Michael Smyth: Is Hydro playing smoke and mirrors over smart-meter fires?
BY MICHAEL SMYTH, THE PROVINCE AUGUST 24, 2014
B.C. Hydro insists its spiffy new smart meters have not caused any fires, even though the technology has been blamed for blazes in other jurisdictions.
That includes Saskatchewan, where the government just decided to get rid of smart meters after a series of electrical fires there.
B.C. Hydro says it uses a different brand of meter from SaskPower, and no fires have been confirmed here.
Luc De Beir begs to differ.
De Beir, 63, is a project co-ordinator at the University of B.C. and a construction manager who runs his own company in Langley. He blames a smart meter for a February 2013 fire at his summer home near Prince George.
De Beir was not at his Eaglet Lake vacation property when concerned neighbours noticed smoke and went to investigate.
The neighbours say an electrical utility pole had caught fire near its base. It smouldered, burned through the pole and fell over.
“The pole was lying on the ground near a charred, black stump sticking out of the ground,” De Beir said. “It’s very fortunate the pole was not too close to my house or the house would have burned, too.”
De Beir said B.C. Hydro had earlier installed a new smart meter on the utility pole. The fire appeared to have started in the precise spot where the smart meter had been installed. He made the obvious connection.
“I never had any problems with the old analog meter on the pole. Then they installed a smart meter and the pole caught fire.”
He filed a $4,500 damage claim to B.C. Hydro, but Hydro rejected it.
Why? Hydro sent De Beir a letter that suggested a pre-existing “meter base” on the pole was the problem, not the smart meter that was plugged into it.
“The meter base is the property and responsibility of the homeowner,” the letter stated. “If deficiencies are discovered within the meter base when our meter is removed, it is the customer’s responsibility to arrange for repairs to their equipment.”
But De Beir thinks Hydro is just trying to duck responsibility for the fire.
“I wasn’t home when they installed the smart meter. They just came onto the property and installed it without my knowledge, and no one told me there were any ‘deficiencies’ with the base, which worked fine for years with an analog meter.”
The story seemed unusual, so I contacted Hydro for more information. It got stranger from there.
“We sent a crew to investigate and I can confirm a smart meter was never installed on that pole,” Hydro spokesman Greg Alexis told me.
He said Hydro installed a smart meter at a completely different location on De Beir’s large property.
“We installed a smart meter on the side of a shed, not a pole,” Alexis said, suggesting it must have been the old analog meter that burned that fateful day.
De Beir was stunned by that.
“That’s not true,” he said. “They put a smart meter on that pole and I can show you a picture to prove it.”
De Beir said it was only a fluke that he happened to take a picture of the smart meter on the pole a few months before the fire. I sent the picture to Hydro.
“There was a smart meter installed on the pole,” said Alexis, who blamed an address mix-up for the error. “But there is still no evidence that it caused the fire.”
One final twist: No one knows what happened to the burned smart meter. De Beir says a Hydro work crew took it away. But Alexis said there is no record that happened or that Hydro has the burned meter in its possession.
So did a smart meter cause a fire or not? Tough to say without the crucial piece of evidence — and many other smart-meter mishaps are equally inconclusive.
Documents obtained by The Coalition To Stop Smart Meters show there have been other complaints of smart-meter fires, but all liability claims have been rejected by B.C. Hydro.
An August 2012 “fire in a meter base” occurred at the Sparwood post office about four hours after a smart meter was installed there, according to a B.C. Safety Authority report released under freedom-of-information laws.
“The cause was not determined,” the report said.
Official B.C. Hydro “Significant Incident and Event” reports obtained by the group under FOI also mention smart-meter mishaps, including:
Coquitlam: “Smart meter installed July 2012. Preliminary investigation indicates excessive consumption load over-heated socket and created fire.”
Langley: “Broken socket jaw made contact with meter socket during meter exchange. Arcing led to fire at meter location, continued to burn through neutral conductor and onto coax TV cable.”
Abbotsford: “Abbotsford Fire Dept. reported an incident where a homeowner claimed his newly-installed smart meter was smoking and he proceeded to get his camera to take a picture of it. Supposedly, while taking the picture, the smart meter shot off the wall — this has not been verified, there is no photo and there is no further information.”
All most intriguing. But where there is smoke, there is not necessarily a smart-meter fire, says B.C. Hydro.
“We have looked at these incidents and there isn’t a single case here of a fire caused by a B.C. Hydro smart meter,” said Alexis, adding “customer wiring” can be defective and cause problems, not Hydro’s smart meters.
“There have been fewer residential structure fires associated with electricity in the province since B.C. Hydro started installing smart meters in 2011,” he said.
Earlier this month, Saskatchewan ordered their smart meters to be replaced after nine reports of fires there.
British Columbia shows no intention of going down the same path, insisting any fires here are the fault of customers’ equipment, not Hydro’s new smart meters.
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