DALLAS -- A family believes an Oncor electrical meter sparked a fire that killed a man in South Dallas Tuesday night. Now, investigators are working with Oncor to see whether that's the cause.
The fire happened in the 4000 block of Spring Avenue around 10:30 Tuesday night. The next morning, family members still trying to process their loss looked over the charred remains of James Humphrey, Jr.'s home.
Relatives who live next door tried to rescue him, but the flames pouring out of his bedroom window were so heavy, no one could get in. Firefighters found him dead on his bedroom floor.
"He had lived his life, and he had a good life, but he just didn't deserve to lose his life like this," said Alfreda Johnson, Humphrey's cousin and caregiver.
Johnson, who lives next door, went to check on Humphrey just before the fire broke out -- never expecting it would be the last time she'd see him. She says Humphrey's arthritis probably made it difficult for him to escape, but believes none of this would have happened if Oncor hadn't installed a new smart meter on the home three weeks ago.
She believes the home's wiring is too old for the new meter, claiming that's also the reason a fire broke out at her home next door three years ago.
"When are they going to own up and take responsibility for these old houses? They're putting these smart meters out here and these old houses cannot carry the weight of those smart meters with the wiring," said Johnson.
Firefighters are still investigating the cause, which won't be released until the Medical Examiner's Office releases a cause of death.
Damage has been estimated at $7,000 in structural loss and $2,000 in contents.
The Public Utilities Commission says it has not received safety complaints about smart meters before, but smart meter installations were blamed for two house fires in Arlington back in 2010.
The issue wasn't with the meters themselves, but a fire investigator there says that when the old meters were pulled out, the main electric feeds to the houses were accidentally pulled as well.
In a statement, Oncor said: "Our thoughts are with the family in this difficult time. We are working closely with the Dallas Fire Department to understand the cause of the fire. While we understand the concerns regarding the meter, it is important to note that due to the nature and function of the advanced meters, there has been no prior instance where such a meter has caused a fire in a dwelling. Nevertheless, we look forward to completing a full investigation."
A spokesman added that the new digital meters don't use any more electricity than traditional meters.
Oncor will allow customers to opt out of the smart meters, for a price.
According to a company spokesperson, depending on the customer's individual set up, there is a one-time fee to swap to a "regular" meter, then a monthly opt-out fee.
For residential customers, the one-time swap fee ranges from $169 to $211. For commercial customers, it ranges from $244 to $564. Then, the monthly reoccurring fee ranges from $26.69 to $31.38, and includes a small charge for a smart meter -- even though the customer no longer has one.
Anyone interested in opting out can contact Oncor at 1-888-313-6862.