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Consumers question utilities' use of smart meters

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 8:25 p.m.

Tim Campbell thought it kind of peculiar when his power company notified him that he was using six times the energy of his neighbors.

“I have 6½ people in my house,” said Campbell, a physician in internal medicine from Bethel Park. “My neighbors on either side have two.”

Campbell and his wife, who have a newborn granddaughter and four children living with them, join the growing ranks of people in Pennsylvania and across the nation who question why power companies collect such data and are concerned water and gas companies will follow suit in tracking their activities.

Under Act 129, a law passed in 2008, Pennsylvania required all large electric utilities to install smart meters, which take frequent readings and allow suppliers to improve their ability to manage outages. Pennsylvania expects to install 6 million smart meters over the next 15 years.

Residents such as Campbell, who does not have a smart meter, are asking why.

“I'm not talking paranoia … but do I want people to know what my thermostat is set at?” he said. “Why do they need that information? I pay my bills based on consumption.”

Some residents say it's only a matter of time before gas and water companies start using the technology.

Smart meter use will climb to 29.9 million by 2017, up from 10.3 million in 2011, according to a Jan. 5, 2012 report by Pike Research, a firm specializing in clean technology research.

Pennsylvania American Water is conducting a pilot study of smart water meters in Claysville, Washington County.

“It allows off-peak monitoring, measuring temperatures in pipes,” said spokesperson Josephine Posti. “That can help us determine the potential for leaks.”

The company has not heard complaints about the meters, she said.

Customers of the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County could soon get smart water meters.

“Every new meter that we put in is a smart meter,” said Tom Ceraso, assistant manager. Crews have installed about 200 to 300 of the devices.

“I think it will be a good tool ... that will improve our ability to detect leaks,” he said.

Across the United States and Canada, people oppose smart meters out of concern about radiation exposure and say they don't want their utility use recorded at a near-constant pace.

“Somebody is going to tell me what I can do in my house?” said Peter Sour, 77, of Sewickley, a retired consultant.

Opponents say the wireless smart meters emit (non-ionizing) radio frequency radiation linked to biological effects in humans, animals and plant life.

But a January 2012 study by the Vermont Department of Health, which made actual measurements on active smart meters Green Mountain Power installed in Colchester, found that readings from the devices showed a fraction of the radio frequency radiation emitted from a wireless phone.

Ryan Pergola, of Monongahela, signed an online petition to repeal Act 129, in part, because he's concerned about the growth of smart meter use and the potential for abuse. “I would think technology-wise, that's the logical next step,” said Pergola. “Once we have the ability to streamline the monitoring process, other companies will follow suit.”

State Rep. Mike Reese hopes to introduce before the end of the month three bills that would repeal portions of the smart-meter mandate, allow consumers to opt out and require their consent before sharing information from electric meters with government agencies.

“It doesn't make sense that government would mandate one technology over another … that's like saying I have a smartphone so every other cell phone user should have one,” said Reese, a Republican representing Westmoreland and Somerset counties. “That's not the role of government.”

Some Pennsylvania utilities have had problems with the devices.

State regulators launched an investigation in August into the safety of Peco Energy Co.'s smart meter installation program, which the utility suspended after some devices caught fire.

“We're still investigating that; it's still at the staff level,” said PUC spokesperson Jennifer Kocher. “There's been no determination.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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