Some homeowners worry installing new 'smart meters' could spark fires

The Contact 5 Investigators searched for a cause

GREENACRES, Fla. - Right now contractors are installing millions of smart meters on homes across South Florida. By the end of 2013, every home powered by Florida Power and Light will have one.

They're new digital devices to determine how much energy you're using at home and they allow customers to check their daily energy usage online.

But there's new concern from some South Florida homeowners that the installation of these meters could spark fires.

The concern isn't the meter itself, but connecting the new technology with older parts and wiring.

Margie Albernaz woke up in July to the smell of smoke in her Greenacres home.

"I went over to the FPL meter and it had caught on fire, it was all black smoke and charred," said Albernaz.

She pointed out the damage to the Contact 5 Investigators the next day.

"Nothing happened until a new meter got put onto an old part and that scares me a little bit," Albernaz said. Margie said her new meter was installed a few weeks prior to the fire.

The Contact 5 Investigators went searching for answers and discovered Margie's not alone.

A family in Cutler Bay, just south of Miami, claims a fire broke out at their home in June shortly after a smart meter was installed.

A spokesperson for the Miami Dade Fire Rescue Department told the Contact 5 Investigators the fire was classified as "accidental." The spokesperson also said the fire started in the "meter can" which is the box where the meter is located on the outside of the home.

After some more digging, we discovered similar fire concerns have been reported across the country with different power companies and different brands of smart meters.

A spokesperson for Florida Power and Light said customers have nothing to be concerned about.

"The smart meter itself, or actually any meter, is not going to cause a fire," said spokesperson Jackie Anderson.

Customer Margie Albernaz isn't convinced. "I don't know if I trust them," she said. "I don't know if I trust the technology."

The Contact 5 Investigators waited two full months after Margie's fire for a subcontractor with Florida Power and Light to show up to replace her damaged meter. We showed up as well to get answers.

The subcontractor said in Margie's case the "block," or the part the meter connects to, had broken off.

"Do you think a block chipping off of that could cause a fire?" asked Contact 5 Investigator Dan Krauth. "Yes it could," said Oral Bryan of Kilowatt Electric who replaced Margie's meter.

Bryan said he has responded to four similar fires over the past six months.

"I can tell you some of these parts are old and by taking a meter out it breaks the block in the can, some of the jaws are bad and that kind of stuff, it's age," he said.

Out of the 2.4 million smart meters installed so far in Florida, a spokesperson for Florida Power and Light said it has responded to thirty complaints of electrical fires in the area of the meter can.

"This isn't related to a traditional meter or a smart meter, this is a wiring issue in a customer's home," said spokesperson Jackie Anderson.

Florida Power and Light said workers repair anything that's visibly wrong with your electrical parts and wiring when installing the meters, even though they're not required to do so.

"In this case, I don't think anything was visible," said Anderson.

The Contact 5 Investigators discovered the power company is only responsible for the electrical line running into and out of your home, along with the actual meter itself. Everything else that surrounds the meter is the customer's responsibility to maintain.

"Homeowners though are relying on your workers to make sure they're safe, they don't know what to look for when it comes to bad electrical wiring or problems," said Contact 5 Investigator Dan Krauth.

"You know, I understand that, but also it's part of your home, part of your property," the Florida Power and Light Spokesperson responded.

The subcontractor also replaced the power line going into Margie's home after the fire. He said it wasn't up to current electrical codes. That's something FP & L said they don't check for when installing the new technology because it's not visible.

"It's a very rare problem when it does occur, so I don't think there's any need for customers to panic," Anderson said.

Margie still thinks about what could have happened if the fire wasn't contained to her meter can and what could happen now that another smart meter has been installed.

"It's still scary, scary that it could happen and scary that it could happen again," she said.

Again, a spokesperson for Florida Power and Light said the new meters are not responsible for causing any fires. They said the fires are mainly due to old wiring problems.

If you think you might have a wiring issue, they suggest hiring an electrical contractor to have it checked out.

The spokesperson said you could have wiring issues if you have dimming lights or power issues on one end of your home and not the other.

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