Electricity meter and fuse box

Smart meters and dumb fires

The energy supply industry is gearing up for a mass rollout of smart meters across the UK, but should reports of smart-meter fire-related incidents be a cause for concern?

The energy supply sector, like all infrastructure sectors, is draped in red tape. But despite the complex web of meetings between regulators, civil servants, energy companies and other interested parties, the sector is in danger of losing sight of one of the most important aspects of all: the safety of consumers in their own homes.

The UK's main energy suppliers have been given strong incentives to install as many smart meters as they can, as rapidly as possible, and are in the process of mobilising an army of installers. But what technical background do these installers have?

Reports of fires related to smart meters in the USA and Australia have quite rightly provoked concern among consumers. That concern seems well justified; following an enquiry with the Health and Safety Excutive, E&T has uncovered the fact that the UK has suffered its share of incidents.

Kieran Jenkins, factory manager for consumer unit manufacturer Proteus Switchgear, describes an incidents in Wolverhampton in March 2012.

"Initially, the insurance company had suggested that the fault was with our consumer unit, which had been working without fault for over four years," explains Jenkins. "But when we looked into the matter we noted that a smart meter had been installed just weeks before and the meter tail was not properly secured."

A massive rollout of smart meters to every domestic home in the UK will come as part of the government's strategy to reduce carbon emissions. The existing meters were, in many cases, installed decades ago.

It is the energy companies that are tasked with figuring out exactly how to fulfil this undertaking. The major part of the roll-out is expected to start in 2014 and is scheduled to be completed by 2019, with the majority of consumers receiving new meters during this window.

However, millions of smart meters could be operational before this as energy companies have been rolling out the new devices to some customers on a trial basis.

Smart meter rollout

No programme is as large as that of British Gas, which has already installed more than 600,000 smart meters – mainly in business premises, but in some homes as well. By the end of this 'foundation stage', British Gas would have installed more than a million smart meters. Other suppliers such as E.ON, EDF and First Utility are also participating in the foundation stage.

One advantage of smart meters is that the suppliers will no longer have to employ an army of people to knock on doors to physically inspect meters and ensure that readings are accurate and no unauthorised tampering has taken place.

However, the supplier will need to mobilise legions of smart-meter installers. Most have reached the logical conclusion that they ought to retrain some of their existing meter operators, inspectors and readers. They are also advertising job vacancies specifying no experience necessary since you do not have to be a qualified electrician to replace an existing meter with a smart one.

Codes of practice

One of the largest suppliers of meter readers is the utility division of G4S who have had a long-standing deal with British Gas to install smart meters for its business customers.

G4S currently has around 300 smart-meter installers and a growing number with dual-fuel capability; the company anticipates that these numbers are increasing with the rollout of the domestic smart-metering market. But how are they managing the process of retraining this workforce?

"We work to MOCOPA (Meter Operator Code of Practice Agreement) for electricity installations and MAMCOP (Meter Asset Manager Code of Practice) for gas installations. We are also audited by the British Standards Institute and Gas Safe, among others," explained G4S in a statement to E&T.

British Gas added: "All meter workers are assessed to ensure they are competent to undertake the work issued to them. All tools and personal protective equipment are supplied by G4S and we have an auditing regime in place to check that the meter installers follow correct processes and leave all installations in a safe and tidy state.

"Smart energy experts are trained to a Level 2 Diploma in Smart Metering and take part in an apprenticeship scheme with the National Skills Academy for Power – Qualification Credit Framework," British Gas continued. "A competence assessment is carried out to Gas Industry standards (Gas Safe), Electric Industry standards via MOCOPA, and where required through the local Distribution Network Operators. All training is carried out in full compliance with the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations, the Health and Safety at Work Act, Electricity at Work Regulations and RIDDOR."

E.ON also gave a statement: "We deliver a comprehensive training programme for our smart-meter installers which involves a mixture of classroom-based courses and in-field experience. This is coupled with an extensive mentoring programme. Our electricity-meter installers are MOCOPA certified and our gas-meter installers are GasSafe certified, and we have a stringent set of criteria which we apply to ensure that we recruit people who are technically proficient, safety conscious and skilled in delivering excellent customer service."

Safety as standard

However, Gemserv, which administers the MOCOPA standard, does not certify individuals. Instead, as the registration authority, it authorises meter-operator companies to issue a 'competency certificate' to individuals deemed to be working to an adequate standard.

Others have voiced concerns about the safety of the work being carried out. The Electrical Safety Council (ESC), whose recommendations are supported by a range of industry bodies, wants an isolating switch built into smart meters. This would allow contractors a simple and safe means of isolating the electricity supply in UK homes when necessary, such as for the replacement of a consumer unit.

The only way currently to isolate the supply is to remove the electricity distributor's cut-out fuse but electricians are not authorised to do this. The ESC claims that efforts to provide such permission have been blocked by the electricity supply industry.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide a simple and relatively inexpensive engineering solution to a major obstacle to safe working practice and consumer protection; and we believe our recommendations are both financially and operationally justified," explains Mike Clark, ESC technical director.

Despite being unauthorised, many electrical contractors remove cut-out fuses when necessary, as the legitimate alternatives cost time and money for both contractors' businesses and their clients, says the ESC.

As an added safety measure, smart meters are being designed to give a 'last gasp' alarm signal if the supply to the meter is cut. This will immediately alert the authorities to any unauthorised removal of a cut-out fuse.

Electrical Safety Regulations

The ESC has also highlighted the consequences of disturbing meter tails during the installation process.

"Meter-tail connections at the main switch in consumer units may be loosened when meters are replaced, creating a possible fire hazard," claims Clark. "We would therefore like to see the meter installer having to check the tightness of these connections before re-energising installations, something that is not currently being made a requirement."

All incidents relating to the Electrical Safety Quality Continuity Regulations (ESQCR) are managed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and, as such, ought to be reported to the HSE, usually by the fire services.

An HSE spokesperson said: "Since 2010, HSE has received three reports of near misses to the ESQCR Electrical Incidents Database involving smart meter installations. The reported issues are not specific to the meters themselves, but appear to be related to incorrect or faulty installation practices."

But this may not be the full picture. A 2010 report produced by a fire officer working for the East Sussex Fire Service for the Association of Chief Fire Officers suggested a significant under reporting of meter related incidents: "since it is likely that a percentage of incidents involving overheated electrical equipment are never reported to the Service and instead are dealt with entirely by the local electrical supply company," the report says.

Preparing for the rollout

Needless to say that this by no means conclusive proof that there is a problem with the rollout of smart meters. But enough experts have raised questions about the training and speed of the current foundation stage. The actual rollout is the most aggressive smart meter transition in the world and all the checks and balances to ensure safety have to be in place for it to be safe and secure for every consumer.

In other regions, where similar trials are taking place, there have already been dozens of incidents of smart-meter related fires reported. Some have been attributed to poor design while others have been put down to poor installation.

Energy suppliers need to be wary as smart meters have already attracted criticism due to data privacy concerns, security of data and the increase in bills to pay for the rollout. This is on top of existing criticism of energy companies and their existing pricing policies.

We contacted several UK energy suppliers for interviews. No spokesperson was offered when we went to press. 

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