The downturn in the economy has increased the number of tampering incidents for utilities nationwide. As more property owners are struggling with paying their electric bills, they're taking extreme measures to steal electricity.

JEA (Jacksonville, Florida) currently sees between 50 to 75 tampering cases a day. In one case, an individual hacked a meter can to pieces with a sawzall to turn the electricity back on. Property owners or renters also have removed meters and installed jumpers.

In the past, it was nearly impossible to determine when a meter had been tampered with, other than if it was reported by a meter reader, a lineman or a concerned neighbor. Over the last few years, however, JEA has been able to identify and rectify tampering cases through a wireless technology.

Installing Digital Meters

One way that JEA is minimizing the number of tampering incidents is by upgrading its metering technology. JEA, which serves 420,000 electric customers in the Jacksonville area, spent four years swapping out 750,000 meters with new digital technology and moving to a computerized tracking system.

JEA worked with Honeywell (Morristown, New Jersey) to install 400,000 electric meters and 350,000 water meters all equipped with the Landis & Gyr (Cellnet) module. After the meters were installed, JEA's on-call electrical team went out into the field, identified any problems and then performed the necessary repairs.

Honeywell had 30 installers who worked with JEA's six electric coordinators and licensed electricians. JEA elected to do a one-time-only repair job on anything that was not working between the weather head and the line side of the meter can. In the beginning, JEA had a problem with one of the manufacturers' products, because the meters kept resetting to zero. In one case, several meters showed 4000 kW consumed on a vacant apartment. Through troubleshooting the issue, the JEA team managed to correct all of the malfunctioning meters.

Overall, the workers made about 10,000 repairs on the meters. About 9,600 were due to bad meter lugs, which is what a conductor connects to inside the meter can. Another common problem stemmed from malfunctioning meter jaws, which refer to where the meter plugs into the meter.

In the case of the meter lugs, many times the component was burnt or wouldn't tighten up to make a good connection. The problem with the meter jaws stemmed from the fact that they were spread apart. If a worker installed one of the new meters with a polycarbonate base, and the box got above 250°F, then it would completely melt the meter down. When the installers put the meters in and did repairs, 100 of the meters were completely melted due to a bad connection inside the meter can. Many times, this was due to an energy overload. For example, a customer had a heavy load inside the home from central heat and air running 24/7, as well as cooking with electricity and heating water. If the meter wasn't making a good connection, it would just draw more electricity.

When the meters did melt inside the can, the residents would no longer have electrical service. After JEA finished its repairs, the customer was then responsible for the point of attachment from the meter to inside the home. Now if the homeowner has a problem with a meter, he or she calls a licensed electrician rather than calling the utility company.

After removing the meters, the electrical crew brought the old equipment back to a central location. JEA then took photos of every electric meter to verify the reading in the event of a question or concern. The utility company then brought them over to its meter shop and resold them to different entities.

Tapping into Technology

Technology has played an important role in JEA's continued meter installation and maintenance. Some of the techs in the field are equipped with radios in their trucks. These radios help them to verify that once they do an installation, it is working properly. Before they even leave the site, the new meter is already transmitting a reading.

In the past, JEA didn't have the radios, and after installing a meter, the utility didn't know whether or not the meters were working. Cellnet now sends the utility reports wirelessly. This verification can now be done at the time of the meter installation. They can hook into a computer, install the meter, look at the meter number and make sure the reading is correct on it. The wireless radio transmits every five minutes, and the on-demand reading on the larger commercial customers occurs every 15 minutes. In addition, about 500 key account customers are on a wireless telephone line.

About 36 cell masters or TOPS are scattered around the Jacksonville area, and they have about 3,700 concentrators or MCCs on poles. They are either on electrical poles or light poles that serve the underground electrical system. Every 5 minutes, the technology transmits an electric meter read to the cell master to downtown.

Effect on Field Operations

The installation of the smart meters has helped JEA's field crews in three ways: quicker identification of tampering cases, faster customer notification and improved field staff efficiency. The utility now gets a daily report without having to send a meter reader out into the field. If there is a problem with the readings or evidence of tampering, the system immediately notifies utility personnel.

When someone removes a meter from the socket, a flag will appear in the utility's computerized system. Whenever JEA gets one of these reports, the utility sends out a utility professional to investigate. When a tampering case is identified, JEA's team installs locking devices such as sealing rings on the meter can.

While meter readers were formerly the only way to identify tampering cases, they still play a role in ensuring that home-owners are not stealing electricity. Through the smart meter technology, however, JEA cut its meter reader workforce from 70 to 19. These meter readers read meters that are currently not under the network or are under the network but not reporting. JEA recently started up a program to visit all the meters to inspect and verify information once every 24 months. The meter readers make sure the meter reading on the system matches up with the number on the meter, and inspect and verify information and/or theft conditions.

Secondly, JEA now allows customers to monitor their electrical load on a daily basis. When the customers call JEA, the utility can send out a professional that can show them on a particular day, they used 200 kW, and another day, they used 500 kW. The homeowners can go back up to a year and print out a list of their energy consumption.

Finally, the metering technology has had a significant impact on the metering crew's productivity. When the meter professionals have to do pole cuts and disconnects, they can get to them much faster. In the past, they would only go out once a month or wait on a customer to have a problem with electrical consumption or with the meter. Now, JEA can quickly send out someone to disconnect to the pole until they get someone out into the field to make repairs.

The utility hopes to move to disconnecting meters remotely. With this capability, the field crews will be able to perform cut-ons and cut-offs remotely from the office. Currently, the metering team receives a report from the office from Cellnet about which meters are working or malfunctioning. If the meter stops working, then the utility sends out a professional within two to three days to identify and correct the problem.

By moving to digital, wireless technology, JEA is not only improving customer service, but also more quickly responding to electricity theft and improving the efficiency of its workers out in the field.

D.C. Rivers (rivedc@jea.com), a meter specialist foreman, has been with JEA, Jacksonville, Florida, for 36 years.