News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Are California Smart Meters Causing Fires?

A turbine at Altamont Pass in Northern California | Photo: miheco/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The renewable energy trade press has been buzzing the last few weeks with news of PECO Energy's renewal of its smart meter installation program, two months after it suspended that program out of concern over fire risk. PECO, which serves about 1.6 million electric customers in the Philadelphia area, stopped installing smart meters in August after 29 reports of the meters overheating, with several fires as a result -- two of which spread beyond their meter boxes. The utility is replacing some of the previously installed meters, built by the Sensus company, with other models provided by Landis + Gyr, who will provide meters for remaining installations.

And the question arises: could the same issue happen in California?

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In fact, it has, if you take Ted Rawles at his word. Rawles' Bakersfield, CA vacuum cleaner repair shop suffered a small fire in June 2010, which Rawles says originated in a smart meter. The meter hadn't worked for months, after his calls to Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Rawles says, but his calls to PG&E went unheeded until the fire.

PG&E's Denny Boyles told the Bakersfield Californian in July 2010 that the utility had no previous experience with smart meter fires. "We've never had a thing where the investigation showed the meter was the source of the fire," said Boyles.

That would be news to the owners of Berkeley's House of Curries restaurant, where firefighters cut power to the kitchen's smart meter on May 19, a month before the Bakersfield fire. The report on the incident by the Berkeley Fire Departmentnoted:

[i]nvestigation revealed the newly installed PG&E smart meter in the kitchen was hot to touch and smoking, with an orange glow inside the meter housing. Power was immediately shut off to the meter. The meter was pulled from its housing, and a small portion of the wall above the meter was taken out to check for possible extension behind the wall where the wires ecited the meter. Also investigated was the attic space, where the metal conduit containing electrical wires entered. No extension was noted.... scene turned over to PG&E.
Utilities and meter manufacturers often deny the new meters are the problem with the fires, though in PECO's case, suspects FierceEnergy writer Barbara Vergetis Lundin, PECO would be happy to have supplier Sensus take the rap:
[t]he public is led to speculate that it is because the Sensus meters were defective. Why else would PECO replace all of its existing, nearly 190,000 Sensus smart meters with Landis+Gyr, and then forge ahead with nearly 100,000 more new Landis+Gyr smart meter installations while scrapping the Sensus smart meter relationship?

One industry insider who wants to remain anonymous contends that it is because "PECO needed Sensus to take the fall."

What's the real culprit? Vergetis Lundin's sources have their suspicions:

Is Sensus getting a raw deal from PECO?

"Yes," say some industry insiders -- because the "real" smart meter issue is overheating caused by a "hot socket," whereby meter boxes (all UL-tested by the way) do not allow for clean contact with meters.

An anonymous source stated that, given the sheer volume of meter installations, there were bound to be issues caused by dirty, misshapen or corroded meter box jaws and, when precautions were not taken by PECO installers to identify and address these problems, incidences of overheating and fires resulted.

Others, including anti-smart meter campaigners EMF Safety Network, charge that hurried installation by contractors is a major cause of the problem, at least in PG&E's service area.

Smart meters are controversial. Objections to the meters range from fires and electrical malfunctions to alleged overbilling, to more tinfoil-hatty issues such as alleged health effects of the electromagnetic frequencies the meters use to transmit information (less that a cell phone uses, though that doesn't mollify hardcore EMF opponents) and secret utility company plans to download personal information into government databases.

As a result of the opposition California utilities now offer customers the ability to opt out of smart meter programs, though participation seems low -- perhaps because keeping your old analog meter involves a modest monthly fee.

Implemented properly, smart meters will be crucial in making our power grid able to contend with the inevitable distributed generation future. Many of the objections to smart meters may vanish when it turns out they help rooftop solar owners sell juice to the utilities. Having utilities be less than forthcoming about potential hazards of smart meters won't help. There were more than 14 million smart meters installed in California as of May of this year. If they suffer the same failure rate as Sensus' meters -- which the company downplays as .008% of the installed base -- that's more than a thousand overheating incidents statewide, with hundreds of potential fires as a result.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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"Many of the objections to smart meters may vanish when it turns out they help rooftop solar owners sell juice to the utilities. Having utilities be less than forthcoming about potential hazards of smart meters won't help."

No need for smart meters..Analog Meters run backwards also!
And "Having utilities be less than forthcoming" is 100% the reason to stay away from smart meters.

Smart Meters are fire starters!
Smart People save energy! Smart Meters set people's homes on fire!


"Objections to the meters range from fires and electrical malfunctions to alleged overbilling, to more tinfoil-hatty issues such as alleged health effects of the electromagnetic frequencies the meters use to transmit information"...LoL.

US NAVY REPORTS THE CONNECTION of 122 BIOEFFECTS to MICROWAVES– US NAVAL MEDICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Dr. Zorach Glaser, PhD of the US Navy presented a research report covering more than 2200 studies, which link weak wireless signals (microwave radiation) to more than 122 biological effects. "Bibliography of Reported Biological Phenomena (Effects) and Clinical Manifestations attributed to Microwave and Radio-Frequency Radiation."

That US Navy sure does get all tinfoil-hatty, doesn't it. Wacky stuff!!!

Ya'll might want to do some googling around before embarrassing yourselves further.


Glaser's work is more than 40 years old. It was a literature survey and not a report of research. It carries right up front, on page 2, the note:

The comments upon and criticisms of the literature made in this report, and the recommendations and inferences suggested, are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Navy Department or of the Naval Service.

On page 7, Glaser's own views:

Note: These effects are listed without comment or endorsement since the literature abounds with conflicting reports. In some cases the basis for reporting an "effect" was a single or a non-statistical observation, which may have been drawn from a poorly conceived (and poorly executed) experiment.

In other words, the paper merely repeated what others had reported, the author said "don't necessarily trust what these reports said because their work might be shoddy," and the Naval Medical Research Institute disclaimed any of the paper's conclusions. That's hardly the Navy endorsing anything.

The California Council on Science and Technology published a study in 2011 of the known health effects of the kinds of radiation smart meters use. Their conclusions, in part:

  1. Wireless smart meters, when installed and properly maintained, result in much smaller levels of radio frequency (RF) exposure than many existing common household electronic devices, particularly cell phones and microwave ovens.
  2. The current FCC standard provides an adequate factor of safety against known thermally induced health impacts of existing common household electronic devices and smart meters.
  3. To date, scientific studies have not identified or confirmed negative health effects from potential/non-thermal impacts of RF emissions such as those produced by existing common household electronic devices and smart meters.
  4. Not enough is currently known about potential non-thermal impacts of radio frequency emissions to identify or recommend additional standards for such impacts.

They also conclude that in order for smart meters to provide you witha notable level of electromagnetic radiation, you'd have to stay within five feet or less of them.


The "modest" charge for opting out is not so modest once one understands that We The People funded these smart meters to the tune of over 3 billion in "stimulus" funds, and that the utilities will also be saving money by not paying meter readers.


Hey Chris, what is the safe level of microwave radiating a fetus? Just curious if you know. You do know that microwave weapons experts were causing 6 times fetus mortality rates with low level microwave radiation don't you? Have you seen the mutated embryos in this article at levels well below your beloved smart meters? It is ironic you will say NONE of the NMRI data is valid, not one thing in there because of what zory said. Would you believe the ARMY, then? How about the FDA? DARPA? EPA? The mutated chicks did not happen? The Canadian Human Rights commission? Yale University? Please 'explain away' how 100's of 1000's of pulses per day (as admitted in court by PGE) will do nothing for life to a fetus, when it is well known (since the 30's) microwave hurt people. How about the Korean war vets studies? Nope, those don't count either, because a 6 minute test for heat (your basis for safety) isn't failed. So vibrating ALL cells of a fetus, baby, child at billions of hz, from multiple devices, cordless phones, cell phones, multiple meters, routers, gas, water, electrical, wi-fi at billions of pulses per day, all day for life... does nothing because the fetus (and the eggs the child carries for life already forming in the womb) aren't heating? You are advocating the induction of children? While all these other agencies are saying this hurts children (yes the Russian military too, MI5 etc.) So either they are all wrong and you are right or the opposite, I trust the opposite is true. You can rest on you 'heat effects are the only thing that cause issues, but that is just of ignorance of the basic laws of electricity (and the universe itself) to make money.
Enjoy the data contained within:


The CCST report is extremely misleading:

When the CCST chart is corrected to reflect the same units of measurement, it appears that smart meters are at least 100x more powerful than cell phones, which are increasingly being linked with brain tumors.


"The utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, admitted yesterday that about 1,600 so-called “smart meters” had charged customers for phantom power. The meters, manufactured by Landis+Gyr, malfunctioned when they get too hot."