PECO continues to chug along through its smart meter overheating investigation, with about half of the 29 investigations already completed.

Utility representatives appeared before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on Thursday to discuss the ongoing issue. Of the 29 overheating incidents, two resulted in fires that spread beyond the meter panel.

Fourteen of the investigations found that half of those fires were due to preexisting issues with customer equipment, such as loose wiring or connections. Another seven had water leakage issues (one homeowner accidentally created a leak in the meter when he hit the meter with a power washer), meter tampering or other problems. There are still 15 investigations to go.

PECO is far from the only utility to find that a small fraction (far less than 1 percent) of the meters it has installed have had overheating issues. The problem is similar to other utilities, including BC Hydro, where a few fires stoked smart meter opponents. In a recent story in the Vancouver Sun, the reporter notes that there are about 480 fires related to electrical malfunctions in homes over any given five-year period in British Columbia, and about 22 of those are related to the meter and distribution panel. BC Hydro is using Itron meters. However, few other utilities have taken the step of completely halting the smart meter installation as PECO has done. 

“Even if every one [of the problems] is due to a preexisting condition, the bigger question is, what you do about it?” asked Cathy Engel Menendez, Manager of Communications at PECO. The utility, which is owned by Exelon (NYSE: EXC) and covers 1.6 million electric customers across the greater Philadelphia area, has installed about 186,000 meters to date.

All of the overheating has involved Sensus meters, which were installed first, so PECO is replacing some Sensus meters with Landis+Gyr models for testing. As part of the full meter deployment, Landis+Gyr, Elster and Sensus were already part of the project. Sensus has also provided a software upgrade so the meter automatically shuts off if it gets close to overheating, and the utility is notified. 

“There is no evidence that points to a Sensus meter as being the cause of any of these few overheating incidents,” Sensus said in a statement last month. “While the number is very small, fifteen out of 186,000, or 0.008 percent, we continue to work with PECO to identify the root cause.  But as PECO has stated, their investigations have shown existing issues with customer equipment and not the meter itself.”

While it may be a sigh of relief for meter makers or utilities to know that the new technology is not faulty, it’s hardly a vote of confidence for homeowners that some old wiring in their house -- that they have no idea about -- might be connected to a utility asset and then catch fire.

PECO is very sensitive to this, and Menendez said that executives all felt that finding the cause of the fires was simply not good enough. The utility is mandated by the state to install smart meters, and once the full investigation is finished in October, the meters will be installed after the utility decides what changes will be made to the rollout.

“The debate is not, 'To meter or not to meter?' -- it’s just how we’re going to do it,” said Menendez. “Whatever the decision that ensures customer safety is what we’ll do. Nothing is off the table.”