Help me get smarter about SmartMeters
July 14, 2013 9:35 PM   Subscribe

We've had PG&E SmartMeters installed at our building for awhile, and our landlord is very concerned about the health risks and surveillance risks he believes they pose. He's sent us a bunch of "literature" to read and it all reads like wackadoodle conspiracy theories with no basis in science, as does everything else I've found online. As easy as it is to just roll my eyes and dismiss his concerns, I feel like I should make a good faith attempt to discover if there's really anything to be concerned about. Are there any good, reality-based reasons to be anti-SmartMeter? Any science-based studies from reliable sources on their safety? Any well-thought-out articles on the subject that don't include the phrases "molecular earthquakes" or "like hundreds of cell phones being on at the same time"? Help a skeptic out!
posted by rhiannonstone to Technology (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I thought this was useful. The key point:

The radio frequency power density of a cellphone held to your ear ranges from 1,000 to 5,000 microwatts per square centimeter, according to the CCST report. For a microwave oven operated from a distance of one foot, that power density ranges from 200 to 800 microwatts per square centimeter. The power density for a smart meter with a duty cycle of 50% (that is, transmitting radio signals half of the time) is 200 microwatts per square centimeter at a distance of one foot, and 20 microwatts per square centimeter at a distance of three feet.

I'm sure you will imminently see a bunch of responses to the effect that there is no evidence that such RF transmissions have any health effects. I'll be more cautious and say that, even if no evidence has been found so far, there is still some chance a link exists (perhaps one that is long-term, low probability, and difficult to trace). However, the danger from smart meters is almost certainly much less than from cellphones and other RF sources we are exposed to daily.
posted by Behemoth at 10:03 PM on July 14, 2013

Best answer: is a decent rebuttal to your lawnlord's fears.

Basically, your smart meter is functionally equivalent to an old fashioned meter, but with a digital multimeter and cell phone bolted on. Digital multimeters and cell phones don't hurt people.

Note that it may not be a "cell phone" exactly
but it is generally some digital device with a little radio antenna that talks and listens to other devices by sending and receiving radio waves.

Which is what cell phones, walkie talkie, cordless land line phones, wireless network routers, garage door openers and so on do.

The main difference is that your smart meter only broadcasts for a few seconds every hour or so, unlike your cell phone which might broadcast for a full hour or two. And you put your cell phone near your head, unlike your smart meter, which is far away. And radio waves, like visible light, fall off with the square of the distance.

Radio waves can hurt you if there's a sufficiently high intensity - if there's a lot of them. Cell phones have low intensity, microwave ovens have high intensity. This is why we don't stick our heads in microwave ovens or in front of radar dishes.

Remember that radio waves are electromagnetic waves, but they're not ionizing radiation like x-rays and gamma rays. They're not even UV.

We have fairly good cuttoffs for how safe we understand cell phones (and radio waves) to be based on exposing lab rats to them, exposing biology undergrads to them, exposing petri dishes of cells to them, and epidemiological evidence - if they had a slight chance of causing cancer or brain melt, actuaries and epidemiologists would see the rates of cancer or brain melt increasing in certain populations. If they actually causing cancer or brain melt, the rate is so low we're not picking up on it and so the danger is very low.

We're pretty bad at evaluating risk, away from the savannah, but smart meters are new, so they're making people worried, even when they should worry about tobacco, motorcycles, or possibly the fire retardants in their couch.

Smart meters - your couch is more dangerous.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:03 PM on July 14, 2013 [8 favorites]

Does your landlord know of even one specific smart-meter triggered death?

I would ask them what about you seems to make such a likely candidate.

As for the surveillance stuff, I would ask what about your electric bill couldn't already be used to incriminate you or track you -- eventually your usage gets added up, and then you get billed. Perhaps suggest that they donate smart meter savings to the EFF or ACLU if they are in the states? Sidestepping smart meters is not the most effective way of phasing out of a police state, let's be real here.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:17 PM on July 14, 2013

Best answer: Oh, and there is actually a chance that some script kiddie or foreign government could hack it, and tell it to shut down power to your house, and then maybe blue-screen/corrupt its OS so that it has to be manually flashed and rebooted by a technician standing next your house.

But the script kiddie can't tell it to cook your head or give you cancer, any more than he could tell your wireless router to cook your head or give you cancer if he hacked it.

Your cell phone is a more realistic surveillance risk. I'd address that by writing a letter to your congress-critters demanding new laws saying law enforcement and spies have to use warrants and judicial oversight for stuff.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:25 PM on July 14, 2013

Mod note: Comment deleted. Please note that OP is asking for reality-based/scientific resources for more information, not so much just opinions, or comments about what you've heard or read without linking. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:02 PM on July 14, 2013

Best answer: Is he also telling you to dump your microwave oven? Permission granted to just go ahead and roll your eyes but here's a study from California Council on Science and Technology anyway.

Of course, I may just be brainwashed by my SmartMeter's ability to tell me my usage by hour and other cool things.
posted by sageleaf at 11:36 PM on July 14, 2013

Best answer: The engineers who designed smart meters put them in little test rooms with apparatus that measure how much radio waves they put out. Similar to how a camera measures how much light your fridge's light bulb puts out.

The engineers did this to make sure the nodes in the mesh of smart meters can talk to each other. They're measuring signal strength, which is directly related to how much energy it puts out per time, and in what frequencies they did so.

They did this to either get an FCC ID number and register it with the FCC, like your cell phone, or to have some engineer or certificating body say it was FCC compliant, like your laptop's power supply or your baby monitor.

(If you get this sufficiently wrong, the FCC and the ham radio geeks kick down your door. Or they come in through the garage, because the garage door is now randomly opening and closing.)

Geeks that have one on their house have measured this stuff as well.
Summary of my findings? As I expected, there's far more RF energy in the air from the TV and FM broadcast bands and cellular signals than from the smart meter's short-duration pulses. You have to really hunt for the smart meter signals, which are buried underneath a lot of other stronger signals. "

And the ham radio guys will have noticed and characterized these new intrusions into their dark and cluttered lairs.

Chunks of the community pay a fuckload of attention to how much energy various devices are allowed to give off as radio waves along and the frequencies at which they're doing so.

Every bit of the spectrum has either been sold off or allocated to various parts of the community. And misbehavior is policed, when it pops up on someone's radar. A literal radar, I mean.

There's deliberate oversight and casual oversight "Huh, I'm getting some interference with my ham radio set up where I'm allowed to talk down at the 420 MHz band. Let me do some dowsing with a spectrum analyzer and an antenna. ... It's coming from my smart meter which is only supposed to talk 902 - 928 MHz. Right, Rudy, you get the pitchforks, Clarence, you're on torches."

If you're drawn into discussion with your landlord on this subject, I'd point out that the smart meters share spectrum with stuff like cell phones, walkie talkie, cordless land line phones, wireless network routers, garage door openers. Along with formal government oversight, there's a lot of professionals and random geeks keeping them honest by characterizing this stuff and talk about it in journals, trade magazines, blog postings, mailing lists, etc. People in lots of different countries and in different parts of society like ham geeks and EE university profs who subscribe to lots of different political views and like to bicker and can't be coerced into a Big Lie. And they will instantly pick up if the smart meter starts broadcasting energy in the form of radio waves at the wrong frequency, or starts broadcasting too much energy at the right frequency.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:13 AM on July 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Everyone seems to be focusing on radiation risks. EFF and EU data protection authorities are worried about the privacy implications of smart meters.
posted by themel at 1:09 AM on July 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The UK's Health Protection Agency notes that there is no convincing evidence of physical danger from radio waves despite thousands of investigations and published papers in the area.

There is potentially a privacy issue, depending on who can see your data and the quality of the data they can see. How much data anyone can see will depend on how advanced the smart meter is and how much bandwidth there is on the linked comms system, mostly they are still pretty dumb, though they will get smarter in the future. The proposed UK comms system is likely to be fairly crap in terms of what it can do, ie, not give real time data, and who can see the data (technically just the consumer and whoever they give permission to, usually the supplier, the consumer may well have much more detailed data than the supplier since the supplier will probably only need a once a month usage piece of data but a more useful meter may be generating much more than that) or information (ie the aggregated data, stripped of addresses and such). I should emphasise this is the UK model and other models work differently, not sure how the PG&E system is set up. Other systems will let the local network operator see the data to a greater or lesser extent and this may mean they have levels of data which would allow then insight into certain elements of your behaviour, for example, when someone is in your house, and if they do some data analysis, how many people are in your house, some info as to what they might be using, etc.
posted by biffa at 2:22 AM on July 15, 2013

There's an argument to be made that there is information that might be gained through closer monitoring of your power consumption. An obvious example would be someone who was able to access the network to find out which houses were consuming modest amounts of power on the hottest days, a sign that the air conditioning wasn't running and the houses might be unoccupied. This is a variation of biffa's privacy issue, except that I've assumed that these networks are inherently insecure and therefore the data is available to anyone with appropriate technical skills. This appears to be the case, Google "smart meter security".

While power usage may not seem like a significant data point, this information can potentially be combined with other data points to learn more about the habits of people.

On the other hand, our local utility uses smart meters and is able to do all sorts of nifty tricks, such as during a power loss, to identify the exact area affected (and they can even report the exact number of customers affected, 43 this last time!).

So, would it worry you if random people were wandering into your yard and staring at the number on your meter?
posted by jgreco at 6:10 AM on July 15, 2013

Getting away from all the woo woo about the transmissions, I read this article yesterday in the Dallas Morning News that talks about how the contracts are deceptive/evil.

Main points:
1. There is hidden print that causes a huge termination fee if you change to another electric company before your 2-year contract is up. The term for the meter contract is not the same as the term for your electricity contract, so you are essentially stuck in either one or the other contract.
2. $15 penalty if you use less than a minimum number of KWH per month, you know, if you actually use the smart meter to reduce your electrical usage.
3. The Public Utility Commission of Texas has a rule about the font size of words on electricity contracts — 10 point or bigger — but since thermostat contracts are new, they aren’t covered in existing rules.
4. Contracts specifically allow utilities to cycle a homeowner’s air conditioning system on and off during brownout periods on high-demand summer days. You can opt out, but the default is to allow it.
posted by CathyG at 7:41 AM on July 15, 2013

What might be true in Dallas may not be true in California so worth checking locally, none of what CathyG cites for Texas would be remotely allowed in the UK system.
posted by biffa at 8:16 AM on July 15, 2013

It's very hard to prove a negative. There's absolutely no evidence that Smart Meters are harmful. There is evidence they're useful.

Log in to your PG&E account online and click on the "My Usage" tab. PG&E will show you a graph of your specific electricity usage every day, in 15 minute increments. This is incredibly useful for figuring out where your electricity is going, knowledge you can use both to save you money and reduce your carbon footprint. For instance I can see my spike in electricity usage at sunset when I'm home, measuring the cost of me turning the lights on. I never really knew what that was before and now I'm suddenly more interested in fluorescents.

Smart Meters are PG&E's first step in modernizing the power grid. They provide detailed data on electricity usage. They're a key enabler for new rate structures that give people an incentive to reduce usage during peak usage.
posted by Nelson at 8:29 AM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I researched this a few years ago. The arguments about safety/privacy (in terms of people knowing when you were likely to be out and so planning a break-in, etc.) were much more reasonable, in my mind, than the arguments about health. So if you are actually looking for reasonable objections, you might want to focus there.
posted by jaguar at 12:52 PM on July 15, 2013

> Contracts specifically allow utilities to cycle a homeowner’s air conditioning system on and off during brownout periods

This is actually an astonishingly good thing, for both you and your utility. Better to be a few degrees uncomfortable for a couple of hours during brownouts than face a total blackout for an uncertain period.
posted by scruss at 4:06 PM on July 15, 2013

I work at a utility company that has had advanced metering since 2003, and while I don't have any proof that the RF signals that have been transmitted haven't harmed anyone, I would think that if that were the case, we would all have heard about it.

As for surveillance, I spend a lot of my job looking at meter readings (from "dumb" meters, the smart meters we've had for 10 years, and the newer smarter meters we've had for a few years) and though the newest meters have the capacity to record usage in 15 minute increments, there are very few people at my company who have/need access to that level of detail. For instance, for my job I really only need to see daily reads so that's all that I have easy access to. I'm not saying that it's not possible to use smart metering for something nefarious in terms of privacy, but I'm not sure how much more useful that information would be than just driving by someone's house and seeing if lights are on or if there's s car in the driveway.

FYI: The information in CathyG's linked article is not true at the utility where I work. All utilities/regulatory agencies are totally different.
posted by eunoia at 5:08 PM on July 15, 2013

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