Back to basics - lock off the meter

Power companies usually struggle to justify the purchase of AMR technology. It’s not easy – yet most utilities feel that AMR is the future. However, justifying its purchase often means that auxiliary products and services are eliminated or cut to the bone.

Since AMR meter options include theft alarms, some utilities opt to eliminate the purchase of meter locking devices. Otherwise stated: "We will remove the locks from the doors and windows."

For years the meter reader has been the first line of defence against meter tampering. With AMR, the meter – the cash register – will be left unattended for long periods of time. Is this not an open invitation to theft?

For some years I travelled the Parkway on my way to work, and along the way I paid a toll – because I knew someone was watching. When the toll collectors went on strike, commuters were asked to make a voluntary deposit. By the second day, I knew there was no need to pay that toll – because no-one was watching. For the balance of the strike, I and many others did not make the deposit.

There is an analogy here with AMR meters. Clearly, if there are no monthly inspections, it is more important than ever to lock the meter to prevent tampering.

What about the theft alarms – tilt indicators and voltage interruption alarms – that are options on AMR meters? When tampering occurs, an alarm is sent to the utility’s headquarters, and a technician goes into the field to investigate. The theft is identified and the perpetrator is hauled off to court.

This sounds plausible – but in practice it does not work that way. There are not enough trained meter technicians to investigate all the alarms – and cases of meter tampering where no alarms were received have been reported. AMR meter alarms can be an effective tool in a revenue protection programme, but relying on them exclusively does not work. DETECTION is not enough. Locking devices are still necessary to PREVENT theft of energy at the meter.

The economy in the United States is strong – but despite this, utilities are writing off record amounts of bad debt. At many utilities delinquent accounts have increased by more than 30% in two years.

The recommended lock off procedure for a ring style meter socket, showing a heavy duty meter locking ring. Inner-Tite Corp. conducted a survey of more than 50 power companies in the US to determine how meters are disconnected for non-payment. We found that half the large power companies pulled the meter, booted it, and reinstalled it with a seal. The remaining 50% booted the meter and installed a heavy-duty locking device.

Then we discovered that 25-28% of the meters sealed off were reconnected by the customer; only 2% of the meters locked off with a heavy-duty locking device were reconnected. Locking devices are a proven means of managing delinquent accounts.

Leo P Dalbec, administrator – revenue protection at New England Electric System, comments: "Locking devices on meters do not suggest suspicion or wrongdoing. Rather they establish limits and boundaries, as do fences between good neighbours. Furthermore, deregulation has fostered competition, which has introduced new entities having an interest in the meter and its data. Locking devices help define the limits of the interests of those entities."

What about revenue protection? According to an EEI survey, theft is estimated to account for a loss of 1-3% of revenues. Add to that wiring and metering errors, estimated at another 1-2% loss. Write-off for bad debts is reported by the EEI to average 3/10 to 5/10 of 1% of revenues, but realistically is probably much closer to 1½%. This totals 4% to 8½% of revenues potentially lost at the meter.

It must be prudent to lock the meter to prevent theft of service and of metering equipment, to improve the efficiency of disconnects for non-payment, to promote safety and to prevent entry to the meter by unauthorised persons.