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LI customers fight to opt out of utility smart meters amid privacy, health concerns

A PSEG LI smart meter is seen on

A PSEG LI smart meter is seen on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. Credit: Chris Ware

As electronic utility meters for water, gas and electric services make their way into homes and businesses across Long Island, a small number of customers are fighting for the right to opt out.

The 60,000 advanced electric meters that PSEG Long Island plans to roll out from 2016 to 2018 will join hundreds of thousands of automated meters already put in place by water and natural gas utilities in recent years.

By 2019, PSEG plans to install nearly 180,000 smart meters in homes and businesses across Long Island, about 15 percent of its 1.1 million customers.

The moves have caught some customers off guard, touching off concerns about privacy, health and billing issues.

"There's no proof they are not dangerous," said Amityville resident Pete Duryea, who is seeking to have 12 smart meters already installed on his condo-complex removed.

Long Island utilities say the concerns are unfounded, noting that many meters use the same radio frequency as cordless telephones and cellphones.

Alan Seiler, general manager of Saks Metering, which has installed smart water meters throughout New York City and Nassau, said he's worked with the devices for 15 years. "There's been nothing substantiated to prove these concerns," he said.

Utilities generally have allowed customers to opt out for little or no cost. But one Long Island village -- Bayville -- charges a fee of $250, and another $50 every time workers must read the water meter, according to mailings sent by the village.

Long Island already has nearly a million automated, signal-transmitting meters. National Grid's gas division and the Suffolk County Water Authority have installed hundreds of thousands of electronic meters to automate collection of customer-usage information.

The National Grid and SCWA meters use one-way radio signals that travel out from homes and offices to be collected by mobile receivers driven through neighborhoods. The utilities currently cannot send data back to the customer.

PSEG's smart meters are more sophisticated. They rely on an extensive radio frequency and cellular network for two-way communication between customers and the company, with usage data processed frequently throughout the day.

The SCWA meter rollout, begun in 2009, is two-thirds complete, with 270,000 of a total 390,000 customers installed as of late March, said Jeffrey Szabo, chief executive. The 10-year, $70 million project aims to virtually eliminate estimated billing and provide customers with more accurate, timely bills while reducing staff costs.

Janice Tinsley, deputy chief executive of customer service, said the technology is safe, using the same 900-megahertz radio band as cordless telephones. The meters transmit no personal information and are limited to sending meter number and usage data once every 90 days, she said.

The American Cancer Society website says that because smart meters "give off [radio frequency] radiation, it is possible that smart meters could increase cancer risk."

But "because the amount of RF radiation you could be exposed to from a smart meter is much less than what you could be exposed to from a cellphone, it is very unlikely that living in a house with a smart meter increases risk of cancer," the cancer society said.

The meters also have been blamed for isolated fires, according to news media reports, and some customers worry that their user habits transmitted via wireless signals could be unwittingly shared with outsiders. Utilities say the information is secure.

About 50 customers have opted to keep their old SCWA meters and are not being charged extra, said Szabo, the chief executive. PSEG also says it has no plans to charge customers for opting out or getting meters read.

But in Bayville, resident JoTina DiGennaro has filed an affidavit with the village questioning its opt-out fees.

In December, she received a letter from village Mayor Paul Rupp and village trustees saying "all water meters in Bayville must be replaced."

The letter notified her of a "one-time charge" of $250 for "failure to schedule an appointment" to change her meter, and a $50 charge every time staff needs to read her old meter.

"We have received nothing new and yet our village taxes have paid for our neighbors' new meters," her affidavit states. She paid the fee, she said, "because I didn't want a lien on my house." DiGennaro said she's primarily concerned about possible health and privacy issues with the new meters.

Numerous calls to Bayville Mayor Paul Rupp and village water officials were not returned. Seiler, who is doing the electronic meter installations in the village, said about 25 customers have opted out so far.National Grid this summer expects to complete the rollout of its automated meter reading system to its more than 585,000 Long Island customers, said spokeswoman Wendy Ladd.

The system will put an end to estimated meter readings and to the need to schedule readings when meters aren't accessible, Ladd said.

National Grid will charge $7.77 a month for those who keep an old meter, but there are no other fees, Ladd said.

The system allows for a reduction in meter reading staff, who collect information by driving specified routes on a regular basis. Ladd said there's no need for full-blown, two-way smart meters for the gas system.

"The jump is much more expensive," she said.

Seiler, of Saks Metering, called two-way meters "the future," noting they can alert customers to unusual useage patterns that can indicate leaks.

Wireless water meters are here to stay," Seiler said.

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