In a matter of 15 seconds, a technician can swap a "dumb" meter for an advanced meter one that tracks utility usage in real-time. A quick change transforms a home from an isolated energy user into a piece of the local energy grid.
By 2013, more than 51 million advanced meters were connected to homes throughout the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. On more of a local level, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. says 9.8 million SmartMeters were deployed in Northern and Central California between 2007 and 2014.
"The biggest benefit is the real-time recording of energy usage," says Jil Shingledecker, PG&E corporate relations spokeswoman.
She goes on to explain how the SmartMeters benefits both the consumer and the utilities company. Because of the flow of specific data, PG&E can see outages and respond directly to the problem area. The company isn't waiting for a customer to call in with a complaint; the company can already see it. This same idea can be deployed during a major storm, earthquake or other emergency as well.
On the consumer end, homeowners can watch their hourly gas and electric on PG&E's My Energy site. It allows customers to compare this week to last week or this week to last year. By knowing what they use, people can adjust their habits to save money and take advantage of money-saving rates offered through a utilities provider, PG&E says. Plus, if anything spikes, the monitoring system can send an alert.
PG&E says its customers have embraced the SmartMeters, with more and more people using the real-time data to their advantage.
In Palo Alto, the Utilities Department is operating a pilot program for advanced meters, called CustomerConnect, which goes beyond energy useage to include water usage as well. So while not everyone has an advanced meter yet, home- and money-saving stories have come through the pipeline.
While off enjoying London, a Palo Alto homeowner's water pipe burst. Luckily, he was one of the 300 residents who are participating in the pilot program, so his utilities were connected to the grid. The Utilities Department's smart system alerted the homeowner about the abnormally large volume of water usage, and in turn, the homeowner had his landscaper go check it out right away.
"The landscaper found a huge leak," says Catherine Elvert, City of Palo Alto Utilities communications manager. "Without the smart system, we never would have known."
The pilot meters manufactured by Elster cost around $110 per meter and have been in effect since 2013. They offer similar real-time consumption data in an online platform, like PG&E's SmartMeters. The city decided to test with this particular company and system because it offers gas, electric and water metering.
"It's a neat tool for people to actively monitor their consumption," Elvert says. "We aren't full scale yet because we want to select the best option for us."
But even on the smaller scale, Utilities program manager Lacey Lutes has seen how the numbers would translate to the whole city's population.
"It is mind blowing to me how many people have leaks," she says. "If you extrapolated that ... you'd be amazed."
In her role, she helps customers catch the leak big or small. The meters transmit data about every six hours, and the system tracks usage down to 7.5-gallon increments, which Utilities staff and the specific customer can view. But when trouble strikes, the software system sends Lutes a report with leak information and account numbers. Next, she contacts the customer to ensure they know about the issue.
"Getting to call someone is my favorite part of the new meter system," she says. "It is saving water, and saving them thousands of dollars."
This article appeared in print in the Fall Home + Garden Design 2015 publication.