Preventing the unauthorised use of electricity, as we call it at the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC), has gained significant momentum over the last three years. The decision made in 2000 by the former IEC director general to start addressing the phenomenon of electricity theft with the seriousness it deserves led to the formation of a pilot programme.
Within the scope of the programme, the largest operational region in the IEC’s northern district, the Afula region – which serves over 100,000 customers – was entrusted with training and overseeing a group of employees who specialise in revenue protection. The pilot aimed to ascertain whether allocating employees and resources to pinpoint, verify and collect revenue is worthwhile.
The group consisted of two knowledgeable employees who were experienced in reading meters and performing activities in the field, and an office worker who was trained to make the calculations to establish how much electricity had been stolen. This was necessary when conducting negotiations with customers regarding the refund that would be claimed from them.
The results were above expectations. They led to management’s decision to formalise the handling of the unauthorised use of electricity, and to set up specialised units in each of the IEC’s administrative regions.
CALCULATING THE VALUE OF THE LOSS
The issue of calculating the scope of electricity theft is problematic, since in many cases it is based on an estimate of electricity consumption in the apartment, building or commercial entity. Electricity thieves have two main methods of operating: meter tampering or bypassing the grid, which results in the power used not being reflected in the consumption records. We calculate consumption during the theft period by checking past consumption data, or by recording the consumption for a certain period of time after the theft is discovered and the meter has been changed or the bypass removed.
Those who steal electricity are inclined to use it lavishly, which means that relying on previous consumption averages is far from realistic. We have come across many cases when we submitted an invoice and the customer paid it without batting an eyelid – in other words, he got a ‘good deal’. We have often come across customers who continue to steal electricity after they have been caught doing so, because of the ‘low invoice’ they received. There have been quite a few instances where delinquent customers realised that they would be billed for future consumption, and did everything in their power – even at the price of relinquishing comfort by switching off air conditioning or heating – to prove to us that their consumption, both before and after the meter was changed, was similar.
During the course of our work, we often became suspicious that electricity was being stolen at a particular location, or we received information to that effect. Sometimes we conducted secret tests that did not reveal any suspicious findings, but we still felt the electrical consumption recorded on the meter did not appear reasonable, considering the size of the building or the equipment installed (air conditioners, swimming pool, lighting facilities and so forth).
As a result, we were asked to find a method that would enable us to verify our suspicions before we submitted a claim to a customer. Moreover, caution and secrecy were necessary to prevent the suspicious customer from realising that we were on his track and disposing of any trace of electricity theft. We have learned that the safest way is by measuring and comparing the customer’s meter readings to the amount of electricity supplied to him from the grid. Our employees designed an improvised ‘check meter’, which was hidden in a connection box placed at the top of the electricity pole supplying the customer’s facility.
This ‘check meter’ quickly yielded impressive results. It demonstrated the true extent of the power used, and the refunded revenue grew. The drawbacks, however, were obvious – the device was awkward, cumbersome to install and stood out from a distance. Moreover, in order to read the meter, it was necessary to climb the pole and open the box in which it was installed.
During a visit I made to ComEd’s meter system at the company’s commercial headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, I was shown a new type of check meter which is being used by ComEd’s revenue protection unit. Its small dimensions and the option of reading consumption by remote control make it unique. The meter can be installed on any type of electric pole, in connection boxes and meter cabinets. ComEd personnel’s opinion was very positive.
Since equipment of this kind was not being used at the IEC, I recommended that its performance should be tested within the scope of the activities of the specialised unit in the region. In order to assist with decision-making, I conducted a survey among the members of the IURPA (International Utilities Revenue Protection Association). Through the good offices of Woody Woodward, who serves as the association’s Webmaster, I asked members to respond to several questions:
- Are check meters routinely being used, and how many units are used?
- How frequently are check meters used and in which cases?
- What is the success rate in court as a result of presenting check meter data?
- What are the customers’ reactions to the meters’ findings?
There were dozens of responses, and the results were unequivocal. Most of the organisations employing a check meter recommended it as an essential revenue protection tool. Respondents commented on its convenient use, the significant contribution it makes toward collecting revenue and, primarily, the ability it offers to present the customer with clear proof of the scope of electricity theft. This usually makes it possible to avoid the need to resort to the courts. The users pointed out that the cost of the check meter is recouped within a relatively short time. While opinions concerning the meters used by ComEd were very positive, several users said they also planned to test a check meter that is read by means of a cellular phone.
The specifications of the check meter and the results of the survey were presented to IEC decision-makers, who agreed that the meters should be tested. The IEC national meter department checked the technical specifications and their compatibility to the standards used in the State of Israel and at the IEC, and we purchased 12 meters that can be used for both single and polyphase metering.
THE PILOT BEGINS
The meters arrived in May 2003 and were delivered to the specialised unit in the Afula area for the pilot. We are pleased to say that within approximately four months, the greater part of the meters’ cost has been recouped.
The team of investigators from the unit is licensed to implement grid-related tasks independently, enabling them to install the check meters without involving any other technical units. The meters were installed in all possible configurations, to enable the team to thoroughly test the method of connecting the meter’s components to an exposed grid and to an insulated grid. In addition the quality of the meter’s transmission and data reception by remote control was tested.
No problems in connecting the meter to an exposed upper grid or to an accumulation strip in connection boxes or meter cabinets were identified. Problems arose – and have yet to be solved – when the meter was connected to an insulated grid (partial reading due to a faulty connection of a phase or two to the grid).
The decision regarding the need to set up a check meter is impacted by two key needs:
- A strong likelihood of electricity theft. In this case, the meter will serve as a tool to measure the extent of the theft and the ensuing data will form a solid basis for calculating revenue
- Suspected electricity thefts. Here the check meter will serve as a tool for verifying the suspicion, and of course for calculating the scope of the theft.
There are various types of check meter on the market, and the IEC intends to examine those that can be read from a distance by means of a cellular phone.
An interesting phenomenon that we have come across on several occasions is a sudden and unexplained increase in electricity consumption among customers suspected of stealing electricity, once the pole supplying their home had been equipped with a check meter. One assumes that such customers are more suspicious, and that if they identify unusual movement of IEC employees in the vicinity of their home, or if they spot a ‘foreign body’ on the pole, they will dispose of the evidence and begin to consume the full kWh.
To prevent this, check meters are installed when customers are not on the premises. Our assessment is that some of the wiring components connected to the check meter stand out from the grid and make it possible to identify the meter. In at least one case, the customer admitted that he sensed our increased presence. Nonetheless, he paid the bill we submitted without argument, as there were clear signs of his having tampered with the meter.
The process of setting up units specialising in handling the unauthorised use of electricity in each of the IEC regions has begun. Check meters will be provided to serve as standard tools for the purpose of verifying cases of electricity theft and determining its scope. It will be necessary to develop a methodical work procedure that will include clear directives with regard to the need to recalibrate the check meter after each use. This is essential to establish the check meter’s reliability, in the event that a case reaches the courts.
The trial period in the Afula region is drawing to a close. The report to be forwarded to the IEC marketing department’s management will recommend broadening the use of the check meters, ordering check meters measuring up to 600A, and purchasing check meters read by a cellular phone for trial purposes.