Professionalism/Don Baker and Smart Meters

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The Sensus iConA smart meter.

Don Baker was a former engineering employee of Sensus, a company which develops utilities for electricity, gas, and water. In 2009, Don Baker was fired from Sensus after being recently hired to investigate reported defects with the Sensus iConA smart meter at installed locations in Alabama. His investigation revealed design flaws which could lead to misreported electrical usage along with house fires in extreme cases. In 2010 Don Baker sued Sensus claiming that they knowingly were developing a faulty product using government funds. The case was later dismissed by a judge,[1] but the information about the iConA smart meter has fueled various anti-smart meter campaigns today.[2]

Background[edit | edit source]

Participants[edit | edit source]

The Southern Company[edit | edit source]

The Southern Company is a group of electricity providers, headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, that provides electricity to 4.4 million customers in the southeastern United States. Alabama Power is one of Southern Company's subsidiaries. In 2007, it launched an initiative to upgrade its system to "smart meters" in order to minimize the need for manual meter reading. In 2009, the company submitted an application for funding through the Department of Energy Smart Grid Investment Grand Program (SGIG), and was awarded $165 million. On April 28, 2010, Southern Company signed an agreement with the Department of Energy regarding the funds. [3]

Sensus[edit | edit source]

Sensus is utility meter technology company based in North Carolina that designs and markets water, gas, and electric metering systems. Sensus signed a contract with Southern Company as a supplier for Southern Company's smart grid upgrade, and subsequently designed the "iConA" meter.[4]

Don Baker[edit | edit source]

Don Baker is an engineer, with over 15 years experience in project management, who was hired by Sensus to be their Alabama Project Manager for Southern Company's Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) Smart Grid project. He additionally aided in supplying information to include in Souther Company's grant application, and became aware that the iConA meter has not been properly tested and seriously defective, with a tendency to overheat and melt/burn. Baker elevated these issues to Sensus management and Alabama Power project managers, and was eventually terminated for refusing to keep quiet. He had direct personal knowledge that approximately 1 million iConA meters installed in Alabama homes were flawed and posed a serious fire hazard, and that Sensus and Southern Company were aware of the defects when they applied for the grant.[2]

The iConA Smart Meter[edit | edit source]

The iConA Smart Meter had originally been developed by Sensus in partnership with Alabama Power Company and The Southern Company. The meters provided the normal services of an electric meter, but also provided greater communication capabilities to allow integration into a "smart grid". The meters were installed in approximately one million households, according to the lawsuit.[2]

Quality Control[edit | edit source]

When Alabama Power Company received the meters from the manufacturing facility, they opted not to do safety testing on the meters, but did test approximately ten percent of the meters for accuracy. Although not specific to the Sensus iConA smart meter, the meters never underwent the certification process by Underwriters Laboratories or any other certified testing laboratory. The lack of testing was noted in the lawsuit, in which Baker claimed that the defects in the meters could have been detected in such a process.[3]

Alleged Defects[edit | edit source]

There were four specific defects listed in the lawsuit. The categories were:

  1. Electrical Fast Transient Failures
    This failure refers to an electrical failure when the meters are exposed to a power outage. Due to the incomplete quality control standards above, a test for this failure on the original devices was skipped. Later tests using a sample of the iConA smart meters resulted in a 100% failure rate.
  2. Flux Contamination and Inaccuracy Issues
    Several of the meters contained loose solder residue, which could have resulted in inaccurate measurements from the meters. According to Baker, some of the meters were outputting readings seven times higher than the expected measurements, resulting in significant overcharging for electricity consumption.
  3. Faulty Components
    At least 85,000 meters contained a faulty electrical resistor, and over 170,000 meters contained an additional faulty component. These components could have led to the catastrophic failures of the meters.
  4. "Hot Meters"
    Some meters were reaching internal temperatures of over 200°F, although these meters were still installed in houses. The high heat melted some of the meters and caused others to catch fire.

Fires[edit | edit source]

Two major house fires in Alabama were confirmed to have been caused by the Sensus iConA. There were also fires in other locations that were purported to be the result of a faulty Sensus meter.[5] An additional video can be seen of a fire that was started by a smart meter on the side of a house. These fires were claimed to be the result of faulty construction of the meters, rather than an innate problem with the meters themselves. In 2014, in Saskatchewan, Canada, there were several other fires reported that stemmed from Sensus iConA Generation 3 meters.[6]

Firing and Lawsuit[edit | edit source]

“[t]here are no other systemic issues on [the iConA meter]...Stop the rumors where they start...Do not send me or others emails about this."[3]
—Joel Denney, Director of AMI projects, Sensus

August 2009: Don Baker terminated, soon following email to Sensus Director of AMI Projects Joel Denney and AMI Region Manager Chris Testa with a photograph of a burned meter.
February 2, 2010: Don Baker disclosed information regarding his complaint to the Office of the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama and a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent.
May 25 2010: Don Baker filed a Qui tam complaint, a civil lawsuit brought under the False Claims Act, a law that allows a whistleblower to recover funds for the government.[3]

Complaints alleged against Sensus[edit | edit source]

These were the claims alleged in the lawsuit by the plaintiff (Don Baker) against the defendants (Sensus USA, Sensus Metering Systems, The Southern Company, and Alabama Power Company).[3]

  1. False Claims
    Baker alleged that Sensus presented false claims to the U.S. government that their project was eligible for funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) when the device was defective.
  2. Conspiracy
    The defendants intentionally submitted fraudulent records to obtain funding from the U.S.
  3. Suppression, Fraud, and Deceit
    The fact that the company's smart meter was defective to the point of being a hazard was misrepresented and concealed.

Legacy[edit | edit source]

The government refused to take Don Baker's case, and the lawsuit was turned down by a judge. Don Baker sued in civil court and won, and then Don Baker signed a sealed settlement agreement in 2011. [1]

Sensus[edit | edit source]

Sensus continued to develop the iConA smart meter family despite the lawsuit. Sensus meters were installed in the Philadelphia area, but were eventually recalled in 2013 after multiple house fires.[7] They were also installed in the Nevada area, in which 77 out of over a million installed Sensus units caught on fire.[8] Following the investigation, NV Energy stated that all future smart meter installations would use a different brand.[9] Sensus smart meters were also installed in the Ontario and Saskatchewan areas, but recalled after reported fires in Saskatchewan.[6] All reported fires were from the generation 3 iConA smart meter. There has been no reported restructuring of Sensus following these allegations, though some officials associated with selecting Sensus have resigned, using the Lawsuit from Don Baker as proof of negligence.[10]

Anti-Smart Meters[edit | edit source]

Even before the Sensus lawsuit was brought into the public light, groups had existed that fought against the installation of smart meters, with claims that they were unsafe for use, violated civil liberties, and produced inaccurately high measurements.[11]

There have also been claims that the meters output dangerous levels of non-ionizing radiation, although the American Cancer Society has responded to these claims by stating that smart meters do not output greater amounts of radiation than a typical cellular phone. They also refuted claims that smart meters caused other health issues, claiming that the radiation exposure to smart meters was significantly lower overall than exposure due to other sources, including Wi-Fi routers and cellular phones.[12]

Comparisons[edit | edit source]

Don Baker's experience at Sensus was not an isolated experience. There have been other cases in which superiors in management ignored or actively concealed known issues with a product revealed by lower employees.

McDonnell Douglas, Dan Applegate, and the DC-10[edit | edit source]

Dan Applegate was the director of product engineering at Convair, an aircraft manufacturing company. Dan Applegate was overseeing the development of the DC-10 aircraft. In 1970, he noted that a contracted manufacturing firm, McDonnell Douglas, was negligent in the development of a door locking system, which testing indicated could fail leading to loss of the aircraft. Attempts to notify Douglas of these design flaws led to band-aid fixes which did not address the design flaw. On June 27th, 1992, Dan Applegate sent a memorandum to the program manager at Convair describing these flaws. He described in detail the cause of the failure, and attempted to convince J.B. Hurt to intervene by mentioning the potential human loss as well as potential liability for the loss of an aircraft. Though Applegate attempted to halt the production of DC-10s with this design flaw, his requests were ultimately ignored.[13] On March 4th, the DC-10 suffered a catastrophic failure due to the door latch failure, leading to the loss of an aircraft with 346 passengers. [14]

Rodney Rocha and Columbia[edit | edit source]

Rodney Rocha was a structural engineer at NASA during the launch of the Columbia spacecraft. During takeoff, he noticed a piece of foam debris struck the wing of the spacecraft. Rocha was concerned that this strike might have damaged the exterior, and requested additional imaging from outside of NASA to confirm if repairs were needed. Rocha emailed his boss along with the chief of the Shuttle and International Space Station Engineering Office stating that NASA needed to use the Depart of Defense's orbital cameras to inspect the exterior of the Columbia spacecraft. His boss ignored his request, while Linda Ham, the Mission Management Team chair, stated in response to this request that there was no proof that this would be a safety-of-flight issue. Furthermore, she stated it is not worth pursuing as there is nothing that could be done to fix the problem, as the Columbia had no way to repair the thermal protection system. Rodney's and the Debris Assessment team's requests were ignored due to their lack of evidence. The Columbia spacecraft unfortunately incinerated upon re-entry due to the damage to the thermal protection system. [15]

Conclusions[edit | edit source]

Don Baker was diligent in his attempts to stop the Sensus iConA Smart Meter. He pursued the case until his termination from the company, and continued his pursuit even beyond this, filing a suit over the professional issues he saw arise as part of the wrongdoings of Sensus. His suit was not an attempt to gain compensation for his termination, but was a continued attempt at bringing justice to Sensus. The case, which was settled out of court, resulted in little consequence for Sensus, as can be noted by continued flaws with Sensus meters.

The case raises questions about the risks and rewards of pursuing something according to ethics or beliefs. Baker believed in his case enough to lose his career over it, while many of the professionals to which he has been compared stopped short of this outcome. Much like these cases, Baker's efforts did not stop Sensus meters from causing problems. This brings to question whether his choice to pursue the case was worth it in the long run, as it has removed his ability to remain within the company and attempt to make changes from within. The issue of balancing duty, possible outcome, and risk is one that must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis for many professionals.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b
  2. a b c
  3. a b c d e
  5. Del Piano, F. C. (2010, November 5). Kari Pyrtle letter. [PDF Document]
  6. a b
  11. Stop Smart Meters! Why Stop Smart Meters?
  12. American Cancer Society. (2014, September 24). Smart Meters.
  13. Fielder, J. (1992, January 1. The DC-10 Case)
  15. Gerstein, M., Ellsberg, M. (2008, June 3. Flirting with Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental)

9. Choosing the right product engineering services provider is crucial for the success of your business. Factors like experience, expertise, and reputation can impact your product's quality and time-to-market. Let us help you find the right partner to take your product development to the next level. [./Https:// Read More]

10. Smart Manufacturing: Why Its a Boon For The Pharmaceutical IndustrySmart manufacturing is transforming the pharmaceutical industry by enabling companies to optimize their operations and improve product quality. With real-time data analytics, predictive maintenance, and intelligent automation, smart manufacturing helps reduce costs, increase efficiency[./Https:// /learn more]