Fire chiefs call for smart meter probe after blazes

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(Photo: Provided by the Reno Fire Department)

(Pho­to: Pro­vid­ed by the Reno Fire Department)

RENO — The Reno and Sparks fire chiefs are ask­ing the Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion to inves­ti­gate the safe­ty of smart meters installed by NV Ener­gy on homes through­out the state in the wake of a trou­bling spate of blazes they believe are asso­ci­at­ed with the meters, includ­ing one recent fire that killed a 61-year-old woman.

Since 2012, four fires have occurred in Reno and five fires have occurred in Sparks that city inves­ti­ga­tors say are linked to the smart meters man­u­fac­tured by North Car­oli­na-based Sen­sus. Those inves­ti­ga­tors, how­ev­er, have been unable to con­clu­sive­ly deter­mine what start­ed the blazes.

We’re tak­ing this prob­lem very seri­ous­ly and we have from the very begin­ning,” Sparks Fire Chief Tom Gar­ri­son said Fri­day. “We tried dili­gent­ly to deter­mine the scope of the poten­tial prob­lem. We’ve done many things to con­clu­sive­ly explain why these fires were start­ing. So far, we don’t have a defin­i­tive reason.”

Most recent­ly, a late-night fire in Reno fatal­ly burned 61-year-old Michelle Sher­man, who died in the burn unit a day after the blaze broke out in her town­house in July.

Inves­ti­ga­tors disagree

The offi­cial inves­ti­ga­tion by Reno Fire Depart­ment list­ed the cause of the fire as “unde­ter­mined,” because the smart meter had been so dam­aged in the blaze that it could­n’t be con­clu­sive­ly ruled as the cause.

But a foren­sic expert hired by the city deter­mined that the meter also could not be ruled out as the source of the blaze.

Based on phys­i­cal evi­dence in the Rhine­stone mat­ter, the Sen­sus meter can­not be elim­i­nat­ed as the igni­tion source,” inves­ti­ga­tor Andrew Thore­sen wrote. “Data tends to sug­gest the meter may have failed.”

Thore­sen also not­ed that the smart meter, which con­tin­u­ous­ly trans­mits infor­ma­tion about pow­er usage to NV Ener­gy, last trans­mit­ted 49 sec­onds after the 911 call came in, indi­cat­ing it con­tin­ued to func­tion well after the fire start­ed and mak­ing it “less like­ly” that the meter caused the fire.

An inves­ti­ga­tor hired by NV Ener­gy, who was giv­en access to all of the fire depart­men­t’s evi­dence, said the fact the meter con­tin­ued to trans­mit infor­ma­tion proves it did not spark the Rhine­stone Cir­cle fire.

It is not phys­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble for the meter to have com­mu­ni­cat­ed nor­mal­ly after an arc­ing event occurred that had been ini­ti­at­ed inter­nal­ly to the elec­tric meter,” NV Ener­gy’s inves­ti­ga­tor wrote.

It is there­fore not phys­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble that the fire orig­i­nat­ed at the elec­tric util­i­ty meter, hence the meter could not pos­si­bly have been the cause of the fire.”

Based on the con­clu­sion of a third-par­ty inves­ti­ga­tion into this trag­ic inci­dent, the elec­tric meter did not cause the fire,” NV Ener­gy spokes­woman Faye Ander­son said in a writ­ten state­ment. “The safe­ty of our cus­tomers, our employ­ees and our equip­ment is para­mount to us. This inves­ti­ga­tion has been a pri­or­i­ty since it was brought to our atten­tion and we have coop­er­at­ed ful­ly with the Reno Fire Department.”

The meter did fail’

Although the defin­i­tive cause of Sher­man’s fire remains in dis­pute, Gar­ri­son and Reno Fire Chief Michael Her­nan­dez said they have become increas­ing­ly con­cerned by the num­ber of blazes that appear relat­ed to the smart meters.

Yes, it’s a small num­ber, but as fire chief, when I start to see a pat­tern, it gets my atten­tion,” Her­nan­dez said. “That’s why we are red-flag­ging this and report­ing it to the prop­er peo­ple who reg­u­late this kind of thing.”

Of the nine fires in Reno and Sparks that appear to be linked to the smart meters, sev­en result­ed in very lit­tle dam­age. Only the meter itself was destroyed and the sur­round­ing wall was par­tial­ly blackened.

But one of the fires in Reno burned a man’s face. The meter burst into flames when he flipped a break­er switch, scorch­ing him. He put out the flames with a fire extin­guish­er and was treat­ed at a local hospital.

Yes, it’s a small number, but as fire chief, when I start to see a pattern, it gets my attention. That’s why we are red-flagging this and reporting it to the proper people who regulate this kind of thing.”
Michael Hernandez, chief, Reno Fire Department

Anoth­er home in Sparks was sig­nif­i­cant­ly dam­aged, Gar­ri­son said. That inves­ti­ga­tion, how­ev­er, remains open.

Sparks fire inves­ti­ga­tors have been unable to con­clu­sive­ly name the smart meter as the cul­prit in large part because they sent the meter itself to NV Ener­gy for fur­ther analy­sis and still have not received it back.

This was a meter ana­lyzed by an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tor that NV Ener­gy hired,” Gar­ri­son said. “We turned the meter over to them and have not received that report back yet. We felt we need­ed a lit­tle more exper­tise to ana­lyze the meter.”

The foren­sic inves­ti­ga­tor that exam­ined the Rhine­stone Cir­cle smart meter also exam­ined three more smart meters asso­ci­at­ed with fires in Reno and Sparks. He found evi­dence that each of the three meters—one from Reno on Arlet­ta Dri­ve and two from Sparks—failed.

It is prob­a­ble the Arlet­ta meter did fail, result­ing in the igni­tion of the fire,” Thore­sen wrote.

This is very alarm­ing to me’

Gar­ri­son said meter fires are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cern­ing because they start on the out­side of the house, won’t be picked up by indoor smoke detec­tors and can escape imme­di­ate notice.

It can burn a long time and enter the attic or the walls,” Gar­ri­son said. “The occu­pants inside may not even be aware the house is on fire. This is very alarm­ing to me.”

Sher­man was found by a neigh­bor burned and lying on her kitchen floor, accord­ing to the fire inves­ti­ga­tion. The neigh­bor car­ried her to safe­ty, but she lat­er died of her injuries.

NV Ener­gy exec­u­tives stead­fast­ly main­tain that its smart meters have nev­er been list­ed as the offi­cial cause of any struc­ture fire in Nevada.

Vice Pres­i­dent Pat Egan said the fires he is aware of in Sparks and Reno are either still under inves­ti­ga­tion or have been found to have an “unde­ter­mined cause.”

Egan said, how­ev­er, the com­pa­ny has respond­ed to 70 “con­sumed meters,” since it first start­ed installing them in 2010. The com­pa­ny has installed 1.1 mil­lion meters on homes and busi­ness­es across the state. None of those con­sumed meters, he said, result­ed in a struc­ture fire.

That’s a con­sumed meter rate of .006 per­cent,” Egan said. “That is extreme­ly low rel­a­tive to indus­try standard.”

Egan described a “con­sumed meter” as one that has had its plas­tic cas­ing “melt­ed or breached and there can be soot,” he said. “It’s a sim­ple cleanup.”

He refused to describe a con­sumer meter as result­ing in flame, despite the fact that they can result in a sooty exte­ri­or wall.

Con­sumed meters can be caused by a volt­age over­load in the home or a “hot sock­et,” where there is too much “elec­tri­cal resis­tance” in the smart meter’s con­nec­tion to the box and it becomes over­heat­ed, Egan said.

Prob­lems sus­pect­ed elsewhere

Reno and Sparks aren’t the first juris­dic­tions to report fires asso­ci­at­ed with Sen­sus smart meters.

Port­land Gen­er­al Elec­tric replaced 70,000 Sen­sus smart meters in July after three “small fires” start­ed by the meters, accord­ing to the Ore­gon­ian. In 2012, Peco Ener­gy in Philadel­phia switched out 186,000 Sen­sus smart meters after fire con­cerns, accord­ing to news accounts. And Sask-Pow­er in Saskatchewan, Cana­da is in the process of replac­ing more than 100,000 Sen­sus smart meters, accord­ing to news accounts.

Egan said NV Ener­gy offi­cials are aware of the prob­lems in those juris­dic­tions and con­tin­ue to mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion. He also said NV Ener­gy would coop­er­ate in any inves­ti­ga­tion the PUC may decide to launch at the fire depart­ments’ request.

Our pri­ma­ry con­cern is our cus­tomers’ safe­ty,” Egan said.

Gar­ri­son said it’s dif­fi­cult to tell home­own­ers how to react at this point.

I would say be very aware, very vig­i­lant about any type of poten­tial elec­tri­cal prob­lem they might see in their home,” he said. “If you noticed any burned elec­tri­cal pan­el, any smoke, even if it’s small, wispy smoke, if the meter is extreme­ly hot, or you hear a noise or see any arc­ing, call 911 and the fire depart­ment will come out and ensure the meter is prop­er­ly checked.”