Superstorm Sandy's devastating sweep across Fire Island allowed the Long Island Power Authority to make a little-known change to the electric service of every single home and business on the barrier island: Each was converted to a smart meter.
The change allowed LIPA to eliminate the need for meter readers, stop sending estimated bills and, in one case, may have helped prevent a fire, according to PSEG, which took over management of the system from National Grid in 2014. The new system also helps to easily locate outages and detect tampering, and simplifies new service starts, which are common in the island's rental homes.
Smart meters allow two-way wireless communication between the utility and Fire Island's 4,500 electric customers. PSEG said the meters pulse out usage information about once every four hours. The data are transmitted via a Wi-Fi network from meter to meter, to a central cellular tower that sends it back to the utility.
Some customers have raised questions about health, privacy and safety issues with the meters. But PSEG spokesman Jeff Weir downplayed those concerns, saying the devices emit less radio-frequency radiation than neighborhood Wi-Fi networks or baby monitors. He said the meters only send out a customer's electricity usage and meter number.
Weir said Fire Island customers can opt out of having the meters. Asked if there would be a charge for having the meter read, he said, "At this time, no."
In the aftermath of Sandy, flooding and other damage to around half of Fire Island's 4,500 electric meters led LIPA to make the decision to change them all to smart meters, according to PSEG. The conversion began in the spring of 2013 and was finished by that summer.
"We had no choice," said a PSEG manager who worked on the changeover. " . . . We wanted to make sure everybody was served by the time they got back for Memorial Day."
The smart meters replaced less sophisticated automated meters -- one-way devices that can be read by a worker using a mobile receiving device. "It's difficult to access those houses," said the manager.
PSEG said it wasn't sure whether Fire Island customers were ever told of the meter change. It took place when LIPA was testing smart meters in Bethpage, Hauppauge and along the Route 110 corridor in Farmingdale in a pilot program with funding from a federal grant. In those cases, customers were aware of the meters and some were given special time-of-use incentives with smart meter installation. That doesn't appear to be the case with Fire Island ratepayers.
"I don't know that we did any kind of significant outreach to folks on Fire Island," said the PSEG manager.
One Fire Island homeowner said a reporter's call was the first he'd heard about the smart meter conversion. "I don't think anybody should be installing anything on anybody's property unless customers are informed," said Jeff Greenside of Islip, who owns a summer home in Lonelyville. "Even if it's something that's beneficial, I should be aware of it."
A member of LIPA's board of trustees said he didn't recall the conversion ever being brought to the board's attention. The new meters cost $85 each, compared with around $20 for standard meters. "It's a complete surprise," said Matthew Cordaro, adding that he doesn't have a problem with use of the meters. But "I think it's very appropriate that customers should be notified in advance."
LIPA spokesman Sid Nathan called the Fire Island meter upgrade "part of a well-intentioned" recovery effort for a community "badly in need of upgraded and improved services." Meter supplier Landis+Gyr issued a news release about the work, but LIPA did not.
In the smart meter pilots, customers were given access to a Web portal that allowed them to monitor their electric use, see their current balance, create a budget and even get email alerts. The portal was deactivated when PSEG took over, but is expected to be back online before the summer, PSEG said.
PSEG said that in one case, a meter that stopped talking to the network prompted the company to send out a worker to find out what was wrong. The customer had overloaded the service, PSEG said. "They were basically melting their meter pan, and the meter failed," PSEG said. "We saved them from burning their place."
PSEG's Weir said having smart meters on Fire Island helped the utility make the decision to expand them. PSEG has proposed installing around 60,000 smart meters in each of the next three years in homes and businesses across the region, at a cost of around $7 million a year.
"The positive customer experience and the lessons that we've learned there have helped shape our plans for the future," he said.