Victoria’s largest electricity supplier has denied responsibility for a switchboard fire at a house in Melbourne’s north, despite paying thousands of dollars in compensation.
Citipower says it is not to blame for a fire at a Northcote share house this year even though it paid to rehome tenants at an executive serviced apartment complex and in private accommodation for two months after the blaze, at a cost believed to be more than $23,000.
The company also removed the charred smart meter from the property and sent staff door to door within hours of the fire to inspect switchboards at neighbouring houses.
The fire, on July 26, spread up the side of the weatherboard house and into the roof, rendering it uninhabitable. On the day, an MFB spokesman said “faulty wiring from a poorly installed smart meter” had caused the fire.
But the energy regulator, Energy Safe Victoria, said MFB’s initial finding was not based on an official investigation. The regulator’s spokeswoman Sharon Rainsbury said a fuse centimetres from the smart meter had caused the blaze.
Despite this explanation, a senior MFB source has warned that Victoria could experience a “spate” of fires over the next decade caused by wiring damaged during smart meter installations.
A former tenant at the house, Patrick Howes, said he raised the alarm when he heard an explosion just after 6am. “I saw huge sparks coming out of the smart meter near the front door,” said the accountant.
“It was completely engulfed in flames and melting off the wall. The house was filling up with smoke so we evacuated. The only reason I was awake was because I was studying for an exam. If I was asleep I don’t think I would have woken up. The whole house would have been on fire in a matter of minutes.”
Citipower spokesman Drew Douglas said the company did not accept responsibility for the fire and could not have done anything to prevent it. But the company picked up the bill for alternative accommodation for Mr Howes and his flatmates as a “gesture of goodwill”. He would not say how much the company had paid in compensation for electrical fires in the past 12 months.
He said Citipower had removed the burnt smart meter from the house because it was damaged beyond repair and had inspected switchboards at nearby houses as a “precautionary measure”.
Citipower/Powercore has fitted more than 1 million smart meters across the state and began installing them in Northcote in 2010.
Mr Howes said a firefighter told him the meter had caused the fire. “I asked him if there were problems with them and he said there had been plenty of fires started by smart meters. And then he said something like, ‘But I didn’t say that’, or ‘my lips are sealed’.
“Then a Citipower guy arrived and made an announcement in front of Energy Safe and everyone else that the wiring behind the board caused the fire and that there was no problem with the smart meter.”
Energy Safe Victoria said it was called to investigate and concluded three days after the fire that it “had nothing to do with the meter”. It ruled that a service fuse, most likely fitted in the 1960s by Northcote City Council Electricity, caused the fire.
Ms Rainsbury said MFB’s comments immediately after the fire attributing it to a poorly installed smart meter were “speculation and not based on the determined facts”. MFB communications manager Jay Gleeson said it supported ESV’s findings.
But a senior MFB staff member, who asked not to be named, said firefighters were responding to an increasing number of fires caused by poorly installed smart meters.
“We see it again and again. The biggest proximity to all the smart meter fires has been poor installation. Using the wrong fixings, tugging and pulling on cables that should have been extended. It all comes down to poor installation.”
The MFB employee warned that pressure placed on wiring from poorly installed smart meters could lead to more fires: “In 10 years’ time we might suddenly get a spate of them.”
Energy and Resources Minister Nicholas Kotsiras said he had not been advised of any problems with smart meter installations.
“If this is an issue or if this comes through as a major problem, I will look into it but it hasn’t come to my attention yet,” he said. “When they install smart meters usually they find a faulty meter board . . . or other electrical defects which they rectify.”
ESV said one smart meter, out of more than 2 million fitted, had started a fire and 15,000 electrical faults had been fixed since the program began.