Inside Smart Meters Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, April 14 at noon Pacific for the Inside Smart Meters Hack Chat with [Hash]!

That electrical meter on the side of your house might not look like it, but it’s pretty packed with technology. What was once a simple electromechanical device that a human would have to read in person is now a node on a far-flung network. Not only does your meter total up the amount of electricity you use, but it also talks to other meters in the neighborhood, sending data skipping across town to routers that you might never have noticed as it makes its way back to the utility. And the smartest of smart meters not only know how much electricity you’re using, but they can also tease information about which appliances are being used simply by monitoring patterns of usage.

While all this sounds great for utility companies, what does it mean for the customers? What are the implications of having a network of smart meters all talking to each other wirelessly? Are these devices vulnerable to attack? Have they been engineered to be as difficult to exploit as something should be when it’s designed to be in service for 15 years or more?

These questions and more burn within [Hash], a hardware hacker and security researcher who runs the RECESSIM reverse-engineering wiki. He’s been inside a smart meter or two and has shared a lot of what he has learned on the wiki and with some in-depth YouTube videos. He’ll stop by the Hack Chat to discuss what he’s learned about the internals of smart meters, how they work, and where they may be vulnerable to attack.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 14 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
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A Requiem For Meters

Smart Energy GB are the organisation campaigning for the roll-out of smart energy meters in the UK. Publicizing smart meters and making traditional electricity and gas meters look obsolete is part of their mission, and towards the end of last year they came up with a novel idea. “Requiem for Meters”, is a piece of orchestral music performed on instruments made from old gas and electricity meters, and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London.

The old meters serve as much as artworks in some of the instruments as they do a function. As far as we can see for example the gas meter violins are electric instruments rather than acoustic, the meter serving only as the physical body of the instrument rather than as an acoustic cavity in the way the body of a traditional violin does. The wind instruments seem to incorporate the cavity of a gas meter in their construction though and the percussive instruments are very much dependent on the properties of the meters themselves, though we’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether the resulting sound is one you’d want regularly on your hi-fi.

The video below the break shows some of the background to the piece, though sadly not as much instrument building detail as we’d like.

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CitizenWatt And The Power Of Community

Depending upon where you live in the world, the chances are that your national or local government, or your utility company, has smart meters on their agenda. The idea is that these network-connected energy meters for your gas and electricity supply will allow greater control of energy usage and lead to lower costs through more efficient use of that energy. Bold plans have been advanced for meters that exert control over your higher-power appliances such as water heaters, washing machines, or home heating systems, able to turn them off or on depending on the time of day, spot price of energy, or load on the grid as a whole.

These devices are not without controversy though. Privacy concerns for example, centred on the amount of information about individuals that could be gleaned from the data they collect. Or security, that a vulnerability in an internet-connected electronic device fitted to millions of homes and with control over high-power appliances could be catastrophic if successfully exploited.

In a small area of Paris, they are trying to reap some of the benefits of smart meters for a community without some of those risks. CitizenWatt (French language, Google Translate link) is an open-source smart energy monitor that provides some of the benefits of a smart meter while allowing its owner to retain control of the data it generates by sharing data only with their consent. The entire project was born of an association between Citoyens Capteurs (Citizen Sensors, French language, Google Translate link), the hackEns (French language, Google Translate link) hackspace, the Fabelier FabLab, and the City of Paris.

The CitizenWatt system comprises an electricity sensor and a base station. The sensor is a simple battery-powered device that takes the output from a current transformer clamped onto the electricity supply cable and feeds it via an ATMEGA8 microcontroller to a 2.4GHz RF link. The base station is a Raspberry Pi which retrieves the data from the RF, stores it, and allows the user to view it through a web interface. Both the sensor code and hardware files, and the files for the Raspberry Pi base station are freely available on GitHub.

In keeping with the open nature on their project, the CitizenWatt team organised a series of events at which the families who were part of their trial in a Paris suburb were given the chance to build their own sensor boards, for many of them the first time they had handled a soldering iron.

We have seen quite a few smart meters on these pages over the years. There is this one based on a Spark Core, this one based on an ESP8266, and this one provided by a utility company, the data of which can be accessed. CitizenWatt is a worthy project to join them in its own right, but its involvement of a local community of non-makers is what sets it apart. We applad this aspect of the project, and we wish we saw more like it.

Using SDR To Read Your Smart Meter

[BeMasher] was dissatisfied with the cost of other solutions to read his smart meter, so he made a project to read it himself using an rtl-sdr dongle.

Using his hacking and reverse engineering skills along with a $20 RTL-SDR dongle, [BeMasher] wrote rtlamr to automatically detect and report the consumption information reported by smart meters within range. Though designed for his Itron C1SR, [BeMasher] claims that any electronic receiver transmitter (ERT) capable smart meter should work.

[BeMasher]’s Itron C1SR smart meter broadcasts both interval data and standard consumption in the 915MHz ISM band using a Manchester encoded, frequency hopping spread spectrum protocol. [BeMasher] used the RTL-SDR dongle to do the signal capture and analysed the resulting signal in software afterwards. [BeMasher] did a great job of going through the theory and implementation of analysing the resulting data capture, so be sure to check it for an in-depth analysis.

If the RTL-SDR dongles are too limited for you taste, you might want to check out some hacker friendly SDRs with a little more punch.

Monitoring Home Energy Consumption

Power monitoring and home automation systems are coming to mainstream consumers. The New York Times covers the latest technologies (annoying login required) that improve and monitor energy efficiency in the home. As energy use and costs continue to increase, companies are popping up to offer cheaper solutions that will help consumers monitor energy usage, and decrease it simultaneously. Companies like Zigbee offer wireless protocols to track usage, and “smart metering” systems can communicate with appliances to reduce unnecessary energy usage.

Home automation systems can be set up to control a single system, such as a home theater, or multiple systems throughout a home, like audio, lighting, and temperature. Control4 offers controllers that will allow consumers to regulate their lighting, blinds, and temperature in their homes. Smart meters such as Echelon’s NES system offers users some great features, such as the ability to provide automated reads of electric and gas meters, and enabling load shedding during peak consumption periods, by controlling appliances like air conditioners and water heaters. By allowing the consumers to determine and control how much energy they use, they can successfully reduce their energy consumption levels a significant amount, but whether it’s worth the cost of investment remains to be seen. Although the prices of home automation systems have dropped from over $30,000 to about $5,000, it’s still much more than most consumers can afford.

We’ve covered home automation tools before. We like them because they’re still way more affordable than the offerings available, and the technology is more transparent. If you’ve got a creative and cheap solution to monitoring energy consumption, we’d love to hear it.

[via Waxy]