Radio-Activity in Your Home

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Reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose, rethink, repair, repot, regift and above all, be green; all great ideas, not all easy to accomplish. The heart of the matter is energy reduction. Everything designed, manufactured, shipped (and occasionally plugged in) requires copious amounts of energy along the way. Applying the multiple “R”s can reduce the amount of energy used the second, third and fourth time around the block.

Some of the “R”s are now second nature to most of us. We separate paper, plastics, and compostables from our landfill trash. We might use CFLs and even attempt to take shorter showers. However, there is a new method that starts right outside of your house: the electric meter. Here in California, there’s a new version called the SmartMeter™ (from PG&E).  

A Smart Meter™ replaces your old meter and has a digital readout to clearly show how many kilowatt hours you’ve consumed. Throughout the day it occasionally broadcasts your data by radio to a nearby receiver for collection. By digitizing and tracking your power usage, manual readings are eliminated, errors can be reduced and you can monitor the data and track your personal usage.  Sounds like a good way to begin to reduce energy consumption by seeing how much you actually use daily. It’s estimated that these types of meters will save the US about save $13.6 billion per year in energy savings. Worldwide there are over 90 million already installed.

Unfortunately here in California, there’s been a wee bit of a controversy surrounding their installation. The controversy stems from two points: the accuracy of the reading and the radio signals that are used to transmit your data. The accuracy problem has been roughly addressed by the findings that some meters do not read correctly when the outside temperature is high. Those meters are being replaced. But the radio signal issue is still causing concern for some people. Since part of my background is in electrical engineering (specifically optical and radio communications) I thought I’d try to shed some light on the issue of radio signals in the home and show the SmartMeter™ is A-OK.  

First off, some technical matters: Radio signals are electromagnetic radiation that’s invisible and can pass through air, walls and windows. Signals are described by frequency (think radio station 88.5 MHz), method of modulation (FM or AM) and their strength (strong or weak). The strength of a signal diminishes the further from the transmitter you’re located (double your distance and you only get ¼ the signal strength). Want less cell phone radiation in your brain? Hold it a few feet from your ear.

So what are some signals we find in and about our homes? Actually there are plenty: satellite radio/navigation/phone, terrestrial broadcast radio/television, cellular telephony/pagers, Bluetooth devices and WiFi networks, radio controlled toys, radar and navigation devices for planes, boats and police, anything with a microprocessor (computer, TV, IPOD, printer), microwave ovens, electronic dimmers, fluorescent lights, garage door openers, key fobs and even natural sources like lighting. We are bathed in this soup of radiation (feeling warmer all of a sudden?). But have no fear. The levels are all so low that even combined, the effects are truly insignificant. One reason is that man-made signals are highly regulated by the government not to emit above a certain power level. And frankly, no one likes interference, so there is even some self policing of power levels by manufacturers to make sure products work fine.

Of course, even light is electromagnetic radiation. And fortunately for us, our eyes are sensitive to it so we can see our way around during the day.  But for most radio signals or electromagnetic radiation, unless you wrap your home in aluminum foil (or don one of those crazy foil hats) you simply co-exist. And since a device like the SmartMeter™ only transmits for about 45 seconds a day, according to PG&E: “You’d have to have one of our meters on your home or business for more than 1,000 years to get as much exposure to radio waves as a typical cell phone user gets in just one month.” That still might not make a few people comfortable. But even if you try and eliminate all sources of radio signals from your home, you’ll still have plenty more coming from your neighbors and the sky.

So all in all, the SmartMeter™ is a harmless. In fact it is a good thing. By providing you with significant and useful data, it can help you monitor and hopefully even reduce your energy use. In combination with it, you can also replace your old light bulbs, use dimmers where possible, and turn off lights and appliances when not in use. If you own your own place, replace older appliances with newer, insulate attics, and seal cracks and gaps in your walls and floors. All of this will not only lower your bills but will make your home and the world a more enjoyable place.

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2 Responses to Radio-Activity in Your Home

  1. Jeni Quigg says:

    My landlord just now, was afraid to go in the room with all the smart meters! I’ll pass this on.
    Thanks again D!

  2. mcnopa says:

    I really like my SmartMeter. It allows me to monitor the energy I use and see how it changes over time. I’ve modified lots of energy use practices without compromising my lifestyle. Finally, I can get my key back from PG&E as they no longer have to get into my storage to read my meter ever again!

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