I had one job and I failed. 

When my two children were toddlers, I fell into a very satisfying routine of visiting the Marbles Kids Museum every Sunday morning. This fantastically imaginative museum was fun for my kids and it gave my wife a well-deserved respite from the challenges of parenting. If there was a “Dad-of-the-Year” award, I would be shoo-in. However, in one fleeting moment, that façade came crashing down in spectacular fashion.

It was the day I lost both of my kids at the museum.

Luckily for me, the security team quickly leapt to action and discovered the kids happily playing and completely oblivious to my panic. Later that afternoon, when recapping the tale to my wife, she said smugly, “You only had one job.”

Analog electricity meters had only one job, too. They had to keep track of how much electricity a residential or commercial customer used.

Analog electricity meters had only one job, too. They had to keep track of how much electricity a residential or commercial customer used. Of course, it really wasn’t that simple. There were lots of moving parts to this complex machinery and opportunities for errors. For the most part, these workhorse meters did a good job of simplifying a complicated process and reading energy use accurately. 

Today’s advanced smart meters have less moving parts than their vintage brethren, but they offer a range of benefits to consumers and utilities. Some of these are obvious, some not so. Reading energy usage is only one small part of their job. Smart meters wear a lot of different hats.

Perhaps the most overlooked and under-appreciated advantage of having a smart meter on the side of your house is the extra level of protection that it affords. By being able to communicate with the utility (and often the resident), smart meters are similar to the dashboard warning lights within your car. The meter can quickly let you know if there’s a problem so it can be investigated before becoming a bigger issue.

Smart Meters and a Safer Home

Smart meters are here to stay. Their primary job is read energy usage, but sometimes they help make the world just a little bit safer, too. Here are three weird and wonderful ways that smart meters provide an extra, often unknown level of protection. 

1) Open-Neutral Identification

An open-neutral occurs when a house’s neutral line is broken or open. This creates a dangerous environment where electric current will flow across the entire system presenting a variety of hazards, not the least of which is a serious electrical shock. Computers, refrigerators, televisions and most other electric items in your house are rated for 115V with a small 10-15% margin for voltage differences. When there is an open-neutral, your home’s electrical items will receive up to 240V which can burn out internal components not rated for this voltage. 

Squirrel on a line

The warning signs of an open-neutral problem might seem obvious to an electrician, but often goes unheeded by homeowners. Perhaps the lights dim when running the microwave. Or, a few lightbulbs burn brighter than others. Usually, it’s not until major damage occurs—such as electrical components failing that an electrician becomes involved. To make matters worse, it’s not always consistent. It’s the proverbial Gremlin that often gets associated with electric problems. 

There are two obvious places for an open neutral to occur—inside the house at the breaker panel, or outside, usually somewhere on the drop between the house and the transformer. Squirrels are notorious for wreaking havoc on power lines and they are often the culprit here as well. One furry friend chewing through the wrong line is all it takes.

Many smart meters today are able to detect open neutral issues and notify the utility that there is a problem. The utility will send a crew to test the line and troubleshoot the problem, potentially saving the homeowner from having to replace expensive electronics or worse.

2) Meter Pan Problems

Occasionally there are unusual environmental factors that cause problems for homeowners and utilities. One problem is the meter pan. Perhaps it isn’t mounted to the house as well as it should be. Or, maybe the house siding is in disrepair and the meter pan is starting to lean away from the structure. This obscure, but dangerous problem slowly exposes wires to the elements, leading to an electrical hazard and fire risk. 

Smart meters (if they have the proper sensors) can detect if there is a problem with meter pan installation. For instance, if the meter is starting to lean forward a certain number of degrees, it will notify the utility that there is problem keeping potential problems at bay. In a best case scenario, meter readers would check the meter pan monthly during their rounds. Now it’s continually monitored. 

3) The Random Event

On one early Sunday morning in 2019, Paul and Sharon Jackson awoke to a flash of bright light and a jolt. It was 3:30 a.m. and they found themselves buried in rubble after their house exploded. For over two hours the Jackson’s were trapped in the basement and unable to free themselves from the wreckage. 

In the meantime, their smart meter sent a signal to the utility that it didn’t have power.  This normally indicates a relatively normal power outage. However, when Alliant Energy lineman Alex Schwenke arrived on the scene to troubleshoot the outage, he was surprised to find a shell of a house. It looked like a tornado had hit. 

Thanks to Schwenke, first responders arrived at the scene and the Jacksons were able to walk away from a truly terrifying situation. This is a random occurrence that is out of the norm. In this case, the smart meter saved the day by simply letting the utility know that there was a power outage. The utility followed their standard procedure and walked into an emergency situation.

Today’s smart meter wears many different hats. And unlike my experience losing kids at a museum, smart meters are actually succeeding. In subsequent articles we’ll take a deeper look at smart meters and show and show how they benefit consumers and utilities.