US smart meters explained: What is a smart meter and should you opt out?

What are they and why do you need them?

US smart meters explained
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Most of the smart home devices you add to your shopping wishlist, or read about, are the fun ones. They allow you to control your thermostat remotely or automate your coffee in the morning or are fancy, colorful lights.

The most important smart device you have is one you barely think about. That's right, it's the smart meter. In the US, smart meters have been around since 2006. As of 2017, there have been close to 80 million smart meters installed in US households. Nearly half of all electricity users in the US have them installed.

Also read: UK smart meters explained

But what the heck do they actually do? How can they help you, if they help you at all. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding smart meters in the US. Is there anything behind that or is it all just hot air?

That's what we're here to dive into. Let's get to it.

US smart meters: The basics

US smart meters explained: From the good to the controversial

Smart meters first started to gain traction in the US back in 2006, when California's Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) began a rollout of 9 million smart meters in Northern California.

Essentially, they are modern gas and electric meters that wirelessly send data to the utilities that own them, meaning utilities don't have to send employees to your home to check on how much gas and electricity you used in a given time frame.

Unlike places like the UK, where the government is attempting to roll out smart meters, the US rollout of smart meters is down to a state and territorial level. Each state has its own gas and electric utilities, which in turn decide on when to begin rollouts of smart meters.

Naturally, this means that making blanket statements about smart meters in the US is very difficult. Each state goes about it a little differently, each populace has reacted differently, and thus has inspired different regulations.

Northern California has seen the most smart meters installed, according to utility-funded think tank Edison Foundation, with 5 million units. Second is Southern California's Edison with another 5 million. Florida Power & Light comes in third with 4.9 million and Texas' Oncor comes in next with 3.4 million.

As previously mentioned, the most immediate thing smart meters do is nix the need for a utility employee to come to your home and check how much gas and electricity you use. This means utility companies don't have to spend time and money sending people to every home they service.

Instead, the smart meter electronically transmits data on your gas and electricity use to the utility on an hourly basis, meaning your utility charges for how much electricity and gas you actually used rather than an estimate sending out an employee and relying on an estimate.

It also allows you to get more information on your energy use. PG&E, for instance, allows you to view your usage online. You can see when you use the most energy, and whether you use energy during peak times, allowing you to make better, more informed choices about your energy use.

Maybe when you come home from a long day of work you like to leave the TV on while you charge your laptop. Looking at your usage may show you that you're using a lot more energy during a peak period. Instead, maybe you can wait to charge your laptop overnight, or be more mindful of the TV.

You can also look up your energy usage in a more low-tech way. If you know where your smart meter is, you can go up to it and read the digital display. There are a number of different smart meters out there, and your utility may use a different version than the rest.

In Northern California, PG&E uses smart meters from GE and Landis+Gyr. Both of them have a simple digital display that displays your usage in total kilowatt hours.

Smart meters: The devices

Unfortunately, when it comes to smart meters you're not going to get a choice about which smart meter your utility installs for you. The most choice you'll get is whether you want a smart meter or not.

In fact, some utilities don't even list which smart meters they use and what the differences are. For instance, you won't find a mention of a brand on Florida Power & Light's "How to read your smart meter" information page. You will see a difference of brand on PG&E's page, but it's so out of date that it doesn't account for the fact that GE's smart meter business was purchased by Aclara in 2015 (though, to be fair, the meters are probably from before then).

So are there potential differences between these meters? Not really. Most of the services offered from the meters' abilities are provided by the utility itself. PG&E would be the one to tell you about your energy use. Seeing how PG&E uses smart meters from different manufacturers, it doesn't appear that the data from them is too different.

Why wouldn't you want one?

US smart meters explained: From the good to the controversial

When PG&E first started installing its smart meters, there was rabid opposition to the. While other territories have also seen pockets of opposition, Northern California perhaps had the most vocal.

Why so? There are actually a number of arguments against not installing a smart meter. There are so many that many utilities - prompted by local governments - now have opt out policies.

The first worry is that smart meters emit so many electromagnetic waves that they are a health concern. However, according to the American Cancer Society, smart meters emit about the same amount of radiation as a cell phone.

Further, because most smart meters are installed outside the home, there's actually less exposure than, say, a cell phone in your pocket or an LTE smartwatch on your wrist. Or, you know, pretty much every RF radiation device inside your home.

Speaking of RF radiation, that's the type of radiation that comes from smart meters. The American Cancer Society says RF radiation is low energy, which means it doesn't have enough energy to ionize particles. Basically, RF radiation isn't strong enough to damage your DNA.

Because smart meters can provide real-time feedback on energy use, they can theoretically be used to analyze a home and its residents behaviors.

The other controversy is whether these meters are even accurate. Since they've started rolling out across the country, customers have complained that they were inaccurately measuring their usage. Mostly, these complaints are focused on the meters over-measuring over-charging them for their energy use.

In 2010, the California Public Utilities Commission enlisted consulting company The Structure to perform an audit of PG&E's smart meters after customer complaints of over-charging. The audit found that the meters were accurate and that the resulting bills matched. However, the audit also found that PG&E's customer service was the problem, sending multiple bills and not properly answering customer questions about how smart meters worked.

There's also a privacy angle. Because smart meters can provide real-time feedback on energy use, they can theoretically be used to analyze a home and its residents behaviors. For instance, someone with access to your smart meter could use its data to suss out how many people live in the home, when you leave, when you're home and how much energy you use.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of utilities in America, it's up to each state to come up with its own privacy laws to regulate the use of smart meter data. In California, if a utility wants to share meter usage data with anyone it needs to first get permission from the customer, and it must first disclose who wants that data and how it will be used.

How do you opt out?

US smart meters explained: From the good to the controversial

So, say that you don't really want to bother with this smart meter stuff. Is it possible to keep your old analog meter? In most cases. Each state and each utility is going to have different processes for this.

Some states, like California, Arizona, Maine and Texas allow you to opt out of getting a smart meter and instead getting an old analog meter. Other states, like Georgia, Hawaii and Michigan allow you to opt out of a smart meter and keep whatever your utility is currently offering. States like Florida and Maryland let the utility decide whatever meter they want to go with. Finally, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. do require smart meters.

Other states have either unclear policies or allow for more range. Some boot the issue down to the county or city level. To see whether you can opt out, or whether your county even allows smart meters, it's best to consult your local government laws. Northern California's Marin County, for example, banned smart meters for a couple of years.

However, opting out of smart meters can be a little more pricy upfront. PG&E will let you opt out of a smart meter and get an analog meter, but it'll also charge you $75 (or less) for setup and tack on a $10 monthly charge to your bill. The monthly charges are required by law to cease after 36 months, however, and there is financial assistance available if you can't afford those fees, knocking down setup to $10 and the monthly charge to $10.

Overall, smart meters in the US are a complicated beast. Most, if not all, policies are broken down by state and county. Your utility likely uses different models than a utility in a different state. Still, the benefits and feared strikes against smart meters are the same.

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