Wednesday, Jul 14 2010 07:58 PM

Vacuum shop fire raises SmartMeter questions

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ted Rawles, vacuum shop owner on South Chester Avenue, explains what happened when a fire started in or near his PG&E SmartMeter. The meter socket on the left is where the old device burned, and the meter on the right is the replacement meter.

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BY JOHN COX, Californian staff writer

Bakersfield businessman Ted Rawles learned just how much he depends on his SmartMeter when the one mounted on the back of his South Chester Avenue vacuum shop suddenly erupted in flames June 24.

For two weeks afterward his sales and service business received no power from his normal provider of electricity, Pacific Gas and Electric Co.. Rawles had to bring in a generator that cost him $40 a day in fuel, and paid an electrician $1,500 to repair part of the building's electrical system.

Things got worse as some of his customers were less than patient upon hearing that it would take longer than expected to fix their vacuum cleaners. As Rawles put it, it's hard to fix a machine when every attempt to turn it on overloads the electrical system.

Rawles said he is now considering hiring a lawyer to represent him against PG&E, worried that the SmartMeter cost him business and customers.

PG&E emphasized that it remains unclear what exactly caused the problem. A local spokesman for the company said Wednesday that the company has never encountered a situation where a SmartMeter started a fire.

"We've never had a thing where the investigation showed the meter was the source of the fire," local PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said. "They can be burned incidentally from a fire."

The episode touches on an issue of particular sensitivity in Bakersfield, where allegations of malfunctioning SmartMeters have turned the city into a hotbed of PG&E criticism.

There may have been warning signs that the electrical system wasn't working properly before the 6:30 a.m. fire. Rawles and a friend of his, offshore crane operator Ty Allen, both said the remote meter appeared to have stopped working months before the fire. Rawles said calls to the utility went ignored.

Allen also described unusual marks on the meter before it caught fire.

"It looked like it'd been hot or burned inside the meter," he said.

Added Rawles: "If they would've sent someone else (the fire) wouldn't have happened."

Boyles said that, except for the meter itself, the area damaged by fire is the customer's responsibility. He said that until Rawles files a claim for damages, the company cannot open an investigation into where the problem originated. Boyles added that power would have been restored earlier if Rawles had hired an electrician sooner.

An incident report filed by the Bakersfield Fire Department the day of the fire appears to blame the meter. It said department personnel arrived at the scene and found "a problem with the electric service meter."

"The meter had appeared to failed and shorted out causing arcing," according to a copy of the report.

Representatives of the department could not be reached for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

Boyles said the company will look into the cause of the fire as soon as Rawles files a claim with PG&E.

He added that he presented Rawles with a claim form Wednesday and showed him how to fill it out.

"We're gonna have to do an investigation," he said.

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