As customer complaints roll in about electricity bills that have skyrocketed since smart meters were installed, the manufacturer of the meters has asked BC Hydro to pull its product for testing.
At least 1,000 of the digital devices made by Itron Inc. of Washington State are undergoing lab testing. Itron is paying for the testing, removal and replacement of smart meters it has selected from across B.C., according to BC Hydro spokeswoman Simi Heer.
The 1,000 meters represent about 0.1 per cent of the 970,000 meters installed since last summer. By the end of 2012, 1.8 million smart meters will be in place at residential and commercial premises throughout the province.
The testing is part of ongoing quality assurance and not in response to complaints, said Jim Nicholson, BC Hydro's customer-care director.
"In this particular case, the manufacturer wants us to test the meters," he said.
Itron spokeswoman Alison Mallahan wrote in an e-mail: "Itron is working closely with BC Hydro to ensure the ongoing accuracy and reliability of our meters. We have no indication that the meters installed at BC Hydro have caused any accuracy issues.
"We build 28 million meters every year. All of our meters are tested, calibrated and verified throughout the manufacturing process. After manufacturing, they are tested under various conditions, including extremes of weather, temperature and more."
Ongoing meter-testing is the norm, Mr. Nicholson said. Each year, BC Hydro conducts about 40,000 meter tests and rarely finds any that aren't accurate, he said.
While he said he is confident that smart meters function 100 per cent accurately, he added that technology isn't immune to failures. "Computers break; iPhones break. It's about making sure we're on top of it," he said.
Complaints about meters, both analogue and smart, are a regular occurrence. Most are solved when customers contact the call centre.
Reasons for unexpectedly high readings run the gamut from colder than usual weather, Christmas lights, forgetting such actions as having fans on around-the-clock, or a catch-up charge that follows an estimated bill that is too low, Mr. Nicholson said.
Sharon Clarke doesn't fit those categories.
Her smart meter was installed at her Sidney home at the end of September. "Since the smart meter has been installed, readings have just gone crazy," said Ms. Clarke, a financial analyst with the provincial government.
Her first smart metered bill, for October/November, was $618 for an average daily kilowatt hour use of 102. Her October/November, 2010, bill – for $306 – had daily use of 55 kilowatt hours, similar to the same period one year earlier.
By December, 2011/January, 2012, her bill totalled $642 and showed 110 daily kilowatt hours. One year earlier, BC Hydro charged her $338 based on 65 daily kilowatt hours.
"Originally, I thought it was just us; we're power pigs," she said. Then she decided to do some research and compared billing information that of with several neighbours.
She found that a family of four with a swimming pool and hot tub who heat their home with natural gas was receiving bills showing about half the kilowatt hour use to hers.
Ms. Clarke's three-person household heats with oil. Her hot tub sits idle since electricity bills started going through the roof.
When a BC Hydro technician visited her home in early March, the meter was moving at "warp speed," which the technician said was unusual, particularly since everything in the house was turned off. Even when the breakers in her house were turned off, the meter advanced every 11 seconds.
In August, Langford resident Rob Gajowski got his smart meter. He heats his home with a wood stove and oil furnace. The first couple of bills weren't surprising, with November/December coming in at $258 and showing average daily use at 65 kilowatt hours. But for January/February he got a jolt: a $610 bill and average use of 102 kilowatt hours.
"It was a slap in the goonies. I thought it was a joke," he said.
BC Hydro attributed it to his hot tub, but Mr. Gajowski is a hot tub technician, and installed a meter to monitor energy use.
He blames a digital glitch or faulty meter for the high reading. "How do they know someone with a cell phone wasn't walking by and set it off?" he asked.
According to BC Hydro, Mr. Gajowski's energy use averaged 77 daily kilowatt hours in 2010 and 103 daily kilowatt hours in 2009. But that's because his father lived in the house at the time. By 2011, it declined to 63 daily kilowatt hours.
Flooded with calls and emails about soaring BC Hydro bills, Opposition energy critic MLA John Horgan wants the B.C. Utilities Commission to review customers' charges of excessive electricity bills.
It may be that the new meters replaced faulty analogue versions, or some are defective, questions an independent review could answer, Mr. Horgan said.
B.C. isn't the first jurisdiction to be shocked this way. After smart meter installation began in the United States around 2006, complaints of higher-than-normal bills surfaced in Texas and California. Class-action lawsuits were launched.
Earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission announced that it may allow customers of San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Edison to replace their smart meters with analogue meters for a fee after power bills spiked.
Special to The Globe and Mail