News 13 Investigates: Duke Energy's smart utility meters not without problems

Duke is changing out utility meter with what they call a smart meter. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

Connectivity. In the mountains, it can disrupt phone calls, needed emergency help and, maybe now, your power bill. A News 13 investigation has uncovered a change that’s causing some customers to do a doubletake with their power bills. It involves a notice many will be getting in the mail from Duke Energy.

Duke is replacing old utility meters with what the company calls smart meters. But bad cellular service spelled trouble for one customer whose service was threatened to be turned off before News 13 got his bill fixed. And it could happen to you.

Picture after picture of the mountains' and national forests' awe-inspiring beauty isn't out of the ordinary here.

“I haven't taken a photo today,” Chris Baker said as News 13 followed him along the walkway to the side of his Transylvania County home.

Baker's daily trek into nature, pouring rain or blazing sun, to capture images of his utility meter is a different passion project altogether.

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“You can see I leave the door open because I come out here every day to check it,” Baker said. “I love this because it time stamps it. I know exactly. I can prove every day I've taken a photo of my meter and what the reading was on it,” Baker continued as he showed us his photo gallery.

It started months ago, when his Duke Energy bill shot up to more than $1,400, sparking frustration.

“It showed a total usage of 12,777 kilowatts,” Baker said.

That was for three months, and, if true, the Bakers were using a lot of energy.

“This was saying that we were using 140 kilowatt hours a day for 90 days in a row,” Baker said.

They would have to wash and dry 10 loads of laundry, run the dishwasher 10 times and have 30 refrigerators plugged in every day for those 90 days to use that much power.

Baker refused to pay, tracking the problem back to when the smart meter was installed. News 13 took Baker's bill to Duke Energy.

“Changing the meter out won't make their bill go up,” explained Jason Walls, the local government community relations manager for Duke Energy in Asheville.

In five minutes, Duke showed us how a tech unplugs the old meter and plugs a new one in.

“It's a lot safer because we don't have as many trucks on the roads in our communities taking measurements and readings all the time,” Walls said.

How smart meters work

Baker said, before the contractor left, he asked how the new meter works.

“They said, 'Well, it works on a cell signal.' I said, 'Well, we don't really have a cell signal up here.' They said, 'Well, that's OK, because if any of your neighbors do, it will daisy chain and everyone will be connected,” Baker said.

What does daisy chaining mean? Essentially that means your smart meter will relay your energy usage using an RF signal to a hub in your neighborhood. If you can't connect directly, it could send your usage next door or to the next neighbor or next one until it can get a signal to Duke's hub, placed in your neighborhood. If you have a cell phone, you know that doesn't always work. Duke knows that, too.

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“Connectivity can be a struggle from time to time,” Walls said.

It's not just the Baker's Transylvania County neighborhood. Duke also showed News 13 a recent installation in Spruce Pine. On the map, the red star is the hub, the green dots are homes reaching the hub, but the blue dots, nearly an entire stretch of homes, can't initially connect.

“There will be some customers in Western North Carolina who we just can't get connected to that cellular network who we will have to continue to read their meter,” Walls said.

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Big bills

The state's utility commission said between January and May, it received 30 consumer complaints related to new smart meters. In a third of the cases, the utility commission requested Duke go back and test the meters, and not once did Duke or its contractors find a meter out of compliance.

After months of back and forth, Duke threatened to cut off the Bakers' power, insisting a water leak was to blame for the large bill, meaning the increase was Baker’s fault and responsibility. During that time, Duke also changed Baker’s meter several times.

“You combine that with a mess of throwing five or six different meters in within a few months period and no one knows what the readings were on them, you end up with issues like this,” Baker said.

His bills showed Duke didn't have clear readings and never received a signal from the Baker's meter. Duke estimated the Bakers' usage, which the state allows as an exception, not the rule. Estimates must be based on recent usage, according to state law, but even that math didn't add up.

“I know we owe Duke something because of the three-month period where we didn't receive a bill, but we don't owe them this. This is outrageous,” Baker said.

When News 13 pointed out the issue, Duke agreed to adjust Baker's bill, making the average bill closer to what he’s paid in the past. His warning to others getting new meters ...

“I think that, if you don't pay attention, you can get taken advantage of by a large company like this, and I feel like that's what happened here,” Baker said.

Duke said it is not taking advantage of customers. The company said even if the meter isn't transmitting, it's storing your correct energy usage, which can be read other ways.

If you have problems, your first source is Duke's customer service. If you can't resolve the issue, file a complaint with the public staff at the state utility commission.

For more information on Duke Energy's Smart Meters you can click here.

News 13 is also looking into other issues with smart meters, including how you can read your bill and better budget your energy usage.

If you want us to investigate an issue, email iteam@wlos.com.

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