Meter Security

February, 2006

By Tom DiVito

Security is about limiting someone's opportunity to take what is yours. The more attention you pay to protecting your assets, the less chance there is that someone will try. The difficult task is to balance the protection you can afford against the potential cost of your losses. Listed below are the main levels of security that are currently available to safeguard your meter plant.
The entry level solutions offered today should be considered medium security. They include six or seven locking pins with thousands of possible codes. Some lock systems repeat the codes in different locations. These are typical of the standard locks supplied by most meter manufacturers. If the threat of loss is low, this may be suitable.
The most popular level is called high security. Products that fit here have been independently certified by UL and carry the high security rating of UL437. These locks generally have dual locking technologies with tight tolerances and steel components to prevent attack or picking. Most locks in this category have millions of possible combinations so there is no need to share, and each city has its own codes. A patent on the system by the manufacturer also restricts keys from being available at every lock shop, minimizing the opportunity to create unauthorized duplicate keys.
The ultimate security product is an electronic lock. A couple of models have been tested over the last few years and have proven to be reliable even in harsh conditions. The electronic features allow for trillions of codes in one system. To date, no successful picking has been documented. Lost or stolen keys are easily removed from the system, so the plant is always protected. Electronic locks offer the ability to record the opening of each meter. This can prove useful in tracking the operations more closely.
In addition to the cost of the lock, the installed price may vary depending on the plant and the lock. Some locks will easily retrofit the existing housings, while others require door machining or replacement. The time required for installation could vary from seconds at each meter to a major change-out.
How much each city spends on locks depends on the threat of attack. Some cities use one technology throughout their plants. Others mix the levels depending on the specific meter locations. Likewise, some cities have all of their locks keyed alike. Most plants, however, are keyed alike in small groups of 100 meters. Every large plant has been attacked at least once by having a complete meter stolen and the lock decoded so that a duplicate key can be made. Some cities have resorted to keying each meter with a different code. This may cost extra for key management, but it creates the ideal security by providing no opportunity for additional losses.
It should be noted that there are always means to get around the lock. The meter techs usually have a solid working knowledge of these methods and often use them to get into a meter with the least amount of damage and repair time. Obviously, they are not the only ones with this information. A solid iron housing is the best place to start, with good internal key control the next step to reduce temptation and risk. However, if you have had the same medium-security locks for a few years, it is probably too late to get control over your keys. Upgrading your locks at this point will likely upgrade your revenue too.
A recent trend by larger cities is to protect their electronic meters and electronic payment systems with a second high-security lock in the mech. housing. Since these housings are typically keyed throughout the plant with the same code on a medium-security lock, there is usually very little protection. In the past, there also was very little risk. Not anymore.
The bottom line is what you can afford to prevent possible losses. As we all know, the cost is much more than just the cash taken. Public trust and confidence are at stake and often more important than the dollars that are missing. What steps you take to remove the opportunity for losses reflect on your managerial ability and job achievement.

Tom DiVito is with Login Lock. He can be reached at tom@loginlock.com.