Kingman utility companies going digital with electric meters

More than 60,000 homes and businesses in Mohave County have, or soon will have, new electric meters installed as both power providers in the region have moved from analog to digital.

Neither Mohave Electric Cooperative nor UniSource Energy Services are using the controversial smart meters that are predominant in larger markets.

But they're not dumb, either.

Mohave Electric has moved to a system called Advanced Metering Infrastructure. UniSource is using a system called Automatic Meter Reading.

The key difference between the two is Mohave Electric's meters send data through power lines; UniSource's meters are wireless, using radio frequency waves, or RF.

Neither system collects any information aside from reading the amount of electricity customers use.

Smart meters, by contrast, have the ability to relay data to and from specially equipped appliances in the home like refrigerators and air conditioners.

The controversy over smart meters is that some critics believe they can tell the power company what activities are going on in the home and even how many people are in the home at a given time.

Others claim the radio frequency waves emitted by smart meters has caused sickness.

The RF signals emitted by UniSource's meters is far lower than what is typically emitted by a cell phone or Wi-Fi.

According to the company's website, AMR meters operate "at energy levels that are less than 1/100 of 1 percent" of the limit specified by the Federal Communications Commission.

RF emissions from a cell phone can be 10,000 to 550,000 times higher that what AMR meters emit, according to UniSource.

"There's been a lot of misinformation and concern about smart meters," said Tom Longtin, operations and engineering manager for Mohave Electric.

In any event, Mohave Electric customers don't have to worry. "If they are concerned about wireless," he said, "that doesn't enter into the picture for Mohave."

He said smart meters use a ZigBee chip, the "home area network" technology that allows for two-way communication between meters and appliances.

The meters installed by both companies comply with FCC guidelines. And neither meter sends a constant signal, whether through the wireless technology employed by UniSource or Mohave Electric's power line.

So why change from analog to digital? In a word: accuracy.

"We're upgrading all of our substations," said Longtin. "We've put in new relays tying into our call center to monitor our substations. As far as equipment, we've put in a lot of enhancements."

The benefits to these upgrades, from a customer's perspective, are that they allow for a fast response to outages because incidents can be rapidly pinpointed thanks to upgrades installed at substations.

Also, the data is placed directly into the billing system. Theft of electricity is also more difficult to carry out, which saves customers money in the long run.

From an economic standpoint, neither company has terminated the employment of a single meter reader. "These meters will still require maintenance," said Mohave Electric's Longtin.

Mohave Electric began changing out meters in November 2010, and plans to install 25,000 of them. About 2,800 of them are in the Kingman area. The work should finish soon.

UniSource, on the other hand, has installed roughly 40,000 of its meters in Mohave County. Statewide, about 95,000 meters have or will be changed out by the company.

For more information on each company's meter program - and for answers to any safety or privacy concerns - log on to Mohave Electric's website at www.mohaveelectric.com. UniSource's web address is www.uesaz.com.