How the Smart Meter ‘Remote Disconnect’ Can Cause Fires

by K.T. Weaver, SkyVision Solutions 

Smart Meter Fireball and RDI have previously stated that “the most dangerous ‘feature’ included in the majority of smart meters deployed today is the remote disconnect option.” [1] [2]  At the time, I was primarily referencing the increased risk that the smart meter remote disconnect (RD) poses to the electric grid from a cyber threat perspective.  In addition, however, the RD is one of the features of a smart meter (as compared to other types of electric usage meters) that increases the risk of catastrophic meter failures and resulting building fires.

To help illustrate how smart meter RDs can result in fires, this article will highlight the results of forensic investigations by EFI Global, Inc. (EFI) for a failed Sensus brand smart meter reported as involved in a fire in Las Vegas, Nevada in July 2015 [3].  There were actually two separate evaluations of the failed smart meter, first a non-destructive review in July 2015 and a destructive inspection conducted in April 2016.

Here is an excerpt from the forensics report for the non-destructive review:

“[It] should be noted that this meter is of the new ‘smart-meter’ variety, which differs from the original electro-mechanical meter that it replaced in at least three significant ways:

  • The new meter has a plastic case, whereas most of the older electro-mechanical meters had glass cases.  The plastic cases are clearly subject to melting and burning, as evidenced by the condition of the meter from the ‘HP’ [house panel] section of this panel.
  • The new meter has a remotely-operable switch inside that allows the power to be disconnected by the utility company from a remote location.  Older electro-mechanical meters typically were not equipped with such switches.  Switch contacts have the potential to make poor contact and generate heat.
  • The new meters have a complex circuit board internal to the meter to support wireless communication, metering functions, and the operating driver for the remote power disconnect switching function mentioned above.  The only power available to support these functions is the incoming 120/240-Volt line power or a backup battery internal to the meter.  Circuit board fires in general are nothing new to forensic investigators.  They have been well-documented as fire causes in computers, home appliances, and commercial appliances, to name just a few.

Finally, it should be noted that the area where the fault occurred is not accessible to the building owner or electrical maintenance personnel, since it behind a utility-company-owned meter that is secured with a locking band also provided by the utility company.  This implies that any ‘wear and tear’ in the subject secure space, whether to the panel or the meter, is extremely unlikely to occur in the first place, and would be unlikely to have been caused by anyone other than utility company personnel if it did occur.

The above analysis explains why the fault must have originated within this inaccessible space inside or behind the meter.  All indications are that the fault originated inside the meter, but a slight possibility remains that the origin may have been the result of poor contact between the meter blades and the panel socket clips.  A detailed destructive examination of the offending meter is indicated to confirm this conclusion.

CONCLUSION

It is the conclusion of this Engineer, based on all available information to date, that the subject electrical fault originated within the power meter serving the ‘HP’ (house panel) portion of the service panel.”

Finally, here is an excerpt from the forensics report for the destructive inspection of the failed smart meter:

All observed damage to the electrical panel and the meter itself is consistent with a fire triggered by extreme heat at the defective switch contacts inside the meter.  The heat transferred to the metal clips, which were held in position by a resin-based insulator.  The extreme heat ignited the insulator.  The ensuing fire burned upward inside the panel, explaining the damage to the circuit breaker located directly above it. Open flame conducts electricity, so the flame drew an arc between the two energized power rails in the panel, explaining the unusual arc patterns in the center circuit on the panel, which was not part of the ‘HP’ meter circuit.

One final observation must be noted here.  All of the above activity occurred in a section of the electrical panel that is not accessible to anyone except employees of NV Energy.  The meters were secured in place by locking collars, as noted in previous reports, precluding anyone else from accessing the area of the panel where this fire originated.

The previous ‘not smart’ meters cannot and do not cause these types of fires because they are not equipped with the switching contacts that allow the utility companies to turn power ‘on’ and ‘off’ to their customers at will without the nuisance of having to actually go to the site.  The switching contacts are not required to make a meter ‘smart’…the smart designation comes from the ability of the meters to track power usage continuously and transmit the data back to the utility company.  The switching contacts are a feature provided purely and solely for the convenience of the utility companies.

This convenience comes at the price of exposing innocent and unsuspecting customers to fire hazards originating in a section of their electrical panel to which they have no access.

CONCLUSION

This fire was very obviously caused by overheating of the switching contact on the left side power bus inside the Sensus meter serving the ‘HP’ circuits of the building.  This fire occurred solely and directly as a result of the local utility company, NV Energy installing a defective meter into an existing and serviceable electrical panel.  The fire originated in a locked and concealed area that is accessible ONLY to employees of NV Energy.

… The responsibility to identify and prevent electrical fires of this nature rests with the utility provider and by inference, the manufacturer of the defective meter.”

What you have just read would never be publicly disclosed by a utility company or smart grid proponents.  The forensic evaluations were performed by EFI at the request of an insurance company.  In my experience, the utility company or meter manufacturer will never admit liability for smart meter fires as they employ a product defense strategy with their attorneys.  They will blame the “customer wiring” for the fires.  Utilities also make attempts to remove burned smart meter evidence from fire scenes hindering the efforts of fire investigators [3] [4].

This article has thus provided you with additional evidence demonstrating that smart meters increase the risk for fires [5 through 11], in this case due to the remote disconnect (RD) feature included in most smart meters that are being deployed today.

References

[1] “Smart Meter Remote Disconnect: An ‘Unnecessary Risk’ for Significant Damage to the Grid,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, May 2016, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2016/05/12/smart-meter-remote-disconnect-an-unnecessary-risk-for-significant-damage-to-the-grid/

[2] As described by one utility company, the “remote disconnect” is a switch within a smart meter that can be remotely operated to connect or disconnect power to the customer:

“Traditionally, utilities send a metering service person to connect or disconnect the meter. With an AMI system, the connect/ disconnect can be performed remotely by switching the internal meter switch in the Smart Meter for any of the following possible reasons:

  • Remote Connect for Move-In
  • Remote Connect for Reinstatement on Payment
  • Remote Disconnect for Move-Out
  • Remote Disconnect for Non-Payment
  • Remote Disconnect for Emergency Load Control
  • Unsolicited Connect / Disconnect Event”

Source: http://smartgrid.epri.com/UseCases/Meter%20Remote%20Connect%20Disconnect_ph2add.pdf

[3] The forensic evaluation reports were included as part of the direct testimony of Norman Lambe presented to the state of New Mexico Public Regulation Commission; below a link to review the entire testimony and exhibits for Norman Lambe:

https://skyvisionsolutions.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/lambe-testimony-in-new-mexico.pdf

[4] “Utilities Remove Burned Smart Meter Evidence from Fire Scenes,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, July 2015, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2015/07/28/utilities-remove-burned-smart-meter-evidence-from-fire-scenes/

[5] “Smart Meter Malfunction Causes Pennsylvania Apartment Building Fire,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, February 2014, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2014/02/14/meter-blamed-for-pennsylvania-fire/

[6] “Smart Meters Increase the Risk of Fires!,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, August 2014, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2014/08/03/smart-meters-increase-the-risk-of-fires/

[7] “Smart Meter Fires Spread to Nevada: ‘Be Very Aware, Very Vigilant’ Says Fire Chief,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, September 2014, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2014/09/14/smart-meter-fires-spread-to-nevada/

[8] “Analog Meters Withstand ‘Hot Sockets’ Better Than Smart Meters,” SlyVision Solutions Blog Article, October 2014, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2014/10/16/analog-meters-withstand-hot-sockets-better-than-smart-meters/

[9] “Increased Risk of Smart Meter Fires Remains despite Receiving ‘Passing Grade’ for Nevada Test Samples,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, May 2015, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2015/05/06/increased-risk-of-smart-meter-fires-remains/

[10] “Utility Industry Aware of Safety and Accuracy Issues with Digital Meters for Years,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, June 2015, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2015/06/29/utility-industry-aware-of-issues-with-digital-meters-for-years/

[11] “NLRB Case Files and Judge’s Decision Confirm Smart Meter Fires, SkyVision Solutions Blog Article,” June 2015, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2015/06/30/nlrb-documents-smart-meter-fires/ 

Copyright Notice © SkyVision Solutions and Smart Grid Awareness, 2013 – 2016.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of original material from this site without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to SkyVision Solutions and Smart Grid Awareness with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About SkyVision Solutions

Raising public awareness and finding solutions for smart grid issues related to invasions of privacy, data security, cyber threats, health and societal impacts, as well as hazards related to radiofrequency (RF) radiation emissions from all wireless devices, including smart meters.
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6 Responses to How the Smart Meter ‘Remote Disconnect’ Can Cause Fires

  1. Pingback: Links to Fire Evidence | SUMA-NW

  2. bobbg says:

    Do you have any Legal Court papers on this subject?
    If my Smart meter burns down my house what prood could i provide that its the utility’s fult?

    • Each house fire will need to be investigated based upon the specifics. This website has demonstrated how and why smart meters increase the risk of fires as compared with analog meters along providing many examples of actual fires.

      Investigations are complicated by the fact that utility companies often remove evidence from the fire scene before investigators can look at it (see reference 4 above) and that utilities deny smart meter fires due to public relations and liability reasons. When faced with possible revelations, utility companies will likely engage in a legal settlement where details are not disclosed to the public; see reference 11 for an example of that.

      This particular article was based upon testimony of an insurance claims adjustor submitted to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission; see the link for reference 3 above. I suggest you read his testimony for more detailed information on the challenges of investigating possible smart meter fires and proving what was the cause of the fire.

  3. Deborah says:

    Great article. Relays information in layman’s terms.

  4. OF COURSE THEY DO! THEY ARE PLASTIC AND HEAT UP GO FIGURE!

  5. keithjim says:

    Not mentioned is the possibility of repeated switching (and subsequent failure) of the RD contacts resulting from: 1. electronic hardware malfunction, 2. firmware malfunction, 3. embedded microcontroller crash, 4. host computer system hiccup, or 5. communications hack. Most likely, I believe, would be 1, 2 or 3 above resulting from a lighting strike.

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