Saturday, September 7, 2013

Can smart meters monitor your sex life?


Tea Party needs to put away pitchforks
Smart Meters

Folks have come with pitchforks and torches to oust Satan’s electric meters, but are they justified?


When the experts are viewed as in on a conspiracy, their counsel will be ignored.  It’s consistent with global warming denial.  Politics has replaced the innocence of ignorance.  Irresponsible Tea Party members object to the federal stimulus that helped speed smart meter rollout.  They mistake the effort of informed groups who take responsibility for public welfare and are committed to democratic values with government oppression.  It came at a time when a new grassroots cause was needed to give the passionately discontented a purposeful catharsis.  Their opinions are not a credible professional peer review.  Facts, repeated on the web, may not be true, especially when their source makes a living by promoting self-interest in the name of public good.

Smart meters are being installed world-wide.  More than a dozen professional industry and government organizations (SGCC Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, SGIP Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, EPRI Electric Power Research Institute, NIST National Institute of Standards and Technologies, FCC Federal Communications Commission, ANSI American National Standards Institute, OSHA Occupational Safety and Health Administration, DOE Department of Energy, IEEE Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, IEC International Electro-technical Committee) okay them.  But standards must balance approving the risky with rejecting the beneficial.

Electromagnetic Compatibility

RFID tracking devices are for your dog, not your toaster!  Seeing cause in summer coincidences, a web source claimed that smart meters damage air-conditioners and swimming pool equipment.

Smart meters can’t identify or control your appliances, but an ignorant reading of interference prevention standards suggests that they can.  Opponents allege that cheaper, smaller, lighter, more efficient switching power supplies spread dangerous high-frequency radiation through your house wiring, but switching technology is everywhere in modern electronics and is not a health threat.  Fluorescent light bulbs are a common example.

In 1807, the French scientist, Joseph Fourier, quantified how wave distortions produce higher frequencies.  Old fashioned power controls sometimes generate higher frequency harmonics that increase interference and reduce efficiency.  Compatibility standards help us get along with one another, but they compromise individual freedom.   Multimillion dollar laboratories test them.  It is not a matter of “reading between the lines” but rather understanding the facts.

Smart meters measure power quality.  “Classic” motors are not happy when they operate on low line voltages characteristic of brown-outs.  Semiconductor controls do not like high voltages.  In the past, it has been difficult to obtain data about electric power.  Smart meter technology will make us better informed.


Water heaters learn your habits and heat up just before you take a shower.  RF remotes let you control your sound system from any room in the house.  None use smart meters.  You have to read the user manual.  Your smart meter can’t do that for you.

Appliance control requires that hardware and software have intimate detailed knowledge of each other to make “handshaking” possible.  AHAM, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, has written about possible low-level protocols, similar to the invisible operating system in computers, to promote this.  Reality demons include costs, obsolescence, differences in appliances, and the near impossibility of cooperation.

You will always be in control.  The unseen hands of the free market place will sort things out.  Smart engineering knows how to keep it simple.  It becomes a matter of form versus substance and novelty versus authentic value.


 If you think that smart meters can monitor your sexual activities, you must really have something going on!  Smart meters measure electrical energy.  They have no surveillance camera, don’t eavesdrop, invade privacy, and can’t monitor household activity.  They can’t tell how many people live in your house, when you get up and go to bed, when you aren’t home, how many showers you take, loads of laundry you do, when you use the microwave, and what kind of TV you watch.  Measuring your electric consumption is not wiretapping.

Utilities and smart meter manufacturers are independent business entities.  There is no national data repository, UN Agenda 21 conspiracy or town council illuminati answering to UN city planning guidelines.


Will a smart meter on your house make it harder to sell?  Will your neighbor’s smart meter lower your property values?

Anecdotal stories about smart meters causing cancer, nausea, tinnitus, and heart arrhythmia are voodoo, not scientific, and should be treated with skepticism.  The propaganda surrounding smart meters is more dangerous to the health of mind and body than they are.  Smart meters are not carcinogenic agents; spreading cancer for tens of miles in every direction, as yesterday’s resistance to tomorrow claims.

There are preposterous claims for smart meter transmitter power that do not consider the economy that comes from using transistors with power output similar to that in cell phones.  Information shows that typical transmitter powers are on the order of ¼ Watt, not hundreds of Watts.  If you are worried about smart meter radiation, you should also fear cell phones and the towers that make them work.

Assume you use your cell phone and hold it one inch from your head.  Consider the physics of the free-space inverse square law.  At ten inches, the field intensity decreases by a factor of 100.  At three feet, it declines by more than a thousand and at ten feet; it is down by more than 10,000.  Walls cause additional attenuation.

Fear mongers claim that your surroundings are like a giant radio-astronomy dish focusing the radiation.  Like sound echoing in an empty room, the near field can be different, but the relative effects of transmitter power and the nearby environment are insignificant in comparison to distance.

Signal strengths are not like dollars and cents.  They are measured logarithmically to provide a convenient, compressed scale corresponding with human perception.  Twenty is one hundred, thirty a thousand, and so on.  Doubling is barely perceptible.  Times ten seems like doubling to us.

Many of us use microwave ovens, local area networks, wireless mice, keyboards, and microwave ovens.  We visit cyber cafes, and aren’t protesting even though these sources cause many times the exposure of smart meters.  But power is not the strongest variable.

In 1900, Max Plank formulated the basic postulate of quantum physics.  It shows that energy is directly proportional to frequency, and is quantized in discrete steps so that nothing happens until a threshold is exceeded.  Smart meters transmit less than a few minutes in a day.  RF power and time are like the number of tries a pole-vaulter makes to clear the bar.  Frequency is like his athletic capability.  When the frequency is too low, ionization cannot take place.  Ultraviolet light is a form of electromagnetic radiation approximately a thousand million times higher in frequency than your smart meter.  Cosmic gamma and X-rays are even more and can give you cancer.  You take a risk when you go out in the sun or are X-rayed.

Cars, homes, and our bodies eventually wear out.  It’s a consequence of the fact that heat is a chaos that always flows one way, from hot to cold.  Disorder overcomes repair.  Frequency, wavelength, and temperature are different ways of describing electromagnetism which includes radio waves, heat, and light.  Radio astronomers have found it intuitive to use temperature.  It follows from the physics of black body radiation and the obvious fact that a black body is emitting radiation when it is hot enough to glow.  Powerful radio waves can cook without ionization.  This has been spun to wrongly claim that smart meters are insidious damaging heat sources.


The paid employees who read old-fashioned meters are a cost incurred by precautionary consumers.  It is a choice, not extortion or less individual freedom.  Perhaps you can’t conveniently use your modern three prong plug appliance because your house is old and has two prong outlets.  We have to make small sacrifices for the good of others.

Tea Party patriots claim that smart meters are unconstitutional and not the intent of the Founding Fathers, but if we retreated to a 1797 world-view, we would have no electricity.  Variable electric rates will lower energy prices for all of us.  You might choose to not cook or run the washer until into the wee hours of the morning, but it is your decision to participate in and take advantage of cheaper electricity then.  Greedy elites are not lining their pockets with your hard earned money, but Tea Party fanatics never miss an opportunity to promote public envy over utility executive salaries.  To oppose the utility is to be against free enterprise.

Your utility has to size to meet worst-case maximum peak demand.  That drives the cost of electricity.  Much of the time the power system is idling. When peak demand becomes excessive, power black-outs occur.  The electric company would like to encourage you to charge your electric vehicle at night.  With smart meters you don’t have to wait until the end of the month to find out what happens if a guest insists on changing your home summer temperature from 80 to 68 degrees.


Utilities want to keep your power on if at all possible, but when faults short the transmission line, power must be switched.  The utility tries to bring the power back on before physically investigating it.  If the fault was a glancing tree limb, the problem might fix itself.  However, this carries a possibility of electric shock or even starting fires.  That is the price we pay for reliable electric power.

The interruption of power carries with it a possibility of legal proceedings, if someone can be blamed for a damaging power outage.  Personal injury claims can be expensive.  People who can’t pay their electric bills are worried that their smart meter will disconnect their power without warning.  When is it ethical to “pull the plug” on the poor, elderly, or ill?


Your home not only draws 120V 60 Hz power from the electric power company, it returns some unused energy to them.  This leads to surprises.

You or the utility can cause unwanted damaging voltage transients up to double the power line value simply by turning the power on.  It depends on random switch millisecond timing.  Turning the power off while current flows can cause very high voltages that are only limited by losses or arcing.

Perhaps the worst scenario involves lightning.  Spark-over to grounded metal (we hope) duplex outlets limits the exposure of unprotected homes to about 6,000 Volts.  Fortunately, most lightning strikes are distant, and the energy is attenuated as it propagates.  The utility could protect your home by installing voltage limiting devices, but that is expensive.


Has America lost its ethos?  Is engineering really a matter of statistics and field trials weighing cost and profit?  Are specifications just advertising or a contractual obligation?

Remember the statistician who drowned in a stream that was on the average one foot deep.  He should have paid attention to the deep pools.  Science pays attention to legitimate statistical outliers instead of the typical good news.  We must not trip the breakers on our residential entrance panel, but what current do we really draw?

Hot switching of a continuous 200 Ampere, 240 Volt service is a serious challenge.  Switch size is proportional to the square of the current.  Two hundred Amperes are like four times one hundred, not twice.  Both wires in the 240 Volt service are hot, requiring a more expensive double switch.  It’s enough to make a business engineer cry, “How am I going to corner the market place if I have to increase my price?”

Yesterday’s meters just measure.  They don’t switch power.  America’s lower voltages require proportionally more current for the same power.  Motors and lamps have momentary inrush currents many times their rated value.  Tomorrow’s meters switch an unconstrained, unknown load (unless the utility asks the user).

Our company needed to estimate how long our components would last.  It was high temperature, the 1889 Svante Arrhenius activation energy equation, and statistics that enabled us to forecast life expectancy.  A definite energy or temperature must be reached before unhealthy reactions occur.  Each failure mechanism has an energy value to be learned.


The current and voltage are not in step when the power factor of the load is low.   Then the true power is less than the apparent power.  You want to pay for true power.  The old-fashioned meters are cleverly calibrated for this, but it has not included worst-case loads.  Modern smart meter technology measures the instantaneous values of the voltage and current, multiplies them to get the power, and then integrates them to more accurately calculate the energy you use.

Professional Questions

The answers to questions depend on a chain:  customer, utility, meter manufacturer, and component vendor.

1.  What are the standards and regulations that apply?

2.  Are there any recognized studies confirming injury from smart meters?

3.  What are the results of forensic lab analysis concerning failure modes, and rates on smart meters returned from the field?  Are there any “thermal events”?  How does reliability compare with traditional meters?

4.  What is the life expectancy for worst case loads, and switch timing or phase?

5.  Are meters tested for transients and lightning?

6.  How does the accuracy, for a full range of load sizes and power factors, compare with the old-fashioned meter?

7.  How much quiescent power does the meter use?  Do we pay for it? 

8.  Will we be warned when power is disconnected and connected?

9.  Do you have examples of smart meter measurements of transients?

10.  Where is the detail technical specification for the meter?

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