Construction Concerns: Utility Meters

By Gregory Havel

Utility meters can give us a quick review of building information when we arrive at a call to it for a fire or other incident.

Photo 1 (of a natural gas service) shows 11 gas meters, each with a pipe leading to the roof. Each tenant space has a rooftop heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) unit. If the tenant space has a gas heater for domestic hot water, the gas pipe is brought into the space through the roof. There are no common public areas inside this building. 

(1) Photos by author.


Photo 2 (from the electric service for the same building) shows 12 meters, each with a service disconnect (behind the black cover and to the right of each meter). One is for each of the 11 tenant spaces, and the 12th is for exterior building and parking lot lights, for fire and security alarm systems, and for any other electrical use for which the landlord will be billed rather than the tenants. 



These two banks of meters are about 50 feet apart at the back of the building within sight of each other and facing a parking area. This arrangement is common in this many parts of North America, including the electrical main disconnects at each meter outside the building. Older buildings often have similar arrangements but use less modern equipment.

Photos 1 and 2 are from a strip mall (“taxpayer”) in Wisconsin. It is of type II (noncombustible) construction with brick and concrete block exterior walls, aluminum and glass store fronts, steel bar joists and roof deck, steel stud and drywall interior partitions, and a rubber roof membrane insulated with foamboard and ballasted with large gravel. The building is divided into 11 tenant spaces, with no common public areas inside.


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If this building had interior common public areas such as lobbies, stairways, restrooms, laundry facilities, and corridors, it would have a 12th gas meter to provide heat to these areas. This arrangement is also used for many apartment houses and office buildings.

A quick count of utility meters at a building with a fire alarm can remind us of the number of tenant spaces and suggest that we may need more help just to gain entry to check for fire extension. It can also remind us that the building is divided into compartments by partitions that reach at least the underside of the roof deck. If these partitions are fire rated and installed properly, they can help us (and the sprinkler system, if one is present) contain the fire to the area of origin.

Utility meters can also suggest to us that there is something unusual about a building, especially if we have no prefire plan or if we never been inside, as is the case on many responses outside our normal response area.

Photo 3 shows one corner of a “big box” home improvement store. The gas service is the gray pipe rising from the ground at the left of the meter set, rising through the main service valve, through the regulator, dropping down the center gray pipe into the meter, and leaving the meter set through the lower horizontal gray pipe.



At the flange on the right side of the meter set, a black pipe is connected to distribute gas to the building. Following the pipe to the right and up, it splits into two pipes that run up onto the roof. This suggests that there is something on the roof that might interest us. (On this roof, there are 16 large rooftop HVAC units that use natural gas for fuel.)

Another black pipe is connected near the flange at the right side of the gas meter, which runs to the left against the wall behind the meter, through a valve, and into the ground near the gray gas service pipe. Where does this go, and what is it for? It runs about 100 yards to a protected area in the parking lot near the main entrance of the store. This protected area contains a pad-mounted electric transformer, metering equipment for the building’s underground electric service, and a gas-fueled emergency power generator.

If we shut off the main gas valve at this meter during a fire, we would be shutting off the fuel to the emergency generator, which could be running the fire pump if the electric service had been shut off at the transformer. It’s also possible that we could be shutting off the fire pump if it were gas-fueled rather than electric.

Details like this are best learned before the fire and noted on preincident plans, especially if the building has a high value or a significant life or fire load. If we don’t have access to the preincident plan during the incident, these details can suggest that we need to ask questions or investigate before we act. Paying attention to details like these can help keep us and the rest of our people out of trouble while the incident is controlled.


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Gregory Havel Gregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.



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