Bartlett residents and other Shelby County citizens who have gotten notices that MLGW is installing “smart meters” at their homes can rest easy, according to Memphis Light Gas and Water. There is no additional cost for the meters themselves or their installation, despite what the local buzz says.
Becky Williamson, MLGW strategic marketing coordinator, said the utility company has more than a million meters in place for its customers. Some are the antiquated analog versions that are no longer being manufactured. Others are the more modern digital meters, although they don’t communicate with MLGW. Then there are the smart meters that measure energy consumption and have built-in communication to provide MLGW and customers on-demand feedback about usage.
Williamson gave one example from her own experience about how smart meters help homeowners. She got a new thermostat around the time she had a smart meter installed at her home. The usage information showed a spike in electricity usage around 4:30 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. because the new thermostat kicked on early to cool the home by 6 p.m. instead of starting to cool at 6 p.m. Without the smart meter, she wouldn’t have known for months why her electric bill was higher, she said.
Smart meters also allow MLGW to automate services such as meter reading, connection and reconnection, as well as outage notification (a feature that will be more robust when most customers have smart meters). Customers can even benefit from increased security, as they won’t have to leave a gate unlocked for access on meter reading days.
There is zero cost to the customer for installing a smart meter, for opting out, or for having one replaced with a non-communicating digital meter at the property owner’s request, Williamson said.
Customers who insist on not having smart meters can go through MLGW’s opt-out process by contacting its call center. There are two categories of residents who aren’t allowed to opt out: Those who have been involved in utility theft within the past 24 months and those who have had estimated reading for four or more months.
But she urges customers to consider keeping the smart meters.
MLGW’s rollout started in 2010 with a demonstration group of 1,000 customers scattered throughout Shelby County, including Bartlett, Arlington and Lakeland. Phase 1 was also a scattered group. MLGW has been in Phase 2 since spring, and it is focused more geographically. It started south of downtown Memphis and is moving north and eventually heading clockwise.
The project should be finished by 2020 and will greatly enhance how MLGW does business, she said. Customers can expect for estimated bills – a hassle for many customers – to be a thing of the past once smart meters are in place. They also can go online and check their usage to tweak it throughout the month.
It will take one billing cycle after the smart meter is installed, but then the homeowner can log in and see how the residence has used electricity in 15-minute increments, water in hourly increments and gas in daily increments. (This is only for services that MLGW provides and does not include municipal services such as Bartlett city water, which is provided by the municipality itself.)
Armed with this information, people can change their usage patterns quickly to save money instead of waiting until the end of the month, she said.
MLGW also will send a letter to residents when the smart meters show their water has been running continuously for 24 hours, in case there is a costly leak.
She also dispelled some common myths about smart meters:
- Privacy: They do not allow MLGW to spy on the home’s residents. They just measure and time stamp the electricity, water and gas usage.
- Fire: The meters are not and have never been fire hazards. Fires can occur when there is a problem with the electric meter socket that was installed by an electrician when the home was built, but now MLGW is checking that at the time meters are installed and is arranging for an electrician to fix any such problems proactively at no additional cost to the customer.
- Pacemakers: Some people fear that the meters are dangerous for people with pacemakers, but the smart meters have lower radio frequency signals (about 0.25 watt) than cell phones have (usually 3 watts or above), Williamson said. Higher radio frequencies already exist in the environment from garage door openers and routers, too. People with pacemakers should use sensible precautions just as they use with other electronics.
- Notification: MLGW works hard to notify customers about the smart meter change. Williamson said representatives have gone to public meetings, talked with mayors, shared information on the MLGW website, sent out postcards 30+ days in advance of planned installations and called customers two to three days in advance, particularly for locations where the meter is behind a locked gate or there is a pet dog on guard in the yard.
Sometimes, however, communications do break down. Lynne Blake of Bartlett said she didn’t recall receiving any mailed notice when her smart meter was installed, and it was a shock to her family.
“We heard the doorbell but didn’t answer and found a note on the door that it had been installed,” she said. “I think they should have required a reply either way, not just relied on the mail or lack of mail notice. My main concern is the device starting a fire as other people had mentioned. We will be calling to have them remove it.”
Despite some customers’ concerns, Williamson said MLGW expects customers will benefit. A 2010-2012 MLGW study showed that information from smart meters allowed customers to reduce their electric usage by 2.3 percent. Those who used electricity at lower-demand times saved 5.62 percent. Williamson said this “time-of-use” savings will be an opt-in program for customers sometime in 2017, but only for those with smart meters.
Williamson said electric smart meters also help with safety and service continuity because they measure voltage and temperature and can alert MLGW when values are above established thresholds. This summer when MLGW’s Arlington substation on U.S. 70 was destroyed by fire, MLGW was able to use voltage information relayed from 600 smart meters ain Lakeland and Arlington to help its electric operations team balance the system while the substation was being restored, thereby reducing outages and the impact on additional customers served by surrounding substations. Analog and digital meters do not have the capability to record and send voltage data.
Bartlett resident Joe Ozegovich is one of the customers who is looking forward to getting his smart meter. He already drives an electric car and has solar panels at his home, and he sees the meter technology as a powerful new tool. He will be able to analyze his utility usage and make adjustments. His home’s Nest thermostat and solar panel controls already let him check and make adjustments to his home environment remotely.
He’s particularly looking forward to the time-of-use feature that will let him charge his car at night when electricity costs are lowest.
“This is a win-win solution,” he said.
The $220 million smart meter project is MLGW’s largest single capital investment (including $12 million in contingency funds), but the company expects to more than make up for it through the meters’ savings, Williamson said. With MLGW operational savings alone, the project has a payback of just over five years. Including the customer-driven savings takes the payback to about three and one-half years.
She also said MLGW will eliminate the meter reader position, but they plan to lose those employees through attrition rather than en masse firings. The position has about a 30 percent turnover rate anyway annually.
The company’s website, MLGW.com, said, “A 2.5 percent reduction of consumption at full smart meter deployment could collectively save MLGW customers $10 million annually. A 2010 Younger and Associates Economic Impact Study reported $10 million in utility savings among customers would create 152 jobs through increased discretionary spending in the community.”
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