back to article SPY FRY: Smart meters EXPLODE in Californian power surge

Hundreds of smart electricity meters exploded in California after a truck crashed into a utility pole and caused a power surge on Monday. More than 5,000 homes in Stockton have been affected, according to CBS Sacramento, following a surge caused by a rubbish lorry driver crashing into a utility pole and causing the pole's top …

  1. Snivelling Wretch

    Erm, shouldn't fuses stop this sort of thing happening?

    1. willi0000000

      The fuses on the distribution line are only there to protect against short circuits and are generally slow to enable a transient overload (frying squirrel) enough time to clear itself.

      if it was a 13,800V line that got crossed with the 120V local line, the fuses in the houses probably just flashed over allowing the charring within the homes as individual outlets also flashed over.

      It sounds like nobody was plugging anything at the time of the crash. That could easily have been deadly.

      1. Dick

        If that's what happened I don't understand how it took out 5,000 customers because the US/PG&E system only has a handful on customers on each 13 kV to 240 V transformer. My guess is that it was a higher voltage line fell onto the 13 kV one.

        1. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

          "I don't understand how it took out 5,000 customers"

          That does seem high. The article says 5,000 customers were affected. Which may mean that the higher voltage line was a major distribution branch and, when its fuse/breaker tripped, this group lost power. A linked article states that this accident occurred near a substation. So the fault may have taken the entire station off line.

          The "Hundreds of smart electricity meters exploded" seems a bit odd. The 120/240 Volt lines feeding houses from stepdown transformers typicall feed from a few to a dozen or so residences. Back in the 'old days', these secondary circuits consisted of a low voltage distribution buss, fed by a number of transformers and covered a large area. But that construction is less typical these days.

      2. Old Used Programmer Silver badge

        On PG&E circuits, that top line was probably 11KV.

      3. BillG
        Black Helicopters

        Not fuses, but surge or overvoltage protection. Any halfway-decent engineer would have put in surge protection (costs less than a pound) or overvoltage protection (costs a few pence more) into the smart meter.

        Ergo, the people that designed these things were not halfway-decent engineers.

    2. James O'Shea

      "Erm, shouldn't fuses stop this sort of thing happening?"

      No. Not at umpty-up kilovolts at currents in the tens of amps.

    3. no-one in particular

      > Erm, shouldn't fuses stop this sort of thing happening?

      Ah, the Internet - where you get downvoted just for asking a question (and one that elicited some well-written and interesting responses).

      1. auburnman

        A downvote doesn't mean people want you to burn in hell, it just means people have disagreed with your statement enough to give you imaginary negative internet points. Nothing controversial about disagreeing with an inaccurate idea unless you take it personally.

        1. no-one in particular

          > it just means people have disagreed with your statement enough...

          Well, yes, I agree with that - when someone is making a statement; just not sure how it applies to someone asking a question.

          Well, not without risking going down some very dark alleys ("asking a question *is* making a statement - about your belief you have the right to question").

          1. auburnman

            To me it looks like a statement that just happens to end with a question mark. Downvoting it might seem a little harsh but the thinking that household fuses can handle grid-scale voltage is dangerous.

          2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
            Pint

            "not sure how it applies to someone asking a question."

            Maybe it's some of the old Usenet die-hards who think you really ought to do your own research first and only then ask you question. At this point they can then snarkily show off their superior knowledge of the subject or even more snarkily point out that you didn't search properly because they answered that very question on the 4th September 1991 and it should have show up in the results if you knew how to use a search engine properly :-)

            1. PJF
              Pint

              Ahhh.. ye ole use-net. One of the only places you can get flamed for a question asked/answered from the '70's.

              I'll have on with you.

      2. Tom 13

        @no-one in particular

        That's because many of us trawl the interwebs on a regular basis. Go look at the comments on the CBS link. Too many jackalopes were faulting the electric company for not putting in just such fuses.

        1. Tom 13

          Re: @no-one in particular

          In fact, if you look down a few posts you'll see EXACTLY the same sort of dimwitted post here on El Reg. I just didn't get to it before my edit time expired or I would have included it in my post.

    4. jonfr

      Smart meters location

      Meters are placed before the fuses (or circuit breaker) in the house. So they are not in place to stop this from happening, this is according to what I know about house electricity at the moment. As for the smart meters exploding, the electronics in them are clearly weaker then in there older analogue power meters (higher level of complexity).

  2. willi0000000

    Depending on the distribution voltage, surge protection could be difficult for the electronics in 'smart' meters. The most likely distribution voltages are 4160V and 13,800V. Older electromechanical meters might withstand 4160V for a short time but 13,800V would probably flash over and wreck them too.

    The duration could also have been several seconds to several minutes, depending on the fuses protecting the higher voltage line, and surge protection is usually designed for transient events (<1sec).

    [at least now we know how to disable a smart meter . . . all you need is a trash truck and good aim]

    1. James O'Shea

      the utility I worked with, many years ago, didn't have any 4 kV primary distribution lines, and topped off at 24 kV. At one point they did have 4 kV lines, but those had been decommissioned more than 20 years before I worked for them. And that was [mumble] years ago.

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      So suppose the line had been hit by a couple of million volt lightning strike?

      Or is an exosed wire strung for 1000s of miles above the roof tops being hit by lightning in the USA considered too unlikely to be worth considering?

      1. Eddy Ito

        Lightning level voltage would have no problem flashing over to the nearest object, such as the tower, and on to ground. Remember, it's already flashed over quite a way from the heavens to the wire, jumping the last bit is trivial.

      2. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

        "So suppose the line had been hit by a couple of million volt lightning strike?"

        The upper, high voltage lines are typically protected against lightning strikes by surge (lightning) arresters. The lower voltage lines underneath are shielded by the presence of the higher voltage line on top. Lightning hits the highest point.

        But if the upper 12 kV (?) line hit a 240 V line, the 12 kV surge protectors would see no unusual voltage.

    3. PNGuinn
      Mushroom

      Surge Protection

      Surge protection??? what surge protection?

      This is only 120 V for crying out loud. Nothing could POSSIBLY go wrong. Honest. Lightening? Wo'ts dat?

      So you want us to spend another 10 cents (this is the US of A - 10 p in the UK) on PROTECTION???

      Mind you. if I read the article right the real idiots are at the utility - sticking HV and 120 V on the same pole????

  3. 's water music
    Happy

    Rubbish driving

    ...a surge caused by a rubbish lorry driver crashing into a utility pole...

    Shouldn't have employed a rubbish driver

    1. Hyphen

      Re: Rubbish driving

      That was so bad it deserved an upvote!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Rubbish driving

        Terrorists at work, it was heavily Bin Laden.

        /ˈleɪd(ə)n/

        Oh never mind

        1. Someone Else Silver badge

          @ AC -- Re: Rubbish driving

          Terrorists at work, it was heavily Bin Laden.

          Joke only works if you speak some German...

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: @ AC -- Rubbish driving

            It works best in English. Not so much in American.

            1. Jeffrey Nonken
              Headmaster

              Re: @ AC -- Rubbish driving

              "It works best in English. Not so much in American."

              True, but some of us benighted Americans have studied foreign languages such as English. It made perfect sense to me. I even gave it an upvote, generous person that I am.

              Side note: "rubbish lorry" translates to "garbage truck" in American. In case any of my benighted fellow colonists were having trouble understanding the story.

    2. Valerion

      Re: Rubbish driving

      ...a surge caused by a rubbish lorry driver crashing into a utility pole...

      Shouldn't have employed a rubbish driver

      Or at least not give him a rubbish lorry to drive - invest in some good ones!

  4. Jim 59

    "The top lines are considered our freeways. The bottom lines are our distribution lines taking power directly to homes," a Pacific Gas and Electric spokesperson told CBS. "So when the two collide, they’re at different voltages and the higher voltage wins out, causing an overload."

    What the flip? Who designed this power distribution system ? It should have just faulted out at the substation (or wherever). As for this spokesman, he shames the electric company with his daft talk of "highways", and high voltages "winning". Ugh.

    1. James O'Shea

      It's PG&E. That spokesman is actually better than their average.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Designed power distribution system? I was in California back in 96 when a power surge on a main distribution feed on California/Oregon border took out the supply down the entire west coast ( from Canada down into Mexico) and across into Texas. Then a PG&E spokesman on the radio the next day assured everyone that despite the problems "America stil has the finest electricity in the world"

      1. 404

        Not into Texas - there are three regional electrical grids in the US -> East US, West US, and Texas. Each can fall over without affecting the other.

  5. James O'Shea

    disinformation

    From the sound of things, PG&E were indulging in a common practice: putting the transmission cables on the same poles as the distribution cables, or perhaps just putting the primary distribution cables on the same poles as the local distribution cables. For those who haven't worked with an electric utility, transmission cables are the high-tension lines, typically starting at 69kV (that's 69,000 volts) for secondary transmission lines and heading up to 750 kV for really serious primary transmission lines. Primary distribution lines might be as high as 24 kV. Local distribution lines are typically around 400 volts. (Why? Ohm's Law. P=I*V. Line losses are P=R*I^2. This means that you want I, the current, to be as low as possible, which means that V, the voltage gets pretty high.) If it was that the primary distribution lines hit the local distribution lines, then something on the order of 9,000 to 24,000 volts at 10 to 50 amps dropped onto a 400 volt circuit. 24 kV at 50 amps would be 1.2 MW. Depending on how incompetent their system safety people are (hey, it's PG&E, I don't put anything past those bozos) the dead short might last for several seconds, resulting in multiple megajoules of energy being dropped onto a circuit expecting several orders of magnitude less. One kilogram of TNT releases around 4.2 MJ. Yeah, it'd sound like an explosion, 'cause that's what it was.

    The smart meters, unlike regular meters, are basically small computers tapping into the local power passing into your house. (120 V single-phase in North America and Japan, 220-240 V two-phase in most of the rest of the world.) They would react just like any other computer which is exposed to a sudden surge. Unless PG&E is even more incompetent than I think they are (hard to achieve that...) they aren't using power line carrier for their smart meters. Instead, they're using wireless comms systems, like normal people. Here in Deepest South Florida, Florida Power & Light, better known as Frequent Power Loss, Florida Flicker & Flash, and other names which will get this post modded if I use them, are using smart meters which use wireless. http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/business/smart-meters-touted-for-benefits-cause-concerns-fo/nSGrj/

    Old, not-so-smart, meters don't have computers built in and don't care about the surge.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: disinformation

      Err... (120 V single-phase in North America and Japan, 220-240 V two-phase in most of the rest of the world.)

      Here in Europe (I think we count as part of the rest of the world) we have 240V single phase as do those parts of the world that use 220-240 volts as standard household power. As far as I know it is places like the US that have 220-240 V two-phase power for such things that require high power.

      1. petur

        Re: disinformation

        In Europe we even have 400V 3-phase...

        And in Europe we keep distribution and local supply on different poles, just to avoid these dangerous incidents...

      2. frank ly

        Re: disinformation

        In the UK, individual homes along a street are usually connected to alternate phases (240V phase to neutral) of the 3-phase main distribution network. This is to even out the load between the phases among a group of individual buildings. Large commercial and industrial premises are given all three phases and relied upon to do something sensible about phase load balancing and any power-factor correction that may be needed.

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge

          Re: disinformation

          Large commercial and industrial premises are given all three phases

          Apparently I live in a large commercial or industrial premise.

          (Actually, it used to be a pretty small industrial premise, but we kept the 3-phase feed, now capped at 35A per phase, because of electric cooking and my MIG welder)

      3. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

        Re: disinformation

        Here in Europe (I think we count as part of the rest of the world) we have 240V single phase

        Technically we have 230V single phase. When it came to standardizing, places like the UK with 240V ±6%, and others with 220V ±6%, didn't want the disruption of a change. In the finest traditions of bureaucats everywhere the tolerances were changed, so that Europe now has a "standard" of 230V, the UK has 230V +6%/-10% and old 220V countries are 230V -6%/+10% so we're now all the same. Without anyone having changed.

        The only time it really mattered was when "real" 230V lightbulbs were used in the 240V UK, and had a shorter but brighter life. Less of a problem for LED/Fluorescent ones

        </pedant>

      4. Martin-73

        Re: disinformation

        The US uses split phase, not 2 phase. Proper 2 phase is where the phases are at 90 degrees (don't think it's much used anymore except maybe for elderly industrial stuff where it's derived from a 3phase system (see 'scott transformer'). In the USAnian system the 2 120v lines are at 180 degrees to each other

      5. TeeCee Gold badge

        Re: disinformation

        Much of Central Europe[1] uses two phase for heating systems. So your house has a two-phase (of the available three) supply, but only one is used for most purposes.

        [1] Presumably a Soviet standard.

    2. Jim 59

      Re: disinformation

      120 V single-phase in North America and Japan, 220-240 V two-phase in most of the rest of the world

      IIRC the US and UK are both 3 phase systems. Most power goes into 3 phase motors in industry. Dwellings get one phase at the familiar domestic voltages. As frank ly points out, houses in a street get alternate phases for balance, and you can sometimes see it where the wires are overhead - a "drop cable" to each house from one of the 3 main street conductors (each on a different phase).

      I guess the US spins it generators at 3600 rpm, giving the 60hz. We are more relaxed in the UK, with 3000/50Hz.

    3. Chestislav Achterkamp

      Re: disinformation

      If it's power, that would be Watt's law(same as the unit we measure electrical power in, watts) Ohm's law is V=I*R. As for America, we only tap one phase in most homes, but we actually generate and distribute three. As for the rest of your math, power line loss calculations can be found here. http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2010/ph240/harting1/

      As for smart meters, I have no idea why they might be tapped directly to the power lines, because things like this happen(they have transformers, but it would be safer to put battery packs inside and inductively couple the thing to the line for it to make it's measurements, because there are such things as no contact ammeter, just replace the battery pack every couple of years, or set it to recharge at off peak hours). We had two across each other for the about 20 minutes it took to a line crew rolled to shut the thing off and remove the branches that entangled it, both of our smart meters were absolutely fine and none of our electronics were damaged(probably because all of the breakers were flipped open as is our habit when the power is out).

      As for trying to install underground lines in California, it's a problem with constant earthquakes, the lines at least you can get to and repair without a backhoe. New York actually has a super conducting distribution network underground(I am unsure if it's all back together after Sandy).

      1. tom dial Silver badge

        Re: disinformation

        At the 5 - 15 kv or higher voltages being mentioned it might make little difference how the meter is coupled to the power line, and at the current capabilities of the distribution lines it might be a bit difficult to protect the meter irrespective of whether it is magnetic or electronic.

  6. hplasm
    Mushroom

    Oooh Matron!

    Me receptacles! They're all blackened!!

  7. Jim 59

    Somewhat disappointed to discover this story was not a Stephen Fry outrage.

  8. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. Lee D

      That guy is a complete nutter.

      1. Martin-73

        Before I click, from the description, photonicinduction? He's a nutter, but an awesome one

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            That was excellent! I bet you could clean up selling fire extinguishers door-to-door to his neighbours.

  9. Joe Harrison

    Smart meters are for one thing

    When the power generating capacity starts to run out it means rolling blackouts. Smart meters mean selective rolling blackouts - home A can be targetted while leaving the power on in home B. What could possibly go wrong :(

    1. Justicesays

      Re: Smart meters are for one thing

      Don't forget, You'll be able to pay for special tariffs. Such as the "No Brownouts for me" tariff, better have lots of cash though.

      Yeah, when I heard that the alternative to investing in power generation infrastructure was "Smart Meters" I figured that was the idea as well, rolling brownouts. The increased spying and police anti-protest measures are being put in place to crack down on the power riots...

      My local MP's energy policy is apparently loft insulation, solar panels and hope, which pretty much sums it up for all the parties tbh.

    2. Lee D

      Re: Smart meters are for one thing

      If you want me to limit my usage, show it to me. We can all do this with a £40 gadget that clamps on the incoming cable, or a £10 gadget that your plug can pass-through into the wall.

      For me, the "shock" was more "meh". All the stuff I can't live without or afford to replace (heating, cooking) is high-powered and the alternatives are high-powered (but maybe a fraction less). All the stuff I can live without is so low-powered that it's laughable to suggest it makes any difference at all. And the stuff in-between is the stuff we change as soon as it becomes viable to do so (energy-saving lightbulbs, etc.).

      I could find out my usage and monitor it remotely and do all the stuff they claim to do - now, today, with easily-available gadgets and without having to do anything to my meter or be qualified in any way.

      The smart-meters AREN'T like this. If you want TO LIMIT my usage, you need a way to switch me off. And it needs to be in or specific to my house. But it needs to be controlled by you. Hence, smart meters are an excuse for just that action.

      As soon as I'm paying for something that the other side can cut off, I'll seek alternatives for when they do. That means I'll go off-grid if necessary. Despite hating solar panels etc. I would rather do that than let you put a smart meter in that has the ability to control even one circuit of my house. You can force it in, of course, because of the way the agreements to supply electricity at all work - you can gain entry and remove your supply or change the meter as per the contract we all sign up to. But that just means that I won't rely on it at all. I'd rather pay more for something I'll hardly ever use for those times when you do cut me off.

      Ironically, you then also want me to sell my energy back to you for a pittance, or allow you to use my electric car (not that I have one) to power the grid overnight. Sorry, chaps. All my arrangements for favours are two-way streets.

      Honestly, I'd rather go off-grid and then not even connect back to the electrical grid at all than mess about in circumstances of national "shortages" of electricity (which are almost all caused by short-sighted energy policies and investment in overpriced and wasteful technologies).

      This may, of course, be the plan all along. Solar companies currently get a LOT of subsidies for a technology that's not quite as profitable without them. It would take a cynic, however, to suggest that MP's and even energy companies have shares in said "green" companies to mop up the overspill and profit from pushing everyone off the old, creaking infrastructure.

  10. Peter Simpson 1
    Mushroom

    Exploding somethings

    Why would a smart meter explode and not a regular one?

    Smart meters are full of electronics and capacitors, I suppose. For something to explode, you need to have an expanding material constrained by a housing. Like an IC in its epoxy packaging, or an electrolytic capacitor in its epoxy or metal package.

    Dumb meters are coils and bearings and gears. The coils could vaporize and there would be arcing, but not much to explode because nothing's tightly contained.

    No, I don't really know, and maybe nothing actually so much exploded as vanished in a bright blue flash.

    But at least we have an appropriate icon.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Exploding somethings

      >Why would a smart meter explode and not a regular one?

      The old ones were designed by proper electrical engineers who worked in the power industry and built stuff to last for decades.

      The smart meters are built by the lowest bidder in China who could produce a document which said they were designed to IEC123-XYZ and built by an engineer who had a vague idea it meant to leave 2mm between power traces and the case but isn't sure.

      1. Dick

        Re: Exploding somethings

        "The smart meters are built by the lowest bidder in China who could produce a document which said they were designed to IEC123-XYZ and built by an engineer who had a vague idea it meant to leave 2mm between power traces and the case but isn't sure."

        My PG&E Smart Meter is from Landis and Gyr, they're Swiss in case you didn't know.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Exploding somethings

          And my phone is from Motorola, they're American.

          But the circuit board, battery and all screen is all built by the lowest bidder in China.

          I wasn't saying anything specific about Chinese manufacturers but old time power electrical engineers over built things, like old style telephone system engineers. Consumer electronics designers and manufactures - not so much.

    2. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

      Re: Exploding somethings

      "Smart meters are full of electronics and capacitors, I suppose."

      And batteries. Some smart meters can "phone home" over wireless networks in the event of an outage. That can give the utility operators an up to date picture of system conditions (during storms, etc.) instead of having to wait for customers to wake up in a cold, dark house hours later and phone the problem in.

      The battery technology used might be something similar to that used in exploding laptops or burning airplanes.

    3. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: Exploding somethings

      "No, I don't really know, and maybe nothing actually so much exploded as vanished in a bright blue flash."

      If so, then the power company now has an unknown number of customers who are currently receiving electricity without the financial inconvenience of their meter spinning around. That'll be a nice earner for the lawyers.

  11. Jim 59

    Not sure about the USA, but UK smart meters are a slow motion train crash. A huge gov IT project that is showing even more signs of failure than usual. A thing nobody wants, being badly implemented, driven by the mistaken but implacable idea that it will save energy. All evidence to the contrary being ignored, vested interests buzzing around like wasps...

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      @Jim 59 re:"A huge gov IT project"

      Are you sure? Just what are the Government doing to implement this?

      All I can see is them mandating that the power companies implement it through legislation and regulation.

      Get this straight.

      This is being done by the power companies, paid for through the bills, by us, the customers!

      This is no Government IT project.

    2. Peter Simpson 1
      Windows

      In the USA, there's a small subset of nutcases who believe the Government is installing smart meters to emit mind control rays and spy on what they're doing. This small group of people is quite vocal.

      We also have flat earthers, geocentrists and chemtrail paranoiacs.

      // makes life interesting, but good God, whatever happened to old fashioned thinking?

      1. Where not exists

        Old-fashioned

        "Good God, whatever happened to old fashioned thinking?"

        It went out of fashion.

      2. MD Rackham

        You'd know it was true, if not for the smart meters controlling your mind.

        I rest my case.

      3. Mark 85 Silver badge

        "whatever happened to old fashioned thinking?"

        One doesn't have to think anymore. Just ask Siri and she'll tell all.

      4. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        If God had intended us to think, He'd have given us brains.

    3. Old Handle

      Ours aren't alot better. We've got one of the stupid things here in California for a few years (not Stockton, so mine didn't explode). I can't say it's caused any problems, but it still smells like a boondoggle. They promised we'd be able to track our usage online, which never happened. And the meter itself has a digital display and a button, which makes you think it would provide some info directly, but the display just cycles between a test-pattern (e.g. all 8s and misc indicators visible) and some meaningless ID number. And the button does absolutely nothing.

    4. Solmyr ibn Wali Barad

      "A thing nobody wants, being badly implemented, driven by the mistaken but implacable idea"

      Fundamental qualities, if not prerequisites, for any large-scale project with a political support.

  12. John Sager
    FAIL

    Distribution architecture vulnerability

    Putting the medium voltage (several kV) distribution on the same pole (and above) as the LV distribution is common in the US and, I notice, in Oz too. Probably many other countries as well. I've even seen three voltages on the same pole, one over the other. This is very uncommon in the UK where 11kV and 33kV stuff is run separately to the local LV distribution.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Distribution architecture vulnerability

      Aw come on, I bet it makes copper theft so much more interesting...

      (yes I know we are not probably talking copper but then people mistakenly dig up optical to try and sell)

    2. Duncan Macdonald Silver badge

      Re: Distribution architecture vulnerability

      The UK network was mainly constructed by a government owned industry. It did not have to contend with penny pinching management and its engineering staff was good. Putting multiple voltages on the same pole was avoided (except for the case of a pole mounted transformer) as a matter of good engineering practice. Also in the UK most of the low voltage lines (240v/440v) are underground not the ugly overhead line jungle that you find in third world countries and the US.

      1. Peter2 Silver badge

        Re: Distribution architecture vulnerability

        The UK network was mainly constructed by a government owned industry.

        Actually, we had about 600 separate grids all running at different voltages until somebody came up with the idea of standardising a high voltage series of interconnects between power plants and to each grid so losing a power plant didn't result in a power cut. (After low takeup) the use of this was mandated by law and the government bought the main grid after WW2 when labour nationalised every industry in sight, but i'm not convinced government deserves the credit for our grid.

        Also in the UK most of the low voltage lines (240v/440v) are underground not the ugly overhead line jungle that you find in third world countries and the US.

        To be fair, in the UK that generally applies to houses built since electricity was discovered.

        Properties that are older than that tend to have power and phone cables delivered via pole instead of via buried underground, especially in the countryside on (or near) flood plains.

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge
          WTF?

          Re: Distribution architecture vulnerability

          To be fair, in the UK that generally applies to houses built since electricity was discovered.

          That would be around 2750BC, when the Egyptians dscovered electric eels? Or would that be 600BC, when some Greek guy described that rubbing amber ('electron' in their lingo) generated static electricity? Or, maybe as late as the 17th century, when scientists started experimenting with the stuff?

        2. John Sager

          Re: Distribution architecture vulnerability

          Lots of LV overhead around here (rural Suffolk), plus lots of 11kV overhead and even 33kV. Our supply is slightly odd as we have a big transformer surrounded by a wooden fence, and the 11kV comes underground from the 33kV transformer about 2 miles away. The LV is then overhead for us but underground for some other properties that were upgraded 15 or so years ago. The rest of the village has overhead LV fed by 11kV transformers on poles from at least 2 other overhead 11kV feeds. It's all a bit of a dog's breakfast really.

        3. Kubla Cant Silver badge

          Re: Distribution architecture vulnerability

          in the UK that generally applies to houses built since electricity was discovered

          My house was built in about 1760 and expanded in 1810*. The original supply was via overhead poles, but the whole village seems to have been converted to underground supply about 30 years ago. When they did this, they seem to have removed the supply from the pole but couldn't be bothered to route an underground supply into the house. Instead they left a pair of bare copper wires running on insulated brackets along the side of the house and connected to the mains by a cable laid across my neighbour's roof and down his front wall into the street. He recently needed his chimney swept, but the sweep wisely declined to go anywhere near the live exposed copper wires.

          * I suppose the later date is after electricity was discovered, depending on what you mean by "discovered", but it's definitely before electricity was supplied.

    3. Hugh Pumphrey

      Re: Distribution architecture vulnerability

      Although we don't tend to have medium or high voltage on the same poles as the domestic supply in the UK we do sometimes have all three live phases of 240V plus the neutral. If something causes one of the three live phases to touch the neutral, and your house is supplied via one of the other two phases, you can end up with about 400V instead of 240V. This happened at my parents' house about 30 years ago and it was quite enough to blow a lot of light bulbs and to fry the control board in the washing machine. I can not recall whether the electricity meter survived the experience.

      1. John Sager

        Re: Distribution architecture vulnerability

        These days Protective Multiple Earthing should obviate that. The path to earth via the neutral from the fault should have low enough resistance to stop the neutral from rising too much before the LV fuse blows on the faulty phase at the transformer.

  13. LDS Silver badge

    Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

    More modern countries switched to underground cables... less problems with snow, hurricanes, drunk drivers...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Coat

      Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

      but what about gophers, fire-ants,moles and meerkats?

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon

        Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

        Not to mention Council workers digging up roads!

        1. Justicesays

          Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

          Not always a benefit...

          http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-32150554

      2. maffski

        Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

        'More modern countries switched to underground cables... less problems with snow, hurricanes, drunk drivers...'

        'but what about gophers, fire-ants,moles and meerkats?'

        It's OK, none of those can reach the pedals.

    2. disgruntled yank Silver badge

      Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

      Ah, but if the local water utility drills down and nicks the cable.... They did it once in our development, and I came home to dim lights and an unusable stove.

    3. Peter Simpson 1
      FAIL

      Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

      We will never have widespread underground wiring in the Northeast US. Too much granite.

    4. Eddy Ito

      Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

      Nobody wants spend the money to move the roughly 200,000 miles of cable in the US grid underground. We'll have to wait until it's attacked by terrorists enough times to get funding from the congresscritters. Oddly, no matter how many times the power grid being vulnerable to terrorists (PDF) is mentioned there doesn't seem to be any interest in attacking wires.

    5. phil dude
      Thumb Up

      Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

      Here in Knoxville, TN the local utilities on campus have replaced wooden poles with really *sturdy* aluminium towers, which I think route internally (i.e. distribute on pole, underground grid).

      This is precisely because drunk driving and electricity theft have been a problem...(chatting with the odd Utils folks when I walk by after running...)

      Also there is enthusiastic weather here, and the odd tornado and astonishing thunderstorms do cruise by.

      The best piece of advice EVER I was given here was to get everything behind UPS and surge protectors.

      One of the less useless "geek squad" was an amateur game/cluster builder and explained that they often lose a transformer phase (causing an undervoltage) which will cause a computer crash randomly, lights to dim and fridge motors to make noises.

      Now the UPS makes a noise when the voltage goes from 115 to 80, but my computer still runs!!!!

      P.

      1. 404

        Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

        heh - south of you down toward Chattanooga - even my aquarium pumps/filters are on UPS's...

      2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

        "The best piece of advice EVER I was given here was to get everything behind UPS and surge protectors."

        This reminded me of the Tesla home battery story we saw here a few weeks ago. Apparently some more details are leaking out. I do wonder if this-connected-to-a-nuclear-grid, rather than loads-of-renewables, might be how everyone gets their electricity in a decade or two.

        http://gas2.org/2015/04/03/tesla-home-battery-details-emerge/

    6. jonathanb Silver badge

      Re: Just because the US still have an outstanding number of wires on poles...

      But more problems with earthquakes if you are in a part of the world where that is something you need to consider.

  14. Warm Braw Silver badge

    Really?

    "a more direct connection between the meter's electronics and the mains feed into a home than would otherwise be the case"

    Powerline networking or not, the meter's job is to measure both the current passing through the mains feed and its voltage and it can't do that just by observing from an adjacent building. I'd have thought the amount of coupling required to detect the power fed in through the mains is pretty much the same amount of coupling as is required to feed a signal out through the mains.

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: Really?

      You can measure AC current by simply running the wire whose current you want to measure through a toroidal coil, then measuring the coil's output; no galvanical connection required. It's how Amp Clamps work, and I've recently installed a set of power monitors in my main fuse box that also work like that.

      For voltage you do need some galvanical connection.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Galvane needed

        The galvanic connection is also need for the 1 watt or so of DC to run a battery and the electronics in the smart meter and the cellular radio system for communicating with the mothership. Works fine at 100-240 Volts, but a few milliseconds of 11 kV has it trying to handle 100 watts--will get really hot and explosive.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I wonder....

    If you could fry the electronics in these things without losing the supply and without directly interfering with the meter?

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: I wonder....

      If you could fry the electronics in these things without losing the supply

      Yes.

      and without directly interfering with the meter?

      Probably. My first try would be to run a Tesla coil near it.

  16. MrXavia

    "a government-mandated rollout of smart meters is expected to commence in April 2016, "

    Not in my house its not, I tried once to get one installed in the theory that it would stop the stupid bills i get when their estimates are off by £££'s or their meter reader messes up the readings!

    In practice, cant get a mobile signal in my house, so no chance of a smart meter...

  17. Colin Miller

    digital dumb meter

    Would the digital prepayment or dumb meters survive this type of overvoltage?

  18. Stuart Moore

    Driving under the influence

    the driver had been arrested, shortly after the incident, on suspicion of operating the vehicle while under the influence.

    Under the influence of what? I'm assuming alcohol, but this is the USA so could well be demonic forces...

    1. Swarthy Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Driving under the influence

      In USA legal terms "Driving Under the Influence" (DUI) is specific to alcohol, DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) is used when the intoxicant is not alcohol.

      As for Demonic Forces, that's when you see people charged with "Possession".

  19. Stevie

    Bah!

    Alternatively, given that this is actually an American story:

    "socket" is Britanicese for receptacle the same way that "lorry" is a quaint Albionic term for "Truck".

    And I thought everyone knew that smart meters are not about saving power, they are about making reading the meter easier. I wish to the great god Gasometer that National Grid would get their finger out and fit my house with a smart gas meter. I'm sick of them telling me they will charge me a fine for "refusing entry" when their bleeding meter readers turn up on weekdays when everyone is at work.

    When I asked about RFID meters (like wot the water company uses) that can be read from the curbside I was told "but that would mean laying off some of the meter readers".

    My last meter reading involved me clearing an entire Saturday, only to be called at 10 am that day by a rep telling me that due to dangerous road conditions they were cancelling all readings. I pointed out the day was clear and the roads were de-iced down to the tar where I lived, but the mere threat of an ice crystal or two was enough to stay the hand of the mighty National Grid Meter Reading Panzer Corps. Naturally I have been assessed another fine for "refusal of entry", requiring yet another phone call.

    No, we wouldn't like to lay off those meter readers, would we?

    Where's the Tylenol?

  20. Someone Else Silver badge
    Boffin

    "'Receptacle' is Americanese for electrical wall sockets."

    Well, sorta...we tend to call them "sockets" as well.

    Oh, and "garbage truck" is Americanese for that quint phrase "rubbish lorry".

    1. Eddy Ito

      Re: "'Receptacle' is Americanese for electrical wall sockets."

      I think it's actually a local dialect thing rather than Americanese. While I've heard the term it seems wall socket or power outlet is more common. Somewhat like the whole sub/hero/hoagie/grinder/? sandwich thing.

    2. Pookietoo

      Re: "rubbish lorry"

      "bin lorry"

      1. jonathanb Silver badge

        Re: "rubbish lorry"

        Yes but El-Reg isn't going to miss the opportunity to put a double-entendre in there.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A proper electrical infrastructure...

    ...would have overload circuit breakers to prevent this stuff from being a major issue. You can bet the company that sold the meters won't be held responsible for the failures thus consumer costs for electricity will just increase to pay for the damage.

    1. tom dial Silver badge

      Re: A proper electrical infrastructure...

      My recollection from study of the (US) National Electric Code is that fuses and breakers are there mainly to protect the upstream equipment. They would cut off the HV flow when (and only when) the current through blown meters, arcing wall sockets, and the like exceeded the capacity of the HV distribution line. The mains breaker of fuse at a house, usually on the house side of the meter, would similarly protect the service drop from excessive current flow within the house.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Strange explosive activity

    Sure is weird that we see so many things exploding in the past few days, things that normally don't explode but instead just melt.

    Oh well, probably not a cyberattack or anything serious to worry about.

  23. Mark 85 Silver badge

    Cue the Lawsuits...

    This is California afterall.... I guess those folks should count themselves lucky they didn't have "smart" gas meters as well. They would have ended up with more than just a few blackened sockets.

  24. Marshalltown
    Headmaster

    "Receptacles"

    " 'Receptacle' is Americanese for electrical wall sockets. ..."

    I don't where that fellow is really from, but "receptacle" is not "Americanese" in California. We call them "outlet" or "socket" if we're being formal and confound them with "the plug" on the end of the electrical cord in daily use - "put the plug in the plug" is occasionally heard. I don't recall ever hearing anyone - except my Canadian grandparents - call a wall socket a "receptacle." The US is big enough that there are regional usages, but still, "Americanese"?

    1. Pookietoo

      Re: The US is big enough that there are regional usages

      The UK is big enough that there are substantial regional differences, as well as three or four non-English native UK languages.

  25. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    Not nutjobs

    "In the USA, there's a small subset of nutcases who believe the Government is installing smart meters to emit mind control rays and spy on what they're doing"

    These people are not nutcases, any more than they were nutcases claiming the NSA had a large illegal surveillance program. I've never heard of some claim of mind control rays (nice ad hominem there), but police agencies, and these same spy agencies that have been performing worldwide illegal surveillance programs already, are drooling over getting access to this type of information (whether they have much use for it or not, they just want more and more information.)

    I don't think this is the INTENT of these meters (and I don't think the people opposing the meters usually think this either.) But, the US has virtually no privacy protection laws, and businesses don't feel any need to respect privacy either; so without a privacy law SPECIFICALLY restricted power data to the customer and the power co., I'm quite sure they'll feel free to sell that data to whoever. (I recall when these meters were first being developed, one of the first suggested uses was a Nielsen-rating-style thing to sell area-by-area estimates of how many TVs were in use.)

    The current use for this type of information that makes the DEA-types and police agencies want it, currently they will hassle people for running grow rooms only if they have an extremely high power bill (all that indoor lighting don't you know). With minute-by-minute info from these smart meters, it's clear what's going on (based on the power going up and down right on schedule). Of course they'd like this without any warrant or court order, to data mine everybody's power use.

    Beyond that, this info is accurate enough to determine when you turn on and off your TV (if you have one), microwave, washer, dryer, how much air conditioning you are running, probably when you are turning on and off the lights. I can't think of any nefarious use for this, but it's frankly none of "their" business.

    Finally, what people have found in these areas is the bill invariably goes up... 1) The smart meter almost always measures the same power use as using more killowatt-hours than the older meters. 2) The power cos will greatly raise the peak power rate (which is fine) but "forget" to lower the off-peak rate below the pre-smart-meter rate, so the best people could do by shifting all usage off-peak is get the bill back to where it was previously, the being able to lower the bill by shifting usage is essentially a myth. (And if I want to lower use by notice something is using lots of power and use it less often, I can see the meter's spinning quickly with any old mechanical meter; or plug something into a kill-o-watt meter for like $10 to measure actual usage, I don't need a smart meter for that.)

    Luckily, in my area, the extent of this technology is the power meter being able to radio like 50-100 feet, so the power company truck can drive down the street to get a meter reading from each meter instead of walking up to each and every meter and reading the little dial on it. (Usually, one place I worked had so much metal it didn't work... several times a year, I'd see the power co truck drive by, then drive into the parking lot closer and closer to the building, and finally park and come in to get a reading the old fashioned way.)

  26. John Tserkezis

    If this happened in select areas of Australia, where smart meters are forced, users would be jumping for joy.

    It just so happens, among the promises that power bills will get smaller, they actually get much larger.

    There are even some examples of smart meters blowing up "all by themselves". They are that hated.

  27. Conundrum1885

    In other news

    Apparently some smart meters include a little rechargeable (IIRC LiMn-V2O5) tagged battery to store the settings etc similar to a CMOS battery on a PC.

    Said batteries can and do explode if the charging circuitry decides to start feeding them too high a current for long enough and this is obviously bad.

  28. Unicornpiss
    Meh

    Failure mode

    It's likely they failed like any electronic device subjected to a major power surge--the power supply for the electronics probably failed, possibly with the capacitors blowing up. I'm sure the circuitry included MOVs to protect against most short-duration power spikes, but thousands of volts for seconds or perhaps minutes is way beyond what any protective circuits are designed to handle.

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