Harried Utility Ratepayers, Speak Up Now

Is your electric, gas, water or utility meter the last word in determining your bills? That seems to be the answer that too many state utility regulatory commissions are giving to people who complain about strangely high bills.
In last week’s column, I noted some typical cases where residential ratepayers were the victims of what one cartoonist called “meter mugging.” Meters can be inaccurate or they can be fraudulently programmed. Looking at your utility bill with detective-like intensity may alert you to overcharges. But even without a blatant billing error, you should have the right to have your meters checked independently of the utility.

First you should know that the standards for utility meters -­construction, maintenance and testing — have been developed by committees comprised substantially of representatives from investor-owned utilities and companies manufacturing the meters. What tolerances plus or minus that are allowed come from these standards groups. Once meters are installed, the utility in effect sets its policies on how often they will be inspected, how long they will stay in use and how candid to be with their customers. For example, gas meters, when not corrected, usually speed up with age and some of these meters have been in homes and buildings for thirty years.

There is a practice of outright fraud or meter bypass. Some heating oil deliverers have been caught pumping oil into the customer’s tank and then sucking it back out into the truck which does not affect the metering equipment. The ticket is then stamped and presented to the customer.

New meter technologies, designed to automate out what is left of the “human element” may boomerang against the customer’s remaining capacity to verify or challenge the accuracy of utility bills. Some electricity meters are now being installed which register not only the number of kWh that you consumed, but when you consumed them. These “time of day” meters result in a profile of your consumption which in turn custom designs your rate structure. Unfortunately this profile will not be accessible to you; rather it will be “read” electronically in much the same way that many computerized check-out systems at supermarkets scan the universal price codes. Try challenging the accuracy of your bill under this system. The meter becomes ever more the “Big Brother.”

Another techno trend in metering involves transmitting the information recorded by your meter (gas, water or electric) through the telephone lines to the company’s central office. A computerized system would receive the transmission and prepare your bill. So again, the system offers a potential to reduce certain company expenses and errors, but it will be more impervious to scrutiny by consumers.

What to do? First, more information and public discussion is needed about meters and what can and does go wrong. Second, the state utility regulatory agencies must develop an independent ability and will to monitor the meters and billing systems. Third, collecting and analyzing consumer complaints on a continual basis will help keep these agency officials in closer touch with the reality of their mission. Finally, what should emerge is a bill of rights for customers which would include giving usable, legal rights of action to these customers who seek justice.

For the harried ratepayer, speak up, send in your complaints and drop any awe toward automated billing practices and their meter masters.

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