Communication is Key

July 18, 2017

Smart meters enable demand-response and time-of-use pricing schedules, as well as improved distribution system performance. Proponents say they promote increased efficiency, but skeptics raise concerns about privacy, health, and cost. Some customers choose to pay a premium to opt out of updates, preferring their traditional analog meters.

Getting public acceptance can be a formidable task. How can utilities more effectively communicate the benefits of AMI to their customers?

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Although their battle centers on electric power rather than water meters, New Mexico is engaged in a technology war over smart meters. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, in 2016, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) proposed installing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), or smart meters, which allow the company to remotely monitor and track energy usage rather than sending out meter readers.

The utility purports that customers will save $20 million over the next 20 years by switching to a remote metering system.

One year later, some Santa Fe residents have objected to the new meters over health concerns involved with installing wireless technology in their homes. Some worry that the electromagnetic radiation will lead to health issues. They reject the one-time fee and extra monthly expense of opting out of the program. What’s a utility to do in such cases?

Many people don’t want the radiofrequency (RF), explains John Fillinger, director of utility marketing for Badger Meter. And yet, it’s already in their homes because of other forms of technology, from cell phones, to WiFi networks, to remote controls. RF is everywhere. All wireless technology is trans­mitting it—and most gadgets emit more of it than smart meters do.

“The concern with smart meters is ‘how will it affect me?'” says Fillinger, explaining that the typical one-watt transmitter used by the meters creates a perception and “brings up questions.”

There has been a noticeable decrease in questions and concerns since Badger Meter shifted from a proprietary network to a cellular endpoint. Cell phones emit only a quarter-watt. In fact, since the switch, he says “questions, complaints, and contacts are nil.”

“When customers learn that the smart meters use the same technology as a cell phone, that usually addresses concerns,” continues Fillinger. “Customers accept and use cellular,” he points out.

Opting for a cellular network is also easier on the utilities. “The network already exists; we don’t have to build it,” says Fillinger, adding that they don’t necessarily want to build new networks because they prefer to leverage existing cellular networks. “They are already in place, so we are not adding to the radio frequency noise.”

Although it sometimes seems like every person on the planet has a smart phone, many people express fear of electromagnetic radiation—from both smart meters and cell phones, claiming electromagnetic sensitivity.

To allay fears, Ray Sandoval, a spokesman for PNM, says that, “Smart meters do not produce any negative health impacts.” The type of low-level radio frequency they emit has not been linked to health impacts and is on for only a few minutes a day.

According to a white paper by Neptune, due to the operational and customer service benefits of automating the data collection process, utilities have installed approximately 120 million RF devices in North America in recent years.

The paper states that radio frequencies are part of a broad range of energy phenomena called the “electromagnetic spectrum.” Everything in the electromagnetic spectrum consists of waves of energy that are measured in terms of their frequency and magnitude. The electromagnetic spectrum includes not only radio waves, but also visible light.

RF usage has exploded with the widespread use of smart phones, WiFi, GPS, and other forms of technology. By the midpoint of 2011, the number of devices with wireless subscriptions was near 323 million. That means everyone is exposed to RF signals all day, every day.

However, the Food and Drug Administration and the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health have determined that the RF emitted by automatic meter reading (AMR) and AMI systems is non-iodizing radiation, which doesn’t have enough energy to change the structure of molecules. That means that they are less harmful than X-rays and even ultraviolet light. Some devices that use non-ionizing radiation include TVs, radios, and remote controls.

It’s worth pointing out to end-users that the radio endpoints for the meters have been certified by the FCC and tested in accordance with Title 47, Part 15 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

To further ease concerns, some AMI system providers are sharing the results of independent research that demonstrates that exposure to RF emissions from smart meters is less than that from laptops, cell phones, and WiFi networks—and water meters put out even less RF than electric meters. Furthermore, RF energy from smart meters is usually transmitted from farther away. In comparison, cell phone transmitters are held next to the head. And, of course, smart meters transmit data in short bursts. In between those bursts, they don’t emit any RF energy, and thus, produce no danger.

The World Health Organization states: “To date, the only health effect from RF fields identified in scientific reviews has been related to an increase in body temperature (less than 1°C) from exposure at very high field intensity found only in certain industrial facilities, such as RF heaters. The levels of RF exposure from base stations and wireless networks are so low that the temperature increase is insignificant and does not affect human health.”

The Public Utility Commission also tried to dispel the myth of health risks when it published the results a 2012 study, in which it blamed social media for spreading inaccurate information.

ORION Cellular Endpoint with Badger Meter’s E-Series Ultrasonic meter

Industry consultant Howard Scott estimates that nearly half of the water meters installed in the US are read using an AMR or AMI system.

“AMR and AMI system deployment has reached critical mass and there are fewer and fewer households in North America without some form of meter reading automation,” claims Dave Hanes, with Neptune. With widespread use of AMI systems, he says that unless there is a known billing problem, “it is generally a very small minority of people who take issue with AMI deployments” and that because residents are familiar with the technology, they have no need to fear the unknown.

While confusion regarding the health impact of RF emissions remains, so too does anxiety about the cost of smart meters. Before installation, Hanes says public resistance generally comes from people who are concerned about the cost of the system and whether or not they will see an improvement in their service level or an increase in their bills. “Post-installation concerns can occur from higher-than-expected water bills and may be challenging to address because the various causes are hard to distinguish. In most cases, the cause is simple: the old, inaccurate meters were replaced with accurate meters that capture all usage.”

Changing to new smart meters reduces unaccounted-for water. “You can go from 80 to 90% accurate to 100% accurate,” estimates Fillinger. That can lead to an increase in your water bill.

Conversely, smart meters can help residents reduce costs by making them more aware of usage patterns and, in applicable areas, connect customers with time-based rate programs to take advantage of off-peak hours for activities like irrigation.

A few abnormally high bills have resulted from improper system installation or incorrect billing multipliers, Hanes notes. “This type of mistake is costly because it is hard to identify and requires a field visit to verify and address.” Most importantly, he adds, if not addressed promptly, errors of this type erode confidence in the utility.

AMI providers can address these issues with proper system design. For example, systems that require in-field programming of billing multipliers or meter types open up the opportunity for human error. By removing this complexity, AMI vendors can simplify installation and eliminate the risk of mistakes.

BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA)

There’s a risk in allowing customers to opt out of the new technology that is shared by all users. All users are not, however, inclined to share the costs incurred by those who opt out. Since one of the biggest savings created by smart meters is derived from the elimination of manual meter reading costs, it seems logical that homeowners who opt out should recognize that they will need to pay for the option of having their meters read manually.

Meters unquestionably benefit utility companies by providing an abundance of data through remote access, eliminating the need for additional staff and reducing the carbon footprint by taking meter reading trucks off the road. They can aid in recovery efforts after storms because they send an SOS signal just before they lose power. This alerts repair crews even before customers can call in an outage.

But some customers consider them too intrusive. Communities like Naperville, IL, have been fighting smart meters since 2011 and even filed a federal lawsuit, insisting on the right to privacy and alleging that their constitutional right to due process was violated. They claim the meters “provide so much information that everyone from cops, to criminals, to marketing departments can learn when people are home and what they do when they’re there.”

Hanes believes that utilities that do a good job of engaging their stakeholders generally avoid most issues, first by understanding the concerns of their constituents and then by effectively conveying the value that AMI can provide.

Most problems can be resolved by PR efforts, Fillinger says. “Get the community involved through communication: newspaper ads, logos, TV and radio news, brochures . . .” He says Badger Meter’s marketing plan includes having a booth at home and garden shows for consumer engagement. He recommends that utility companies add an FAQ page on their website and says consumers can also get information from the American Water Works Association website.

Adding information when sending the bill isn’t enough, Fillinger insists. “There must be a separate mailing or email. This needs additional outreach, not just information with the bill. It requires consumer engagement; you have to get data into the consumers’ hands.”

There is no ongoing education program, Fillinger continues. Utilities simply deal with questions and issues on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, he thinks the best thing the water utilities can do is to copy the electric and gas industries when it comes to smart meters. “Water is behind electric and gas. They have more data, more information, more reads, and online access. We have to get into the mindset of sharing data and encourage customers to track their usage online. The customer can be as engaged as he wants to be. Providing more data doesn’t change behavior, but we can help them buy into it.”

He’s convinced they will eventually buy into it. “A system that fixes problems is greatly accepted,” points out Fillinger. “It’s difficult to control when we use water, but it’s easy to spot leaks [with smart meter technology]. Monthly or quarterly readings are difficult to justify: out of sight, out of mind.” The immediacy provided by smart meters puts control back into the hands of the consumer, which is welcome. He concludes, when swapping out meters, communication remains a priority.

About the Author

Lori Lovely

Winner of several Society of Professional Journalists awards, Lori Lovely writes about topics related to waste management and technology.

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