‘Smart Meters’ Save Energy, Company Says

Energy, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

TORONTO — After installing electricity meters in dozens of Ontario apartment buildings and townhouses, Ian Stewart thinks he has seen just about everything.

Mr. Stewart has found apartments filled with illicit marijuana cultivators, multiple video duplicators and even catering businesses. “There’s no shortage of examples you could find in certain buildings of folks who are growing dope,” he says.

But the strangest discovery was a reptile farm tucked into a Toronto townhouse complex.

“The resident was breeding reptiles. Iguanas were just one thing. He had alligators,” says Mr. Stewart, owner of a company that installs meters and then bills customers for electricity use.

People doing unusual things risk revealing themselves through their electricity bills, he says. Marijuana growers and reptile breeders use a lot of lights, and their bills are sky high. The same goes for caterers, whose ovens are “literally being used all day.”

But his most common discovery is that meters are a powerful tool for energy conservation.

Once people get their own electricity bills, usage instantly plunges by about 20 per cent, even more in electrically heated homes.

That knowledge is helping drive one of the biggest metering programs ever proposed in Canada. Ontario has introduced legislation that would require individual “smart meters” that would measure both the amount of and time of electricity use in every home and business by 2010.

The move would cost an estimated $600-million, to be recouped from electricity users through their bills.

The goal for the chronically electricity-short province is to save a lot of power: For every five buildings with smart meters, enough energy should be saved to run a sixth building.

Most single-family homes already have meters that measure electricity use, so the biggest consumer impact will be for 1.5 million apartment and condo dwellers who don’t have them now.

Currently, only a minority of apartment dwellers see their electricity bills, because about 90 per cent of buildings don’t have individual meters for each unit (the figure is slightly better in condo buildings).

In most apartment buildings, a single “bulk meter” measures all the electricity consumed, regardless of whether it powers elevators in common use or a television in an individual apartment.

The bill is paid by the building’s owner; residents pay for electricity indirectly in their monthly rent or condo maintenance fee, but have no idea of how much power they use themselves.

In recent years, a modest number of individual meters have been installed in apartments by companies such as Mr. Stewart’s Stratacon Inc.

Tenants get a rent reduction for paying their own power bill, which is issued by the meter-installation company.

The landlord pays for electricity used in shared areas, such as elevators and hallways.

When meters are installed, people who run home businesses, whether it’s breeding reptiles or running dozens of VCRs to duplicate videotapes, suddenly realize their neighbours are no longer subsidizing their electricity use.

One of Mr. Stewart’s findings is that, in a typical building, the top 10 per cent of electricity consumers use 25 per cent of the building’s electricity. Wasting energy seems for many to be a “lifestyle choice,” he says, noting that his staff working during the day often find apartments with no one home, but lights ablaze and televisions blaring.

This isn’t fair to those who do save energy, he says. “Whether you’re conservation-minded or not, to the extent that some of your neighbours are wasteful, everyone pays.”

Then there are the more unusual finds. Mr. Stewart says that in one Toronto building, 26 of 250 units turned out to be grow ops, something the superintendent apparently knew about. The landlord, who lived on the West Coast, wasn’t aware of the goings-on. A new superintendent was brought in, apartments were inspected, grow ops were cleaned out and locks were changed.

Citing privacy reasons, Mr. Stewart says his company doesn’t inform police about information gleaned from the meter-generated bills.

But that isn’t the case with the landlords. He shares information about excessive electricity consumption because it’s a safety issue: Overloaded circuits in older buildings are a fire hazard that landlords need to know about.

Environmentalists frequently plead with the public to conserve energy for the good of the planet. But having your wallet whacked is far more effective, say those with meter experience.

The Masaryktown Residences, a non-profit apartment complex in Toronto, was one of the first to be wired with individual meters about five years ago.

The units are heated with baseboard heaters, and the manager was constantly pleading with residents to be careful with their thermostat settings to help keep down the electricity bill. But no one paid attention.

“No matter how much you tell them, ‘Please, can you save energy?’ they don’t care if they don’t have to pay for it,” says Sylva Calkova, the property manager.

Once the meters came, however, profligacy was out, frugality was in. Electricity use plunged 25 per cent. Residents turned down their heat when they weren’t home, turned off unneeded lights and closed windows in winter to keep heat in. “I don’t think it’s in human nature to save when you don’t have to pay for it,” Ms. Calkova says.

John Lawrence, president of his Toronto condo board, saw an astonishing 40-per-cent drop in electricity use after meters were installed in his building.

The condo had been facing huge maintenance fee increases because of high electricity use, driven in part by baseboard heating and air conditioning. The condo members voted to install meters on their own initiative.

“The bill soared up so high we couldn’t manage,” Mr. Lawrence recalled, adding that many residents were “merciless” in their electricity use.

Monthly condo fees have since fallen to about $370, from about $500, because residents now pay for their own electricity.

Still, not everyone is convinced that metering is a good idea. Ontario’s Advocacy Centre for Tenants, for one, is critical because it believes meters may not be a cost-effective way to conserve energy.

It has complained to the provincial government that freeing landlords from the responsibility for electricity bills means owners won’t have financial incentives to install energy-saving items, such as high-efficiency refrigerators or better insulation.

Before ordering meters for everyone, the Advocacy Centre wants the province to study whether energy-saving retrofits would save more energy than meters.