Unusual number of fires, smart meters linked - Ontario Fire Marshal says faulty base plates could be the cause, similar to Mission blaze.
BC Hydro is in the process of a $1-billion installation of the meters, which use wireless technology to transmit information about electricity consumption to power utilities, following the lead of provinces and states including Ontario and California.
There’s no evidence to suggest that the meters themselves are overheating and catching fire, but it appears from an Ontario fire marshal’s report, dated June 15, 2012, that the base plates, or four-pronged sockets that meters plug into, can become compromised and start to burn if they’re old or suffer rough handling during installation.
“It’s like everything else, once it’s installed and intact nothing usually happens,” said Surrey electrical contractor Bill Strain, a former president of the Canadian Home Builders Association.
“A lot of times, when you pull something apart, if it’s been there for 30 years it’s probably going to be rusted in or hard in. So they have to give it a little bit of a jerk or a twist. That jerk or twist may be what sets the whole thing in motion,” Strain said Friday. If there’s a problem, he added, it’s possible that a contractor without formal electrical training may miss it.
A resident of Mission, Trish Regan, recently lost her home in a fire that the district’s fire department said appeared to originate from a broken base plate that became overheated and caught fire a few hours after an employee of Corix, the company contracted by BC Hydro to install the meters, plugged one in at her home.
Arkady Tsisserev, chair of the Canadian Electrical Code Committee, noted in an email that much of the work involved in smart meter installation falls outside the oversight of the Canadian Electrical (CE) Code.
“Revenue meters are covered by specific requirements of the power utilities which collect revenue from their customers for use of the electric energy.
“I’m aware of a number of fires that were supposedly attributed to installation and use of ‘smart meters’ in various jurisdictions throughout the country,” Tsisserev wrote. “In fact, at the recent meeting of the CE Code committee, the members were presented with a comprehensive report produced by the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office.”
According to the marshal’s report, “During our initial research of the new meters we encountered an unusual amount of fire incidents involving smart meters. After discovering these incidents our main question was, were they one-off incidents or was there a similar systemic root cause
“Anecdotal information supported [the fact that] problems occurred after the old analog meters were updated to the new digital smart meters.”
The report noted the possibility of a fire resulting from “a loose connection in the meter base.”
“What could be the reason for this? The old meter base connections may not have been in a condition for seamless exchange to a new meter. New meters may have defects that cause electrical failures or misalignment with old meter base. Careless installation during changeover.”
Meter changeovers are not unusual; before the smart meter project, Hydro was replacing about 40,000 old analogue meters per year with new ones.
In 0.5 per cent of cases, Hydro installers noted a faulty meter base and replaced it, according to smart meter deputy project officer Fiona Taylor.
That’s more or less the same base plate replacement ratio that’s arising from the smart meter installation, she said.
Cindy Verschoor, Hydro spokeswoman, said that unless a homeowner notices problems after the installation — such as lights flickering on and off, or dimming and brightening — there’s no need to worry about a problem with the plate.
“If you notice anything unusual of course give us a call or arrange to have an electrician do an inspection,” Verschoor said. “You can tell by your lights. That’s the best indicator.”
Verschoor said Corix installation supervisors are certified electricians and they’re always on standby to effect any plate repairs noted by the installers.
Gwenne Farrell, vice-president of Hydro inside workers union COPE 378, said the union isn’t prepared to blame installers for the Mission incident but they challenge the “dismissive” way Hydro has pushed the project along regardless of public objections to the meters and a lack of regulatory scrutiny of the costs associated with the program.
“They have been legislated to have these installations competed by Dec. 31 of this year and they’re going forward with that, regardless,” Farrell said. “There are people who have overall concerns about the smart meters, people who don’t want them. They don’t seem to even acknowledge that there is a lot of concern about these smart meters going in.”
Jonathan Hodes, a lawyer with Miller Thomson LLP who is familiar with insurance claims, anticipates that Regan’s insurance company will look to recover the cost of any payout it makes to the homeowner.
It’s possible that Hydro could take similar action. “If Hydro does get sued at some point I would expect – it wouldn’t surprise me at all – if they filed a defence or a response to the lawsuit blaming whoever they think they can blame to try to avoid liability,” Hodes said.