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Fridge blows after smart meter installed

Shellmont resident Jack Rochfort was forced to buy a new refrigerator after his blew following the installation of a smart meter at his 42-year-old Richmond home.  - Matthew Hoekstra photo
Shellmont resident Jack Rochfort was forced to buy a new refrigerator after his blew following the installation of a smart meter at his 42-year-old Richmond home.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra photo

An 81-year-old Richmond man is out $787.16 after his refrigerator blew following the installation of a BC Hydro smart meter at his Shellmont home.

On Aug. 5, a contractor from Corix Utilities arrived at Jack Rochfort’s home to install a new meter as part of BC Hydro’s province-wide smart meter replacement program.

Rochfort said his 10-year-old refrigerator was working fine that morning—until the power went out.

Unaware his mechanical meter was being replaced, Rochfort thought little of a brief power outage, noticing electricity was restored to his home within a few minutes. It was then his refrigerator began making noise.

He called a repairman, who, after charging $76.16 for the service call, suggested a power surge could have caused his refrigerator’s compressor to fail.

Rochfort bought a new fridge for $711, and appealed to Corix. But the company couriered him a letter dated Aug. 18 that denied responsibility for the failure of his appliance.

“Corix followed all company safety and installation procedures,” wrote Jennifer Toledo, an insurance administrator with Corix.

Rochfort, a retired truck driver who has lived in the same home since it was built in 1969, said he was notified about the installation about two weeks before it happened, but wasn’t aware the contractor had arrived on the day.

“They should be notifying people before they do this,” he said. “They should know that with older equipment, a power surge will take it down.”

Richmond is one of the first cities to get smart meters—digital devices that can capture and record the amount of power that is consumed in a given period. BC Hydro aims to have 1.8 million smart meters installed in homes and businesses throughout the province by the end of 2012.

A form letter from the utility notifying residents about the pending installation says installers will knock at the front door of a home before starting work and power will be knocked out for one minute during the installation.

It suggests that homeowners ensure a backup power supply is available for critical equipment that requires constant power. The letter also warns a home security system may be triggered in the event of a power outage.

Rochfort called the process “heavy handed,” insisting contractors should have to get permission from property owners before replacing meters.

But the chief project officer of BC Hydro’s smart metering project said it’s “highly improbable” meter replacement could cause appliances to fail. Gary Murphy said appliances are designed to withstand simple power interruptions, such as those caused by storms. Replacing a meter is no different.

“Old appliances or new appliances have an extremely low probability of having anything go wrong. It’s like unplugging your refrigerator and plugging it back in. If there’s difficulty with that, then the customer ought to be concerned and probably replace the refrigerator,” said Murphy, who has worked on such projects throughout North America.

Murphy said customers have the right to appeal to BC Hydro if they’re not satisfied with a response from Corix. BC Hydro would then investigate the claim.

Installation contractors are not certified electricians, but Murphy said they needn’t be. The replacement process, he noted, is as simple as removing a plug from a receptacle.

Nearly 10,000 meters have been installed in Richmond so far—about one-tenth of BC Hydro’s Richmond-Delta billing area. Crews are also now working in Terrace, Prince George and Victoria. Contractors have the legal right to enter private property to service meters under the Electric Tariff.

Murphy said BC Hydro’s method of communicating with customers regarding meter replacement—involving newspaper advertising and letters sent by mail—is “one of the best practices we’ve learned from numerous utilities, some of which don’t contact customers at all.”

“It’s fairly standard business practice for us to replace meters, and it’s quite complex and costly and time-consuming and frankly not cost-effective to schedule appointments with customers,” he said.

The smart meter program will ultimately benefit BC Hydro customers, said Murphy, noting the utility will realize $520 million in net benefits in the program’s 20-year cycle.

“We know we have rate pressures to go up; we have to upgrade our infrastructure. But smart meters is one thing BC Hydro is doing to minimize those rate pressure increases.”

Smart meters will also provide customers with information about their own energy use, offering further potential savings.

The Richmond Review asked the BC Safety Authority about necessary qualifications for meter replacement contractors. Spokesperson Ariela Friedmann said only “trained individuals” should do the work—but not necessarily electricians. She also said a power surge caused by the installation of a new meter is unlikely.

“It’s highly unlikely because the removal and installation involves opening and closing a circuit—much like using a switch. It doesn’t generate voltage on its own.”

Meanwhile, B.C. privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham is investigating the smart meter program to ensure it complies with privacy law. The investigation will include the collection, use, disclosure, retention and security of personal information.

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