Watthour meter tampering is one of the things that you will run across in your career as a meter tech or a lineman. What I want to do here is tell you about a few of the ways I have seen people steal power. I also want you to know that people are always finding out how to tamper with their electric meter. But first I want to define what meter tampering means. I also want you to know that this is not meant to be a guide to show people how to tamper with electric meters. It is meant to prevent electric meter tampering.
What is electric meter tampering?
Meter tampering means doing anything that causes the meter to run slower or not at all. It also includes anything that is used to divert electricity around the electric meter. Meter tampering is theft of electricity from the power company. Electricity meter tampering comes in many shapes and sizes.
Probably one of the most common ways that I have personally seen electric meter tampering has been to turn the watthour meter upside down. The question is does this work? Yes and no. It depends on what type of watthour meter your system has. One may think that since you do not have digital meters that turning the meter upside down will always make the meter turn backwards. However, there were some high security meters that had registers that would measure the consumption in the correct direction regardless of whether the watthour meter was upside down or right side up.
Most digital watthour meters now have a built in detent so that it actually does not matter. They will still register correctly. But they can alert us to meter tampering. Also, electromechanical watthour meters that have AMR modules only count pulses. So, it does not matter if the disc is turning forward or backwards the ERT will still register correctly.
The second most common thing that I have seen when people steal power is when they pull the meter out and put something in its place. I have seen people put in kitchen knives, copper wire, jumper cables and basically anything metal to save money by stealing power.
Next, people will try to steal power by tampering with the meter itself. They will drill a hole in the meter cover and insert something in it to stop the disc. This works because most of the time it is undetectable because the customer will only do it at night. So long as they remember to take it out during the day the utility has a hard time detecting that the customer is stealing power.
People also tamper with the meter by flat out breaking the meter with a baseball bat or something like it. This works but typically only for a month or so until billing figures it out.
I have also seen people put a switch on the meter. They tamper with the meter by using a regular switch to open the potential coil. This stops the meter and is generally undetectable without pulling the meter for whatever reason.
Customers also steal someone else’s meter and swap it out with their own. This typically does not last long until they are caught. Most of the time a neighbor will alert the utility if their neighbor is swapping their meter out everyday to steal power.
Also, I have seen commercial and industrial customer open the test switches on their transformer rated services to steal power. This effectively turns the power off to one or more phases which in turn allows the customer to steal all the power they want. This is only found by opening the meter base.
People also use magnets to steal power. Magnets work because they can slow down or stop the disc. However, since they are on the outside of the meter most of the time they easily found.
So these are a few of the ways that people use to tamper with their watthour meters and some of them do actually work and work well. But as meter techs and lineman we need to vigilant in spotting these things because this is our lives. If our company is losing money because of the power theft that is going on then we are not getting paid either.
What to do if you suspect meter tampering?
If you work for the electric utility and you suspect meter tampering you need to go out and investigate. Sometimes you may not discover anything. Other times you will. Your utility should have a policy in place on what to do if you discover meter tampering.
Detect Electric Meter Tampering
One of the ways that we can detect watthour meter tampering is by looking at the meter seal. The meter bases are always typically sealed with a tamper evident seal. This means that in order to open the meter base the seal is cut and can no longer be sealed properly.
Some power thieves just leave the meter seal off. This is a red flag to meter techs, meter readers and lineman. Missing meter seals means you need to further investigate. It may be that an electrician has done some illegal work or it may be that they are stealing power. Or, it could just be that people who are working for the utility are just lazy and forgot.
Another way to detect electric meter tampering is by having a good periodic watthour meter change out system. This means changing out and testing the meters, typically every 5-7 years. This does more than just keep the watthour meters accurate it puts eyes on the installations.
Yet another way to detect power theft is by using the computer. The billing system is a powerful tool that has tons of useful data. You need to be able to look at that data and determine if there are irregularities. If there are someone could be stealing power and it is worth a trip out there to check it out.
What to do if you discover meter tampering?
If you discover meter tampering and you are on a customer’s property the first thing that you need to do is make sure that it is safe for you to be there. If the customer is there and they find out that you have caught them in the act they may become hostile towards you. Your safety comes first. Next, do not let the meter out of your sight until you have documented what is going on.
I once had a lady come outside while I was changing her meter. I had notified her ahead of time of what I was doing. She told me that it was very dirty back there and that there were a lot of spider webs. Mind you I was not there looking for meter tampering. I was changing all of the meters on the street for maintenance. She brought out her broom and started taking down spider webs with her right hand. With her left hand I watched her reach under the meter and pull a paper clip out of the meter cover. She did this right in front of me. So, I followed our protocol and took pictures and turned it over to the authorities.
Make sure that if you discover meter tampering that you document everything. Call the authorities and let them know what is going on so they can take care of everything.
Meter tampering is a real thing. Customers will do whatever they can to try and get around the meter and around paying for all of their usage. Be smart and vigilant when out changing and checking meters. If you suspect meter tampering, go out and investigate. Make sure that you document everything.