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Power surge raises questions about SmartMeters

Original post made on Sep 4, 2011

When 80 PG&E SmartMeters caught on fire and burned out after a power surge in East Palo Alto on Aug. 25, the incident raised questions for some residents and utilities officials about the safety of the new digital devices.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Sunday, September 4, 2011, 9:51 AM

Comments (23)

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Posted by Dan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 4, 2011 at 10:34 am

1) I hope Palo Alto won't rush into "smart" meters until all the problems have been discovered and fixed in other communities. Also, money is tight right now, and this is an expense which can be delayed. If you want to know about your electricity usage, just look around your house and see all the things you have running.

2) Why was there such a big power surge in EPA? I hope Palo Alto will make sure it doesn't happen to us.


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Posted by OneofThoseOtherPeople
a resident of another community
on Sep 4, 2011 at 10:55 am

Would you like us to taste your food before you eat it too?


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 4, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

As I understand, the power surge was in the thousands of volts, well above the rating of any meter. Palo Alto is REQUIRED by law to install Smart Meters. The sooner the better.


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Posted by TWOofThoseOtherPeople
a resident of another community
on Sep 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm

"Would you like us to taste your food before you eat it too? "

Perhaps not, but I want our food safety systems to prevent toxic food being served to your children.

Unless you're a libertarian who wants no government, live with the invisible hand of the free market. You have to learn, after your daughter gets salmonella, to shop elsewhere or not eat certain foods. Shame on you for buying bad food!


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Posted by So
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2011 at 3:22 pm

from the picture, it looks like they performed well. I see no fire that they caused, the meters just melted. Seems like the kind of failure I'd be ok with. So did I miss something? Whats the real problem?


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Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Our Utilities Department is going real slow on the Smart Meters. One day we will get them because that's the law but for once I think our Utility Department is doing the right thing.

Also, our City has chosen to go real slow with the idea of installing cameras for red light runners. Again, a smart idea, we have no idea how the Courts will eventually rule on these cameras and the City has correctly decided not to invest in them right away.

For once our City is doing something right.


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Posted by MV Resident
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 4, 2011 at 10:20 pm

SmartMeters are evil. They also overcharge users.


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Posted by Add-A-Surge-Protector
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2011 at 8:58 am

Hmmm .. and just how much would it cost to add a "surge protector" (circuit breaker/fuse) to the meter to insure that it does not burn out when these infrequent events occur?

Surges can come from any number of sources. Lightning most often is the source of line surges in places where it actually rains. This is a simple-to-fix problem that could add a couple dollars to the cost of each meter.

It's strange the PG&E let this get by their design/testing scenario, but not a big problem to deal with.


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Posted by Add-A-Surge-Protector
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2011 at 11:15 am

There is an underlying issue here which this Weekly article does not address. That issue would be: who is responsible for the damage done by power surges? Is the power supplier responsible for line surges that damage appliances on the customer's premises (including fires that result from these surges), or is the customer responsible?

Many years ago, here in Palo Alto, there was a power surge in one of the neighborhoods that resulted from an "aluminized" balloon landing on a power line that in a way that resulted in the shunting of a high voltage into a lower voltage line that fed a goodly number of residences. Homes that did not have "power strips" that effectively isolated appliances, and computers, resulted in "blow outs" of those pieces of equipment. The City took responsibility for replacing the damaged equipment, but did not make itself very available to its customers about how to apply for damages. There was a short period of time that injured parties could apply for compensation, and the City never announced how many people applied for compensation, or how much damage was done by the balloon's unfortunate landing site. It's not hard to believe that many people were not compensated as a result of the City's "low profile" when it came to offering compensation.

This begs the question as to whether the PAU (a wholly-owned function of local government) should be expected to guarantee electrical service within a prescribed range of parameters (voltage and amperage), and failing that performance, should be held financially liable for the damage done to customers. (Given that the PAU is a municipal utility, it would not be surprising to learn that it is not subject to the same laws/regulations that are imposed on commercial suppliers, like PG&E.)

Adding surge protectors for smart meters, and also for the customer premises, would go a long way towards reducing the potential damage to home electrical equipment, as well as financial liability for damage, that occurs due to unforeseeable events (like this balloon landing).

This issue of liability on the part of the City (PAU) is very dark territory, since there have not been many problems with surges here in Palo Alto over the years. The most recent problem, the city-wide power outage, revealed a power provider that refused to take any liability for damage done to its customers due to NOT providing power, and also not being willing to provide an underground feed for the main power source to the PAU's 28000+ customers.

While smart meters make a lot of sense from a number of different points of view, there are issues of liability due to how these meters react to power surges. All homes have circuit breakers which are intended to shut off a given circuit when the power draw becomes too high. However, these circuit breakers do not provide any protection from line-induced voltage surges. Perhaps it's time to demand the PAU install surge protects with their meters, so that homeowners/customers can be protected from these kinds of problems that originate within the PAU's redistribution system.

It's way past time to demand that the PAU offer to its customers a complete inventory of its responsibilities in a written format, a convenient way to apply for compensation when damages are warranted, a promise not to deny valid claims for compensation, and a yearly public report of claims made, and damages awarded. Palo Altans are necessarily prisoners of this municipal utility. There is no reason that we have to allow ourselves to be treated like we live in a banana republic, too.


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 5, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

A surge protector to protect against all possible surges would be so expensive both in material and in voltage drop as to be unlikely. Destructive surges are rare.
As for overcharging, that is balderdash. Until such time as schedules are approved, everybody pays the same. After a schedule is approved that charges more for peak power and less for off peak power, then peak power users will feel the pain. Peak power does cost more, but with stupid meters you pay as much at midnight as at noon. They beg you to turn stuff off during peak power hours, but they cannot reward you for this with stupid meters.


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Posted by Add-A-Surge-Protector
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2011 at 10:38 am

> surge protectors too expensive

That's a matter for discussion. There are any number of commercial products on the market that would need to be considered. There are "panel" surge protectors that retail for less than $100. There are "whole house" surge protectors that seem to be in the $300-$400 range. And some power providers, like Florida Light and Power, offer a surge protection "service" for less than $8/month:

Web Link

A couple web-pages on smart meters suggest that there is some sort of surge protection built into the existing meters, but no details are provided. Generally, this sort of "line isolation" is rated in terms of kilo-volts that can be successfully resisted by the line isolation device/capability. With lightning be the most common source of surges around the world, this opens the door to fairly high voltages that can be imposed on the lines terminating at a customer's home.

The issue to be considered here is the cost of the meter, and the cost of the appliances and consumer electronics that might be damaged from a surge that happens in a person's home. Since lightening strikes are rare in this area, worry about this likelihood is probably unwarranted. But there are situations where fires, or high winds, cause trees that are too close to high voltage lines to fall on these lines, which in turn fall on lower voltage lines—inducing surges into customer premises. The smart meters cost about $300, and surge protection can cost up to $300 for a "whole house" unit. While this may seem expensive to some, this extra expense needs to be considered against the expense of having to replace up to $5,000 of home appliances.

Also keep in mind that a power provider has to think in terms of equipment replacement cycles. The analog meters probably have a 30-50 year life cycle. Electronics generally need to be replaced every 7-10 years (at best). So the costs for surge protection needs to be amortized over the most appropriate equipment replacement cycles.

Hopefully PG&E will do some sort of failure analysis of the meters that failed, and provide the public with this information—particularly if they decide that more surge protection is needed for better customer protection and reliability of the electrical service for the customer.


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Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 6, 2011 at 9:44 pm

FYI: the Smartmeter project in Boulder, CO WAS AN UTTER FAILURE and Xcel wanted to get a $53 MILLION chargeback from other CO ratepayers....

Smartmeters were going to create a SmartGrid showcase project in Boulder...


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2011 at 8:35 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Funny, the reports don't match your condemnation.


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Posted by Mike
a resident of another community
on Sep 8, 2011 at 11:56 am

Breakers and fuses protect the system from the device. And surge protection is costly. I can't imagine any utility not looking at a cost analysis for the surge feasibility. Most utility based surge programs only pay your homeowner's deductible. You have to weigh the cost of the program against the value of the deductible and likelihood of filing a claim.


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Posted by badger
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Wireless Smart Meters are not legally required to be installed by law. Pacific Gas and Electric applied to use them when their data transmission over utility line digital meters had problems in Bakersfield. The CPUC approved PG&E's application to use wireless without environmental review and without a full hearing on their efficacy. PG&E's system poses insurmountable security risks and may pose public health risks as well. The World Health Organization recently classified RF radiation of the type transmitted by Smart Meters as a Class 2B carcinogen:

Web Link


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

You don't have to allow the installation of a Smart Meter. You just have to pay the meter reading surcharge and peak rate for 24 hours/day. This is also known as the Stupid Meter Rate.


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Posted by Karyn
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Dec 20, 2011 at 12:38 am

Smart Meters will NEVER make a customers LIFE BETTER !!!!!!!!!!! They should be Banned before it is TOO LATE !!!!


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Posted by iphony
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 20, 2011 at 8:48 am

Is it true that 50,000 iphones at Candlestick Park caused the smartmeter to go crazy last night?


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Posted by S. Gregory
a resident of another community
on Dec 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Smart meters are supposed to make customers' lives better? How is my life better after having to move out of my home and the city I've lived in for 23 years due to the severe headaches, insomnia, and other symptoms that began very shortly after smart meters were installed on my Burbank, CA apartment building? How is my life better when I cannot visit friends and family or frequent businesses in my community? I feel well and comfortable in areas that are not in a mesh network, but within about 4 hours of being in a smart-metered area, I feel ill again. Tell me, how is my life better? How is the life of my neighbor better when he says he must spend as much time away from his apartment as possible? How is the life of another neighbor better when he has to sleep on his sofa because he gets headaches in his bedroom that share a wall with the meters? This is a state-wide, nation-wide, planet-wide scourge that must end. Let's take back our lives.


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Posted by Karyn
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Dec 20, 2011 at 11:45 pm

I'm speaking for my sis who does Hair in Los Altos..I am with Stopsmartmeters.org ...and you MUST check out this site for what you CAN do to protect yourself. My sis is already Chemically Sensitive from doing hair forever..and with Smart Meters on top of THAT..what is her CHANCE for a HEALTHY and HAPPY LIFE ???
STOP THIS INSANITY !!!!!
BAN SMART METERS NOW ...There are NONE SO BLIND as those who WILL not SEE !!!!
Do a RECALL..as they would do if it were POISON..as that IS what it is. Ruined HAPPY LIVES..silently KILLED in their HOMES which ALWAYS SHOULD have been a SANCTUARY..if it had not been for a few EVIL people making a scheme to make money off of genocide.


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Posted by Watch Out For The Black Helicoptors
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 21, 2011 at 5:31 pm

First it was water floridation, then ethanol in our gasoline, now smart meters.
It's all about mind control, baby, mind control.


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Posted by It's ok
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 21, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Smart meters won't be an issue until skynet becomes self aware.


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Posted by wej
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Skynet is aware.

And to those complaining about the headaches, tinfoil works wonders. Wrap a few sheets around your head and you are good to go!


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