November 19, 2011

Electronics on the fritz? Could be smart meters

The new meters have been interfering with customers' household devices, CMP says.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

If some appliances, computers or communications equipment have been working oddly lately, the Maine Public Advocate's office said your electric meter may be to blame.

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A spokesman for Central Maine Power says the company is aware of the problem with its smart meters, seen being installed last year in Portland, and has set up a special unit to handle complaints.

2010 Press Herald file

The office put out a statement this week saying Central Maine Power Co.'s "smart meters" -- which use low-power radio frequency transmissions to send meter readings to the company -- are interfering with a wide range of household electronic devices, from garage door openers and WiFi devices to security systems.

A spokesman for Central Maine Power said the company is aware of the problem and has set up a special unit to handle complaints. It will send experts to people's homes to make fixes, if needed, John Carroll said, and has bought new electronic devices for consumers in cases where it was not able to resolve the problem or if the equipment was damaged.

"For the most part, we can fix them fairly easily," usually over the phone, Carroll said. He said CMP has received complaints from about 250 customers, only a tiny fraction of the 440,000 smart meters installed, with another 180,000 expected to go in by early next year.

But a critic of the devices said the small number of complaints may be due to people not making the connection between a smart meter and interference with wireless routers, phones, clocks and even invisible fences for pets.

"I think the majority of people who are having problems with their router or can't stream their Netflix (movies) or whose dogs are zapped in their safe zones have no idea" it could be the smart meter, said Elisa Boxer-Cook, who founded the Smart Meter Safety Coalition.

Boxer-Cook started the group because of health concerns over the meters' use of low-level microwave signals to send and receive information. But the interference issue is eclipsing that initial worry, she said.

Carroll said the meters operate on a common frequency and so interference is not a surprise. He likened it to picking up the transmission from a neighbor's baby monitor on a phone.

He said the meters not only allow CMP to bill without sending a meter reader to home, but it also will give consumers more detailed information on energy usage and could save money if the company sets electric rates based on the time of day the energy is used.

Carroll said warnings about possible interference are included in the notice that CMP leaves on a doorknob when it installs a new meter and in information sent out to consumers as part of its opt-out procedure.

But Boxer-Cook noted that CMP was ordered to do that by the Maine Public Utilities Commission and noted that she's heard from dozens of people with complaints about interference. She predicts CMP's complaint numbers will rise when word of the Public Advocate's warning spreads.

Boxer-Cook said she hopes that the news leads more consumers to opt out of the smart meter program, although she noted that the interference still could be caused by a neighbor's smart meter. She said the company should also train installers to warn customers if they see devices that could be interfered with, such as a security system or invisible fence.

The Public Advocate's office said information on interference can be found on CMP's website. Consumers experiencing problems should call the company at (800) 750-4000 or can fill out an electronic form at the bottom of the company's website page on smart meters: www.cmpco.com/smartmeter.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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