The Daily Mail reported in 2022 that electricity thefts had skyrocketed. People were bypassing their electric meters in response to rising energy costs. These crimes cost energy providers in the UK £440 million annually, which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that utility firms pass those losses on to the consumer.
Globally, the situation is just as dire. Cision Distribution performed a study in 2014 which attributed annual losses of $58.7 billion in the top 50 emerging market countries to electrical theft.
People steal electricity by tampering with the meter. Some of them slow the meter down. Others bypass it entirely. But how? They use the following methods:
1). Connecting To The Power Lines Before The Meter
If you live in the United States, electricity enters your home via two legs. But the voltage coming from the grid is too high for your home to tolerate. Therefore, energy providers install transformers along the current’s path that lowers the voltage.
The meter receives this current and transmits the power to your home’s circuits. Every time you activate an appliance, the meter measures the current passing through it to run that appliance. But what if you engineer a connection to the wires before they reach the meter?
You will continue to draw the current, but the meter won’t track your energy consumption because you’ve bypassed it altogether.
2). Using A Magnet
The experts at Electronic Design have noticed that traditional meters are vulnerable to magnets. They saturate the sensor’s magnetic core. You can disrupt the meter’s functions by placing a powerful magnet beside the device. The external magnetic field will do all the hard work.
At the very least, placing the magnet on the rotating disk will slow it down, which is more than enough to reduce your recorded energy consumption.
3). Swapping The Phase And Neutral Lines
- Find the hot and neutral lines. Usually, they are red and black. But the color codes in your area may vary. Consult a local electrician if you have doubts.
- Disconnect the wires. You can cover their exposed ends with electrical tape if they worry you.
- Interchange the wires. Run the black wire to the red wire’s terminal and the red wire to the black wire’s position.
- The meter disk cannot rotate unless the black and red lines are connected correctly. Swapping them prevents rotation.
4). Using Bypass Kits
You can tamper with the meter directly. Some electric meters are so old that any layperson can remove the cover and manipulate the dial to reverse the readings. However, it is worth noting that licensed electricians bypass meters all the time.
They do this when they need to repair meters in structures that can’t afford to lose power. The most prominent example is a hospital. You can’t disconnect a hospital’s power supply to fix an energy meter. Bypassing the meter allows the technician to perform repairs without disrupting the power supply.
As such, the market has plenty of bypass kits. Milbank sells a lever bypass that sends the power along an alternate route. Their website includes pictures of the different bypass products they offer.
Can You Bypass Smart Meters?
While some people may tell you otherwise, you are unlikely to bypass a smart meter. First of all, smart meters are sealed. Why? Because the meter belongs to the energy company. You’re not allowed to tamper with it without the company’s permission.
The enclosure prevents consumers from accessing the meter; they can tell if you do. You can’t even insert foreign objects into the device. Secondly, smart meters have detection systems that alert the energy provider when you interfere with their functions.
You can’t bypass the current on the live channel because the meter compares the live current to the current on the neutral channel. A single-phase meter will know something is wrong if the currents don’t match.
With three-phase meters, it should detect a zero neutral current. Large currents on the neutral channel are signs of trouble. But what about magnetic tampering? People use external magnetic fields to attack the current transformer core.
But energy providers are well aware of this vulnerability. Some of them include shields that lower the impact of an external magnet. Others use distinct designs that make it difficult to place a magnet within the current transformer core’s proximity.
The best option is to use a Rogowski coil instead of current transformers. If your energy provider included a magnetic field sensor, you’re out of luck because the sensor will detect the magnetic field from the external magnet, sending out an alert.
These are just a few of the technologies manufacturers use to prevent consumers from tampering with smart meters. Don’t be surprised if your utility company’s meter prefers to measure the voltage across a shunt resistor.
Engineers are continuously innovating new anti-theft mechanisms. Many of the bypass methods that worked a decade ago are ineffective today. This is why some laypeople are hesitant to adopt smart meters.
A utility provider cannot force you to install a smart meter. They can offer you a free upgrade, but you have the right to reject it. Although, this is not true for every country. In some locations, smart meters are mandatory specifically because they prevent electricity theft.
What Are The Consequences Of Bypassing An Electric Meter?
You can check a picture of an electric meter with a blue sealed tag. Breaking the seal shows that you tampered with the electric meter. The meter reader will know the next time they visit your home. Additionally, smart meters will alert the utility provider to any attempts at bypassing the device. And even if you succeed, they will notice that the meter has stopped recording your energy consumption. They will send a technician to your home because they think a blackout has occurred. But a thorough inspection will reveal what you did, and that’s a problem because bypassing an electric meter attracts various consequences, including the following:
1). You May Suffer Fatal Shocks And Burns
Tapping into the power lines before they reach the electric meter is a bad idea because you have no defense from the shocks and burns you may suffer as a result. The 120 or 220 volts that will surge through your body when you touch the wrong wire are more than enough to kill you.
2). You Will Start A Fire
Tampering with the meter may start a fire. It only takes one spark to ignite a fire strong enough to burn your house down. Don’t expect your insurer to accept your claim. After all, the fire started because of your negligent actions. They are more likely to report you to the authorities.
Stay-Energy-Safe wants consumers to report the cases of energy theft they encounter because any fires that start can spread to neighboring houses, putting other people’s lives at risk.
3). You Will Affect The Power Quality
A paper from the “Center of Excellence In Smart Grids and the Federal University of Itajuba” believes that electricity theft can affect power quality. This is because electricity thieves tend to consume more energy.
Multiple electricity thieves in the same area will strain the transformer, increasing the chances of an overload or creating a voltage imbalance.
4). The Law Will Punish You
Bypassing the meter is illegal. In the UK, you may spend five years in prison for this crime. That doesn’t include the financial penalties you will incur. You will pay six times your financial gain.
These penalties sound harsh. Government bodies enforce them because electrical theft is dangerous. Telegraph and Argus reported a story in 2014 in which a flat in the UK (Ayton Close Barkerend) caught fire.
Three police officers suffered smoke inhalation while pulling a man from the burning structure. The fire service blamed the incident on a bypassed electric meter. Therefore, you shouldn’t take any chances. The local authorities won’t show you mercy, especially if someone dies.
If your electric bills a too high, use legal methods to lower the energy consumption. That includes the following:
- Get CFLs and LEDs. Incandescent lights are inefficient. They consume too much energy. LEDs don’t waste energy as heat. They will lower your utility bill.
- Unplug devices you don’t use. Modern appliances consume energy even after you switch them off because you haven’t fully deactivated them. Instead, they’ve entered standby mode. Unplug them to reduce the impact of vampire energy on your electric bill. If you usually forget to unplug appliances, use a smart power strip that automatically disconnects devices when they enter standby mode.
- Replace old devices with modern, energy-efficient products with a decent Energy Star rating.
- Use smart thermometers. You can program them to deactivate the air conditioner when you leave home.