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Electrical meter has a meltdown

Smart meter failure under investigation
The cover of this smart electrical meter is covered is blackened, showing how hot it got inside before he problem was discovered. Submitted photo The cover of this smart electrical meter is covered is blackened, showing how hot it got inside before he problem was discovered. Submitted photo

A Penticton resident is lucky not to have lost his home after the electrical meter caught fire Sunday.

The homeowner, who prefers not to be named, said that around midnight Sunday he smelled burning plastic. After going outside, he traced the source to the box housing the electrical meter.

“The next thing you know my smart meter is smoking,” he said. “All of a sudden, the thing is melting and the wires are burning. There is charred wood all around there.”

After a call to the Penticton electric utility’s after hours line, crews responded and cut the wires from the pole. In the morning, the Penticton fire department attended to assess and inspect the scene.

“Certainly, no smoke alarms went off, there was a distinct electrical smell, which alerted them to the problem,” said Fire Inspector Ken Barbour. “Our crews weren’t called to extinguish it. It really hadn’t spread outside the meter box. it didn’t damage the house at all.”

Barbour said this kind of event is a rare occurrence and though he hasn’t seen a residential meter like this ever fail, he has seen significant fires started due to electrical panel malfunctions. In this case, it didn’t get a chance to become dangerous.

“Everything worked as intended. The fire didn’t leave the confines of the meter box, which it is supposed to contain,” said Barbour.

Electrical utility manager Shawn Fillice said they haven’t determined yet what caused the meter to malfunction, and are continuing to investigate.

“My educated guess looking at it is what we call a hot socket, where it is a loose jaw connection on the back,” said Fillice, referring to the point where the city’s smart meter connects to the homeowner’s side of the connection.

“When you have a poor electrical connection, it generates heat. That’s what we suspect at this point in time,” said Fillice.

The date on the meter’s inspection seal is 2010, and city records say it was installed in 2011.

“It is the last time it was touched, as far as I know. We are still looking into the details. Has it been removed for non-payment, that I don’t know,” said Fillice, adding that the meters of that batch would be sampled and retested for accuracy in 2020.

Fillice said they are investigating what caused the meter to fail after six years in operation.

“Nothing has changed, other than what may have changed inside the house,” said Fillice. “We don’t know what sort of current draw is on it, if that has increased over time.”

The meter itself is being sent back to the manufacturer for a detailed examination.

“It is very rare for a meter to melt,” said Fillice. “As far as reliability and integrity long term, the digital meters are outperforming the old electrical mechanical.”

Related: City plugs into debate over digital metering

All the meters installed by the city, Fillice explained, bear the appropriate inspection and safety seals.

“There are no electrical devices allowed to be used in B.C. without the appropriate labels on it,” he said.

Fillice added that there had been a problem at the address recently, where the smart meter didn’t register on the as the remote meter reader did a drive-by.

“We had to deploy an individual to manually read the meter,” said Fillice, adding that all the inspector did was take the reading visually.

“There was no visible evidence of anything when the individual was there, a week to two weeks ago.”