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Are Smart Utilities A Smart Idea?

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Recently, the city of Austin, Texas, passed a law requiring all new homes to be built with smart thermostats. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “smart thermostats” are thermostats that connect to Wi-Fi and allow you to control the temperature in your home remotely — through an app on your smartphone, for example.

According to many utility companies, smart thermostats will improve energy savings because you can adjust the temperature throughout the day.

Smart Utilities Meter

Electric Meter by Angelsharum | Creative Commons 3

Here’s the Catch

Now, Austin Energy (the company responsible for providing electricity to the city of Austin) also offers you the chance to enroll in a PowerSaver program. Enrolling in this program is voluntary, but you must agree to allow the utility company to adjust the temperature on your thermostat during peak energy use times.

In other words, the utility company could move your thermostat up or down a few degrees (depending on the season) when they are experiencing heavy electricity use. They claim that this will help them meet growing energy demands as well as help customers save money.

The thing is do you really want to allow someone you don’t know who isn’t even on the premises adjusting the temperature in your home?

Control Issues

First things first. With any technological improvement, it’s only a matter of time before hackers figure out how to access the database or tap into the system and take control. Can you imagine the headache if some Russian nerd were controlling your thermostat?

Frankly, anything you connect to your internet is at risk of being hacked — from your refrigerator to your TV to your smartphone. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable exposing my thermostat to potential hacking risks as well.

Now, consider this: Do you really want a government-owned utility company controlling the temperature in your house? What would (or could) they do next? Will Big Brother want to control gas or water flow into your home?

My point is I understand that while — right now — most energy-saving programs are voluntary, I don’t want the government getting involved in remotely regulating any aspect of my home, including the temperature.

Not-So-Smart Meters

In addition to smart thermostats, some cities in the U.S. are installing smart utility meters on homes and businesses. Similar to smart thermostats, these smart readers allow the utility company to read your meter and see up-to-the-minute information regarding your utility usage.

In other words, they won’t have to employ a meter reader to visit your home and record your utility usage each month. With a smart reader, the utility company can gather this information any time they want.

Utility SmartMeter

For example, Boulder City, Nevada (best known as the city that built Hoover Dam) recently began installing smart meters at residences in the city.

Up until now, citizens of this small town have typically enjoyed lower utility rates compared to other cities due to their proximity to Hoover Dam. However, the city recently increased utility rates partly to cover the costs of installing the new smart utility meters.

The Biggest Risk

Many residents are reluctant to adopt these meters because they worry about their accuracy — how would you know if your meter is working properly? If the meter is having connection issues or simply isn’t recording accurate information, your bill might be higher than it should.

Not only that, but if a hacker were able to access your utility company’s database, they would be able to see your daily energy-use patterns or if you have a huge drop in electricity use on a particular day. They may be able to figure out when you’re at work or on vacation and take the opportunity to break into your home if they suspect no one is there.

Technology is constantly improving and more and more aspects of our everyday lives are turning to smart technology. I realize these improvements are designed to make our lives easier, but we should approach them with due caution.

Because the reality is the next time there’s a natural gas shortage, you may not see the president asking you to turn down your thermostat…

The government might just do it for you.

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