It started as a bit of a mystery.
It was around 10:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and the last customers of the evening were still finishing up their dinners when the lights at Cloverdale’s Vault Restaurant started to noticeably flicker and wane.
At first, people thought it was a not-so-subtle hint that it was time to leave – like shutting off the music at closing time at a night club.
“The lights would dim and go back on,” recalls Vault restaurant co-owner Aaron Hotell. “It was constantly surging. Customers said, ‘Are you trying to get us to leave?’”
Hotell said his staff were baffled; nobody knew what was causing the lights to dim.
Curiosity turned into panic the next morning, when staff arrived to find the power was out in half the building, affecting the deep freezer, walk-in coolers and refrigerators storing meat and food.
With thousands of dollars in food hanging in the balance, there was no time to waste. So Hotell called in an electrician, who soon discovered there was a problem with the smart meter installed at the back of the restaurant.
A BC Hydro trouble technician was dispatched to turn off the power to the building, and Hotell’s electrician was given authorization to remove and replace the smart meter, which had been installed several months previously.
The original smart meter was damaged – it was melted and covered in soot.
One of the four meter sockets was damaged as well; it appeared like it had been jammed into place, causing it to bend and crumple, something the electrician believed was causing the power to “arc out”, and creating power surges and the eventual loss of power to half the building on Oct. 16, Hotell said.
The restaurant’s power problem was resolved, but serious questions lingered.
According to spokesman Greg Alexis, BC Hydro has nearly completed its installation of 1.7 million wireless electricity meters, with very few problems reported.
There have been more than 1,700 cases where there was pre-existing damage to a customer’s meter socket, including eroded writing, improper meter socket installations and electrical by-passes.
Damaged meter sockets are usually the owner’s responsibility, but BC Hydro inspects them at the time of installation and offers to fix them at no charge if they are damaged.
“In this particular case, as the customer did contact an electrician to come out and repair their meter socket, we will reimburse them for that expense,” Alexis said.
“Our installers check the meter base during the meter exchange,” he said. “If they discover a problem with the customer’s base, we contact the homeowner and offer to bring in a qualified electrician to fix the problem at our expense.”
After media reports of fires associated with the program, BC Hydro commissioned a study of residential fire reports by Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis and researcher Joseph Clare.
It shows electrical fires have declined since new meters began.
Alexis said there has been no evidence where a smart meter has been the cause of a fire, and added the meters themselves don’t carry a charge.
Additionally, prior to the smart meter program, BC Hydro “routinely exchanged up to 40,000 meters per year,” he said.
Customers who do notice sustained flickering lights throughout their home or business should contact BC Hydro. They should also ensure that any modifications to their home or business that involve wiring is done by a qualified electrician.
Hotell, meanwhile, fears his restaurant had a close call – he wonders what might have happened if the problem hadn’t been detected right away.
“We’re talking about 240 volts – it’s the main power coming into the building,” he said.
The smart meter was installed several months ago, about the same time as a number of other businesses in the historic town centre.
“We’re questioning how many other meters were improperly installed,” he says. “With the age of all the buildings in the area, are we going to have more problems?”
Hotell wants assurance that other smart meters in the historic downtown were done correctly.
“I’d love it if they paid for at least my electrician. I just don’t want to think that everyone in town has been installed wrong. I just want assurance.”
At presstime, BC Hydo’s customer service department and Hotell had not yet connected to resolve the issue of cost.