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Blog/Opinion: Smart Meters – A Look at Energy Savings and Health Concerns

By HHI Staff

In the U.S., U.K., and a growing number of other countries, analog electricity meters (and gas meters too) are being replaced by digital "smart" meters that track ongoing and total consumption by households, then wirelessly (by WiFi) relay that information directly to the power utility at regular intervals. This theoretically helps reduce energy use and costs by letting consumers know how much “juice” they are using in real time, and saves the utility money because they can monitor consumption and allocate grid resources more efficiently. It also eliminates the cost of sending a human “meter reader” to each home to record total electricity usage for billing purposes. Smart meters not only send data wirelessly, but they receive it too. 


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However, two major questions have arisen:

1. Do smart meters actually lower energy use and cost?
2. Are they safe?

Energy Savings?

Ideally, knowing how much energy appliances and activities use and when, along with awareness of higher rates during peak times, should encourage homeowners to reduce energy use and costs, while slowing the need to build new power plants and preventing related pollution. Has this proved true?

Ireland's Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) reported that residential customers using smart meters produced a “2.5% drop in electricity consumption ... with peak demand reduction of 8.8%.”

In the U.S., the CenterPoint Energy Houston Electric and the Department of Energy found in their survey of 500 homeowners that:

“71% changed behaviors after getting data about their real-time energy use;
83% turned off lights when leaving the room or going to bed;
51% adjusted their thermostats;
93% were satisfied with their in-home displays; and
97% plan to continue using smart meters.”

However, in the U.K., a 12-month study by Dr. Tom Hargreaves, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, revealed that those with electricity monitors quickly forgot about them or were discouraged that they could only make small changes and weren't receiving meaningful support from the government.

Thus, smart meters do provide information that can help consumers reduce their energy use if they pay attention to the info and use it.

Smart Grid Benefits

Dr. Hargreaves added “the roll-out of smart meters isn't solely about reducing energy consumption - it's also about developing a so-called 'smart grid' that can support higher levels of low-carbon generating capacity … and other cost savings to consumers from the ease of switching between suppliers, [to] greater billing accuracy…”

Potential Hazards

However, the health impact from widespread use of smart meters is largely unexplored. Smart meters emit electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in the form of RF radiation but in a different manner than cell phones. While cell phones give off continuous, low amounts of RF radiation, smart meters give off quick, periodic bursts of it.

According to PG&E, their smart meters wirelessly relay data periodically for a total of about 45 seconds per day at a “power density” or intensity of 8.8 microwatts (mW) per square centimeter (mW/cm2) at one foot away; less RF radiation than cell phones give off pressed against your head.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an independent, nonprofit organization that analyzes technology, determined that the smart meters they tested pulsed (or sent a wireless signal) at a power density between 150 and 475 mW (on for 5% of the time, off for 95% of the time).

Other issues to consider are the number of smart meters located in a neighborhood or apartment complex, their proximity to people, how often the meters “pulse”, the way power and other companies differ in how they calculate and report the amount of RF radiation released, how people absorb energy from smart meters (and how it differs from absorption from cell phones) and how sensitivity among people varies.

These factors may account for why some people experience health effects from smart meters and some don't. Otherwise healthy people have reported health problems such as insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations, joint pains, and dizziness that started around the time their smart meters were installed. Other people are apparently unaffected, at least in the short term.

Apply the Precautionary Principle

Knowing that smart meters have the potential to cause harm, what can you do reduce your risk? If you already have a smart meter, the first and easiest precaution is not to spend too much time near it or its adjacent wall. This may mean moving your bed or other frequently used furniture away from that side of the home. 

If you don't have a smart meter, you can still find out how much energy you are using and reduce your energy consumption by buying an electricity monitor. Some devices, such as the Kill-A-Watt, are very simple and don't use wireless signals; you simply plug-in any appliance or electronic device and find out how much energy it uses. As an alternative, the OWL Wireless Electricity Monitor collects data in real-time for the whole house and relays it wirelessly (although it can be turned off and only used as needed). 

Information from smart meters can save energy by raising consumer awareness of actual consumption and by helping power utilities better allocate and conserve resources.

Still, the widespread adoption of these devices seems to have preceded thorough safety testing and long-term studies of health impacts on populations. More research is needed to answer the questions raised about these devices.


More comments and a rebuttal coming soon from:


Angel De Fazio, BSAT
President/Executive Director
National Toxic Encephalopathy Foundation





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Smart Meters – A Look at Energy Savings and Health Concerns:  Created on October 22nd, 2011.  Last Modified on March 11th, 2014


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