Pa. gas-meter relocations have hit a residential nerve

In Lancaster, gas meters on Marion Street were installed outside, sparking protests among homeowners and historic preservationists.
In Lancaster, gas meters on Marion Street were installed outside, sparking protests among homeowners and historic preservationists. (THOMAS HYLTON)
Posted: September 03, 2012

A proposed new safety rule requiring Pennsylvania utilities to move some residential gas meters from basements to exterior walls has triggered anxiety among preservationists, who fear a proliferation of unsightly devices on urban streets.

Scores of commentators representing historical societies, neighborhood associations, and preservation commissions have submitted objections to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission, the state's advisory panel on new regulations, on Aug. 15 found so many faults with the PUC's proposal that it suggested the agency withdraw the plan.

"We question whether the PUC has adequately considered the proposed regulation's impact on homeowners and communities with historic character, an asset which these communities consider to be an essential component of their community," said the review commission, whose comments are nonbinding.

Some writers to the PUC were more blunt: "These ugly, monstrous things turn a neighborhood into a slum," wrote Janina White, an Allentown resident.

The PUC's proposed rules would allow indoor meters in houses that are in "federally approved historic districts or in high-risk vandalism districts." But critics said the terms were vague and did not include many neighborhoods that were in state or local historic areas. Plus, utilities would still have discretion on where to locate meters.

"It's such a drastic change to the streetscape," said Ben Leech, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. He said the PUC's proposed rule struck a nerve with many alliance members.

"A lot of people are concerned that the utility company would come in and screw up their property," Leech said.

The new rule is needed to bring the state's regulations into compliance with federal pipeline-safety rules, the PUC says. It notes that the mandate would affect only those meters that are connected to gas mains by steel service lines, which are considered more vulnerable to accidents.

Utilities prefer outdoor meters, which are easier to access and reduce their liability for indoor accidents.

Under federal rules, utilities are required to test the integrity of their distribution systems up to the gas meter, where their responsibility ends and the property owner's begins. But the utilities say they are unable to perform leak tests on indoor meters if they can't get access to the devices.

About 27 percent of Pennsylvania customers still have indoor meters, according to the PUC. But the percentage is higher in densely populated urban areas such as Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Allentown.

Philadelphia Gas Works says about 90 percent of its 480,000 customers have indoor meters. But in its filing with the PUC, it says only 24,187 customers - about 5 percent of the total - have meters connected to steel service lines.

The PUC says homes connected by steel pipes to gas mains are more prone to accidents during excavation, when work crews might inadvertently strike and pull the service line, causing a high-pressure rupture indoors.

Homes connected by plastic PVC pipes are less vulnerable to digging accidents, according to the PUC.

"Plastic service lines with inside meter sets do not pull away, since the excavation equipment usually severs the line immediately after being struck," the PUC said in proposing the rule. "The combination of steel service line and inside meter set is a high-risk factor for natural-gas incidents."

A meter "set" has two parts: the meter itself, which is about the size of a plucked turkey, and a pressure regulator, which is the size of large lollipop. The regulator reduces high-pressure gas from the main for use by low-pressure appliances and heaters.

One safety solution is to relocate only the lower-profile regulator outdoors, rather than the entire meter set. PGW estimates it would cost $74.7 million to relocate the meter sets of all 24,187 customers with steel service lines, but $11 million to relocate only the regulators.

PGW objected to the rule's requirement that utilities fix the meters by 2020, saying it would divert resources away from more critical gas-main replacement.

Peco Energy Co., which serves 494,000 natural-gas customers in Philadelphia's suburbs, also objected to the tight 2020 deadline. Peco says it has about 77,000 customers with indoor meters, including 30,000 with steel service lines.

Peco estimates it would cost about $60 million to relocate the 30,000 meters. But the utility says it could modify 85 percent of the indoor meters in a decade under its current plans to replace older gas mains.

The PUC says that, in the last four decades, there have been 65 "reportable" leaks - those causing injuries, deaths, or serious damage - associated with indoor meters. But the review commission said the PUC's explanations "did not establish a direct link between reportable incidents and leaks at inside meters."

Thomas Hylton, the Pottstown author of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns, who has been rallying opposition to the proposed rules, called the safety issues overblown. The new regulation is mostly designed for the convenience of utilities, he said.

"We've had these meters indoors for many, many years without having problems," Hylton said.

But Jennifer Kocher, the PUC's spokeswoman, insisted that safety concerns were paramount.

"Everybody has an opinion on safety," she said, "until an incident happens in their neighborhood."


Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854- 2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Maykuth.

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