News 13 Investigates: Smart utility meters -- costing or saving you money?

Right now, Duke Energy is upgrading its grid and power system. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

Right now, Duke Energy is upgrading its grid and power system. That means new technology, but is that costing customers or saving them money?

News 13 is taking a closer look at smart utility meters after the No. 1 issue we’ve heard from customers concerns higher bills after installation of the new meters.

Customers saw two rate increases, one in the mandatory fee, which is now a flat $14 for Duke Energy Progress and Carolina customers.

Duke Energy also increased the rate you pay per kilowatt hour.

Per Duke Energy for Carolinas customers, “We typically share average monthly bill impact since it’s related for customers. With the most recent changes, the bill for a typical residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per month will increase to $104.56 from the current $103.85."

Per Duke Energy for Progress customers, “Current rates for Duke Energy Progress are based on NCUC’s final order issued on Feb. 23, 2017. These went into effect on March 16. The bill for a typical residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per month increased to $115.09 from $108.27.”

Why the increased fees?

According to Duke, “Recent work to modernize power plants and generate cleaner energy, responsibly manage coal ash and improve reliability while enabling more options for customers was at the heart of Duke Energy’s request to change rates. The investments included in the new rates are different for the two utilities, but include new solar and highly-efficient natural gas generation.”

These upgrades could also save you money, if you do the work.

Inside Rebecca Dimmery's kitchen, space is tight.

“That's the smallest double door refrigerator I could get,” Dimmery said as she gave News 13 a tour.

Hand-washing dishes is easier than using the dishwasher. It also saves her energy, but not lately.

“March to April $358.00, and this is a little 1,100-square-foot home. I'm here three weeks out of the four,” Dimmery said as she showed News 13 her bills.

She called News 13 thinking her problem might be outside.

“Let's just take a look here,” Dimmery said as she walked us to her new smart utility meter, which was installed about the same time that her bills escalated.

“I just don't think I'm using that much. They said, 'Well, it might be your hot water heater.' And that was just a representative who answers the phone,” Dimmery said.

The meters allow Duke to operate them remotely, but customers also get usable information in return.

“They use the same frequencies that you're currently using. They don't activate all the time. They only activate when they need to send information. And that's done at kind of pre-established points,” said Jeff Brooks, Duke Energy Corporation communications manager.

Will new meters cost you more?

According to Brooks, the meters won't cost you usage wise and, according to engineer and Green Built Alliance member Amy Musser, it will help customers trouble-shoot bill spikes.

“If we know how a house has been working and if something changes, we can also see how that change might be related to something wrong,” Musser said.

The meters give customers their energy usage a day after it's used versus the traditional bill a month later.

“What we want to do is give you more information and tools, on a daily basis, even on an hourly basis, so you can see, how am I using electricity now so I can make adjustments before my bill comes in the mail,” Brooks said.

How can the online account help you?

To dig into the data, you'll need an online Duke Energy account.

“You can even look at averages across various days and say, 'What day of the week am I using more energy?' And then you can start to begin to understand why,” Brooks said.

But how does looking at your usage by the hour help?

“We'll be able to analyze that footprint to data usage and actually tease out data patterns that will be able to tell us what some things are in our energy usage,” Musser said.

Here’s an example. If you washed clothes on Wednesday, you can see the spike in your data. You could then compare that to previous wash days. If it looks like your appliance is running longer than usual, you can deal with the problem sooner.

“If your lint trap in your clothes dryer or your venting in your clothes dryer gets clogged, it will take longer to dry your clothes,” Musser said.

It could also show spikes when you're not running a major appliance but something is sucking power. It's called vampire energy.

“Power that gets used by things like electronics, really anything you plug in, all those little chargers for phones and computers, they all use a little bit of power, even when you aren't using the appliance,” Musser said.

Duke Energy's website says a cell phone on the charger, fully charged could cost you up $2 a year. Now consider the average home has five chargers.

Checking for energy vampires

News 13 bought a Kill-A-Watt meter to check a couple appliances. Plugged in, without a phone attached for 24 hours, the cell phone charger didn't pull enough power to cost you anything. A Keurig coffee/tea maker, plugged in but off averages $2 year. A microwave in standby mode, that’s costing you around $4.46. Add that up over everything you've got plugged in and on average, homes pay 10 percent or around $100 a year on appliances plugged in but not in use, according to the Department of Energy.

“The 21st century home is often multiple people in different rooms with different devices, and, when you think about it, it adds up,” Brooks said.

For Dimmery’s budget, it's proven costly.

“They put too much torque on this pipe and it cracked,” Dimmery said.

It wasn't until her 2-year-old well pump failed that she uncovered the cause of her burdensome bill.

“I'd never suspected that, and that's what it was. If they'd (Duke) have given me some ideas on how to troubleshoot, but nobody even went that far,” Dimmery said,.

Had she known to look, her online bill might have revealed the problem.

“It was costing me hundreds of dollars every month, more than what I should have been paying,” Dimmery said.

If you have a membership to the Asheville Tool Library you can check out a Kill-A-Watt meter for free.

News 13 has done two other stories to explain how these meters work and whether you can opt out.

News 13 is also working on a story concerning the health effects of these meters, stay tuned.

Here are the top 5 energy vampires pulling energy in your home:

  1. Computers and computer-related equipment (modems, routers, etc.)
  2. Instant-on TVs (LED, LCD and rear-projection). Rule of thumb, larger screens use more energy
  3. Surround sound systems
  4. Cable or satellite TV boxes
  5. Household items with a clock (e.g. microwave, DVD player, etc.)

Got something you want News 13 to investigate, email iteam@wlos.com

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