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LAKELAND, FLORIDA | Amy Adams had just returned to her northwest Lakeland home when she smelled something burning.

Adams and her family members also noticed theirs was the only home in the neighborhood that didn't have power.

She thought there was a problem with the breaker, but saw a charred power box and melted smart meter about three feet from her children's corner bedroom.

"The whole box was burnt up," Adams said of the November incident.

Since installation of smart meters began nearly three years ago, Lakeland Electric officials have replaced 178 because of overheating. Four of the meters, including Adams', actually caught fire and melted.

The meters are part of the 121,517 devices installed for Lakeland Electric customers. Smart meters allow customers to monitor their electrical usage online.

John McMurray, assistant general manager of energy delivery, said the fires were caused by a loose base where meters are installed outside homes. Because of the loose metal, electricity jumps through an air gap, heat develops and burning can occur, McMurray said.

The fires occurred in northwest Lakeland, southwest Lakeland, North Lakeland and northeast Lakeland.

"It's not a brand new occurrence," McMurray said, because there were fires in meter bases before smart meters. He said he did not have statistics of how many previous fires occurred in older analog meters.

Ken Eddy, a Lakeland electrician, agreed that meters have always overheated.

He said he fixed a bad connection with a meter and its base just a week ago. Replacing a meter can wear down the base and its wires, Eddy said.

He described what meters connect to as jaws.

"The more you fix the meters and replace them, the wider the jaws get," Eddy said. "Once it gets loose, it can melt."

The new smart meter technology relays information to the utility to alert it of an overheating meter.

An initial investigation revealed the fires were caused by a customer-owned base where meters are installed outside homes.

Officials said they think a third fire was caused by a lightning strike in the area, while a fourth fire remains under investigation.

The smart meters are under warranty, so the utility was not required to pay any additional money for the replacements. But Lakeland Electric spent about $50,000 a couple of years ago to replace bases associated with the meters that overheated.

"That brought us up to a standard that would accept the new meter," McMurray said.

He said the utility is looking at ways to better and more quickly detect any meters that may overheat. The overheating occurred during the summer months.

McMurray gave a preliminary report to city commissioners last year about the fires and the overheating smart meters.

He said he is still working on a final report to present to the commission.

In all, the utility has replaced 1,274 smart meters for all types of failures, including vandalism, water damage, no display, ants and improper communication.

That's about 1 percent of all the meters that have been installed.

McMurray said utility officials plan to talk more about smart meters in the coming months.

In 2009, President Barack Obama's administration announced the recipients of a $3.4 billion grant for smart grid work throughout the country.

Lakeland Electric was one of 100 utilities in the country to receive stimulus funds.

It received a $13 million grant for the project and $22 million came from utility bonds for the project.

The average customer will pay an extra 25 cents per month for the next 18 years for smart meters.

McMurray said utility officials want to show customers how to track their usage online.

"You can look at how much power you've used hourly," McMurray said.

McMurray said the utility offers a program that allows customers to shift their electrical load to save money.

Utility officials will talk more about smart meters at 1 p.m. Feb. 3 during a meeting at City Hall.

One new feature related to smart meters should be introduced by summer.

Currently, when outages occur in certain neighborhoods, a green light appears on a screen in the main control center downtown.

It takes officials about three minutes to determine where an outage or a downed line has occurred.

Now, the smart meter system will allow specific alerts to be sent directly to line crews.

That means it will be easier and quicker to send trucks to a specific address where an outage occurred.
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