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Philadelphia-based utility PECO has suspended its smart meter program after 15 installed units overheated in Bucks County, Pa. Of those units, two have caused a fire.

The utility began its full deployment of smart meters in March and currently has 186,000 units installed in Bucks County. Since April, PECO reports there have been overheating issues at 15 locations in the region. Spokesperson Cathy Engel Menendez says the utility will cease installing additional equipment until the overheating problem is addressed.

"Really, it was from a strictly customer-safety perspective," Engel Menendez tells Renew Grid about the decision.

Upper Makefield Fire Marshal John Kernan told NBC10 Philadelphia that department officials extinguished a blaze at a local home Aug. 12; the fire, Kernan said, was caused in relation to a smart meter. The other fire, located in Bristol, occurred July 27. (As of press time, all of Bucks County’s fire marshals were unavailable for comment.)

“Of the 15 meters that overheated, there were two that actually resulted in a fire - one of which created some damage to a customer’s property," Engel Menendez says. "The other one was contained at the meter itself.” Both fire-related units were installed back in May.

Although PECO is working with Sensus, Landis+Gyr and Elster for its smart meter program, all 15 overheating issues occurred at locations where Sensus meters were installed.

Sensus says the problem is not with its meters. “We continue to be very concerned about the small number of issues that PECO and its customers are experiencing with the installation of Sensus meters,” the manufacturer says in a prepared statement. “Sensus stands behind the safety and performance of our meters, our manufacturing processes and our testing procedures. There is no evidence that points to a Sensus meter as being the cause of any of these few overheating incidents.”

PECO has completed investigations at the Bristol location and five other sites; nine studies, including at the Upper Makefield site, are still under way. Engel Menendez notes the completed investigations have determined the respective sites' issues were caused by "customer defective equipment."

“We’ve seen a variety of issues in the six cases,” she says. “In one instance, ground settlement has caused the meter box to not be securely attached to the home. Also, we’ve seen one situation where the customer had absolutely below-code service.”

In hopes of lessening customer concerns, PECO says it has taken several steps to maintain safety. The utility has already begun replacing some Sensus meters with Landis+Gyr units to determine if there are differences between the two technologies. Meanwhile, PECO is also working with Sensus to develop two enhancements to the manufacturer’s meters.

The first enhancement, an automatic shutoff when an issue is detected, is expected to be available Aug. 26. The second enhancement, including an early alarm that would be sent directly to the utility, should be available Sept. 6.

“We're trying a variety of different options to make sure we understand exactly what’s going on so we can have plans in place to prevent situations from occurring in the future if they’re preventable - before we proceed,” Engel Menendez notes.

In addition, PECO is offering to inspect - and replace, if necessary - meters for any worried customers. “Certainly, customers are concerned. I think that is absolutely understandable and to be expected,” she says. “But they seem very appreciative of the work PECO is doing on their behalf to keep them safe.”

Customers can contact PECO at a newly launched hotline at (855) 741-9011.

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