to be removed and that meters must not be installed closer than 3 metres from a source of natural gas or propane due to the possible ignition from the disconnect switch.

3)    Is the meter installation process and/or training of meter installers a factor in the incident rate?

Needs adding: The CSA C22.2 Standard No.115  for the homeowners’ meter base specifically prohibits the base from being used as a load current-carrying interruption device, but it is being used for that during the meter change-outs. This was brought to BC Hydro attention by Registered letter dated May 2014, and to the CSA, but BC Hydro (and Fortis) continue to use the homeowner’s meter base as a load-current disconnecting device, leading to premature failures and fires. Contractors cannot carry out a safe meter alignment check when the system is energized. The use of non-electricians, granted by the Government to use non-IBEW qualified electrician members, and applying minimal training, guaranteed that the meter base and meter stabs would suffer arcing damage during the hasty meter change-outs. This is so fundamental to the common problem of fires and overheating that it must be examined properly, and the whole methodology of meter change-out must be re-thought.

4)    Are the smart meter components and materials more flammable than previous meters and if so does this materially impact their safety?3

NOTE: Because of the almost unlimited fault energy available from the Grid, this question needs to be re-framed to address what happens during a meter-related incident. This report does not address the obvious potential for, and actual experiences of, the catastrophic failures exacerbated by unrestricted fault energy, because the primary Utility HV fuse does not provide adequate protection for the failing electronic meter and arcing in the meter base. Whether it is safe to add an unprotected electronic device to the service point downstream of the Utility transformer is an ongoing issue that does not appear to have been examined with adequate diligence. The result has been some catastrophic failures due non-operation of the existing HV electrical protective devices. A specific technical engineering review with peer-reviewed results need to be urgently completed.

This investigation addresses the following questions concerning tracking and investigation of fires and thermal incidents originating in the vicinity of smart meters.

1 See section 23 of the Utilities Commission Act.

2 An enclosure that has matching jaws to accommodate the bayonet-type (blade or stab) electrical terminals of a detachable watthour meter and has a means of connection for the termination of the utility and building circuit conductors.

3 This question was raised by staff and in the interest of completeness included in the scope of the investigation.

5)    How are the utilities tracking fires and thermal incidents originating in the vicinity of smart meters?

This report states that BC Hydro is not tracking the after-installation incidents, so BC Hydro/BCUC are not aware of the scale of the problem, nor is BC Hydro able to share data with stakeholders such as IBEW, Homeowners, BCSA, CSA, BCUC, Fire Commissioners, Municipalities and the Public, or anyone else involved in meter problems.

  6)    Are fires and thermal incidents originating in the vicinity of smart meters being adequately investigated?

The answer is NO.  See the above comment.  The incident data are spread over several different organizations with gaps due to the non-reporting of incidents. What scant information is being gathered is inadequately coded and is not being investigated forensically and is not being shared.