Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content SIDE STREETS: Resident doesn't trust Utilities' smart meters

BILL VOGRIN Updated: October 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

 When Craig Warren realized Colorado Springs Utilities had installed three data-transmitting “smart meters” on his house, he asked for them to be removed and replaced with old analog meters.

What happened next might surprise you. It certainly angered Warren.

The meters were installed a couple years ago as part of Utilities’ five-year, $76.1 million program to replace all the meters of its approximate 215,000 customers. By installing meters that transmit electric, natural gas and water consumption information, Utilities was able to eliminate about 70 meter-reader jobs.

There’s a global effort to dump analog meters, which rotate and spin dials to measure usage and must be read individually by humans. Smart meters are considered a key in the effort to transform aging power grids and the network of one-way transmission lines, “dumb” mechanical switches, transformers and meters.

Government experts argue a computerized system of sensors and communications devices will sense grid overloads that result in expensive and crippling power outages. The smart grid will take usage data and automatically reroute electricity around trouble spots, rather than waiting for engineers watching dials at power plants to recognize trouble and physically turn levers.

But folks like Warren don’t trust the smart meters or the government’s intentions with its smart grid.

“The public should be aware of this,” Warren passionately explained to me. “I would not be opposed if the meter sent out a signal once a month to show my meter reading. But why do they need to be constantly monitoring everybody’s power and which appliances are being used?

“These devices are spying on you.”

Not so, said Utilities spokesman Steve Berry.

“The conversion was done as a cost-saving, conservation and safety tool,” Berry said. “The meters help us be better stewards of our resources.”

Personally, I welcomed my smart meters because I was tired of meter readers entering my backyard and accidentally letting my dogs out.

And I recall being startled a few times to find a stranger on the patio where our electric meter hangs.

But Warren doesn’t share my comfort with the smart meters.

Besides his perceived invasion of privacy, he also worries about health risks raised by other smart meter opponents who fear the meters’ frequent bursts of microwaves that send data to receivers.

So he called Utilities and asked for the meters to be replaced. Warren said Utilities staff was rude and threatening and “lied to me.”

After Utilities refused to remove the meters, he disconnected two small transmitters on his water and gas meters and replaced his electric meter with the help of an electrician.

“I gave them a chance to do the right thing,” Warren said. “When they didn’t, I did it myself.”

Then he wrapped his analog meter in chains and hung a sign on it warning Utilities employees not to touch it.

Now Warren said he’s facing possible tampering fines, a $100 opt-out fee, and a $20 monthly service charge.

“I don’t think it’s right or legal to charge me to opt out,” Warren said. “And the tampering fine is ridiculous.”

But Berry defended Utilities’ handling of the situation.

“He was diverting services without being appropriately metered,” Berry said. “And he was not using approved equipment. There are potential costs he’ll have to pay.”

Berry explained that Utilities hasn’t received City Council permission to let customers opt out of the smart meter program, although the option may be available in January.

He expects few of the 535,000 smart meter installed by Utilities to be replaced with analog.

“Ninety-nine percent of our customers don’t have an issue with them,” Berry said. “Mr. Warren makes a valid point about his concern regarding technology and privacy. But we have no evidence that any of this puts our customers health at risk.”

He noted that electromagnetic fields and microwaves and small doses of radiation are common as we surround ourselves with more electronics and high-tech devices.

“Every time you get on a computer, the Internet, a telephone or cellphone you incur some risk,” Berry said. “There’s a legitimate core concern there.”

But, Berry said, customers can’t just unhook their meters and replace them as they please.

Warren insists he should not have smart meters forced on him, nor should he be punished with monthly charges for wanting to keep the old system.

“Why should I have to pay extra to keep my old meters?” he asked. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Maybe I’m naive, but I’m not too worried about smart meters. I’m just glad I don’t have to worry about my dogs escaping anymore.

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