Your utility meters are getting 'smart' ¡ª and chatty

February 23, 2013|By Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel
If you¡¯re an Orlando Utilities Commission customer, there may come a day when a neighbor¡¯s electric meter could help turn you in for breaking lawn-watering rules.
Crazy as it sounds, it¡¯s just one of countless possibilities as networks of computerized water and electric meters begin operating across OUC¡¯s sprawling service area in Orange and Osceola counties.
Joining a national trend, OUC is installing "smart" meters this year and next that will "mesh" to form an interlocking, digital grapevine. Meters will chatter to one another, passing encrypted details of your hourly usage from one unit to the next until the data pour into OUC computers.
For the publicly owned utility, it¡¯s a major equipment upgrade. For customers, it¡¯s a revolution in how they can track their usage by the watt or gallon ¡ª and, perhaps, learn to conserve.
Q&A: How meters work
How could my neighbor¡¯s electric meter end up spying on my lawn sprinkler?
The new water meters electronically "shout out" your water use. That radio signal is received by an electric meter ¡ª not necessarily your electric meter, but any electric meter that hears it, including your neighbor¡¯s. And the electric meter that picks up the signal sends it to an adjoining meter, which passes it along until a "collector" on a utility pole or a public building grabs the signal and sends it to Orlando Utilities Commission computers, which sort and record the data for billing purposes.
How would OUC know my sprinkler has been running on days it¡¯s not supposed to be?
Right now, OUC pays "water cops" to sneak around at night, driving tens of thousands of miles a year in a hit-or-miss search for violators. But the utility already plans to use the smart water meters to detect significant leaks in customers¡¯ plumbing, and it¡¯s a matter of writing a software program capable of flagging unusual, unexpected or potentially illegal use of water at a specific address.
What can be learned from a smart meter?
That¡¯s up to the individual customer. Using a smartphone, tablet or computer, customers will be able to visit an OUC "dashboard" online and find out, for example, how many gallons they used from 7 to 8 a.m. Sunday to water the lawn. Eventually, they may be able to obtain an estimated cost for that hour of watering. The potential for that kind of information also holds for that really cold night or hot afternoon, when the heat or air conditioning seems to run nonstop. How much more electricity was used then on milder days? Check the dashboard.
That¡¯s it?
OUC officials say there¡¯s more potential in smart meters than they know. Various innovations are in the works, including relief for apartment renters hard-pressed for a deposit to get the power turned on. The will be able to skip the deposit if they pay for electricity in advance, because the smart meter will know when the money runs out and will cut the power. And for anybody who gets disconnected for lack of payment, they can call the utility, pay by credit card and have the lights back on in minutes, a reconnection that will be done by remote control thanks to the smart meter. Homeowners with a broken pipe and a big leak may be able to use meter data to make a better case for a break on their water bill ¡ª and, especially, on the related sewage-treatment charges.
Any health worries, as with cellphones?
Studies say there aren¡¯t. But so does common sense. A meter¡¯s radio signal is considerably weaker than a cellphone¡¯s. A meter also transmit its data only once every four hours ¡ª for about 1.5 seconds. And how often is anybody going to press their head against an electric meter, or lie down on the water meter?
Can I keep my old meter?
Yes, but you¡¯ll pay an extra fee, and eventually the unit will become obsolete and costly to maintain.
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