City officials shut off water Tuesday to a pair of Baraboo homeowners who refused to have smart meters installed on their homes.

“The meters, number one, are surveillance,” said Audrey Parker of Baraboo, whose water was shut off Tuesday. “They know how many people are in your house. They know what you do throughout the day.”

Parker told members of the city’s Public Safety Committee last fall that new smart meters, installed to monitor her gas and electric usage, had caused her to have heart palpitations. She petitioned to opt out of a city program to install similar devices that would transmit electronic data about water use.

However, city officials balked at her concerns and put her on notice that her water would be shut off if she did not permit the city to install the meter. The meters send a pulse of information to the utility every few hours to report water use.

City officials say the meters require less manpower to track use, and provide other efficiencies, such as more accurate and up-to-date information.

Parker is part of a movement of people who say the meters are the government’s way of keeping tabs on people. They say the meters send out radio frequencies that add to a person’s exposure to radiation.

Baraboo Utility Superintendent Wade Peterson said those concerns are overblown. The meters use a 1-second pulse every four hours to transmit data to a city server, he said, adding that the radiation from that pulse is less than what is emitted by a microwave or cell phone.

The smart meters also typically are installed on the outside of a residence, making them even less of a concern, he said.

In response to a petition from 33 customers of the Madison Water Utility, public health officials from the city of Madison and Dane County conducted a review of literature regarding the potential health risks associated with smart meters. The review found “little evidence” to support an association.

“I’m not in a position to dispute any of that,” said James Sheriff, who also had his water turned off Tuesday. “I’m as medically qualified as a toothpick.”

Sheriff and his wife, Darcy, have aligned with their friend, Parker, to stand against the city’s new smart meter requirement. Even though he says his wife has a health issue that makes access to a running toilet and drinking water necessary, they don’t intend to budge.

Darcy Sheriff said Parker has provided her with articles from websites that lead her to believe smart meters collect more than just information about a person’s utility usage.

Sheriff said she suspects the smart meters can monitor activities inside the home, such as how many times the toilet is flushed, how much the dishwasher is used, and so forth.

“That is absolutely incorrect,” Peterson said. “It tracks two things: gallons per minute and total usage. We have no way of knowing whether it was for a dishwasher, toilet or anything else.”

The Sheriffs contacted the Wisconsin Public Utility Commission this week to report the city’s action. Peterson said the PSC directed the city to turn their water back on Wednesday in order to give Darcy Sheriff 21 days to prove she has a health condition that would be impacted if her water was turned off. The city has since complied and restored water service to the residence.

The Sheriffs said they don’t know one way or another whether the smart meters actually pose a health risk or collect personal data. Nevertheless, they say it should be their right to choose whether one is installed on their home.

“Whether our fears and our concerns are valid is not at issue here,” Darcy Sheriff said.

Asked to provide evidence that the smart meters installed on her home monitor her indoor activities, Parker cited an article on the website americanpolicy.org, which is run by a conservative Washington-based think tank that opposes government policies related to sustainable development, smart growth and other measures that seek to plan for the future or conserve resources.

But power company and government officials dispute the claims of such critics, at least as they relate to Wisconsin.

“There are some meters – mainly used in California – that can interact with specific appliances to measure exact appliance energy usage,” said PSC spokesman Nathan Conrad. “These appliances must have a usage reader in the home and the owner of the appliance has the choice to share this information with their utility or not. We know of no such meters currently being used in Wisconsin.”

Conrad said smart meters not only allow service providers to more easily track a customer’s use of a given commodity, but they provide more detailed and up-to-date data that can be useful for catching problems before they snowball, such as leaks that could lead to water loss and higher bills. The meters also help companies and consumers implement “conservation measures, such as implementing rates based on usage during peak times or allowing customers to analyze usage and conserve on their own.”

A representative of Alliant Energy, which has installed smart meters on Baraboo homes to monitor energy use, also said concerns about privacy are unjustified. Alliant’s meters record the number of kilowatt hours a customer uses, and nothing else, she said.

“The meters do not know what kinds of appliances or devices are in use by our customers,” said Alliant Energy spokeswoman Annemarie Newman.

She said the radio frequency emitted by the meters is incredibly small.

“In fact, you would have to be exposed to the radio frequency from a smart meter for 375 years to get a dose equivalent to that of one year of 15-minutes-per-day cell phone use,” Newman said.

Peterson said 17 other Wisconsin communities use the same smart meter from the same manufacture as the one the Baraboo water utility has installed. He said more than 150 Wisconsin water utilities use the same type of system. Only two allow customers to opt out.

“The utility has been upfront and forward throughout this process,” Peterson said. “I think we’ve evaluated everything to the point where we’re satisfied with the system we have.”

Of the city’s 4,612 water customers, only two have yet to permit the installation of a smart meter, he said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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