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Local Gas and Electric Company ‘Smarting’ Customers

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As the lyrics go in the popular song "Jumping Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones, "It's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!" After receiving my last energy bill, things may not be all right, but they certainly are a gas. In fact, looking more closely at it — they are a gas, gas, gas.

Most folks may measure their lives in days, months, and years. Others may be more introspective and measure life by the good deeds they've performed or even the milestones they've reached. For me, thanks to this wonderfully high invoice from Pacific Gas & Electric, everything I do at the house is now measured in units of gas – or "therms."

Last month, my wife and I received our bill from PG&E and despite it being a warmer month than the prior billing cycle, the amount owed was three times higher. The jump in the amount of gas used, even though we didn't use our heater nearly half as much, made no sense to us.

Turns out our recently installed SmartMeter, a meter that supposedly measures consumption in more detail and communicates that amount back to the provider wirelessly, misread the amount of therms used during our first monthly billing cycle. This initial lower-than-accurate reading meant more units of energy were misplaced into the second billing cycle when the so-called intelligent apparatus apparently read it correctly the second time.

The first customer service representative we spoke to politely told us we should expect "substantial savings" in our new, revised bill due to this error since we were charged at a higher rate than we should have been charged. (The company uses tiered pricing and charges are based on energy used – the higher the usage, the higher the rate.)

When we received the revised invoice, there was nothing substantial in our savings at all. In fact, it was three dollars higher. Utterly flabbergasted, we called back again for further explanation. This time, they were not so polite.

"That is your bill and it is accurate sir," said the customer service manager flatly. "You used it, you need to pay it."

While that on the surface sounds good and I agree with it, we were calling to simply make sure the readings were accurate. After all, it is a fact we used the gas heater, which I'm assuming is the true energy household hog, much more during the first billing cycle than we did the second time around. And that first bill was three times lower.

Adding to the confusion and frustration is that the measuring device sent an inaccurate number in the first place. What's to keep it from happening again? And how do we know it somehow fixed itself and will read and send accurate data in the future? Since they refused to send someone out to check the meter, I guess I will have to assume all is good in that regard and verify when the next bill arrives.

If the mistakes by the SmartMeter were not reason enough to cause a headache, we were then told by the company that if we were "just a bit more conscious" about our energy use we'd most likely be able to be billed entirely at their lowest rate. That was music to my ears, until I checked my bill more closely. It turns out that the only way to stay inside that low, "baseline" rate is basically if I took my family away for a month-long vacation.

On the first bill, we were allowed 10.25 therms of use at the lowest rate of $.94/therm. The next month we were allowed 16 therms and the third 15.5 therms. After those respective allotments, we were bumped up to the next "Over Baseline" rate, which averaged out to be roughly $.25/therm higher.

"A normal household of four is usually allowed two therms a day," one rep at PG&E told me.

I was not the best at math in high school and college, so perhaps I'm missing something. If we are all allowed two therms a day, shouldn't we be paying a "baseline" rate for the first 60 therms used? The way they have it on the bill basically breaks down to roughly 15 therms allowed every month, which is only a half of therm per day.

"Roughly one person uses six therms per month just for showering alone," said another company representative when I inquired further on normal gas usage.

So, what they are saying is just by taking one shower per day, an average-sized family of four is using 24 therms per billing cycle. That in itself is 10 therms or so above the low flat "baseline" rate I should be billed at if I were "just a bit more conscious." I am all for being environmentally friendly – for Mother Nature and for my wallet – but apparently my local gas and electric company expects us to forgo hygiene when it comes to being energy-conscious.

"It can get much higher than that, too, if you take really hot showers. Gas dryers and flat screen televisions are also huge energy users. Maybe your bill is high because you have a lot of flat screen televisions in your household?" she asked me.

Since we only have one, a 42-inch Samsung, I highly doubt that's the reason. It's also the exceptionally high gas portion of the bill in question and the last time I checked, our boob tube ran on electricity.

As we investigated our meter readings further, we found out that on most days we used just one therm per day. For some reason, that number spiked to three therms and even an occasional four on some Wednesdays and Saturdays.

My guess is those are the days we normally do our laundry. Although we don't have a gas dryer, so again that raises eyebrows. To figure it out, once and for all, we'll simply have to turn each appliance on and check the meter. Whatever causes that needle to spin more rapidly will lead us to the "smoking (gas) gun."

The big question, however, is if the highest our energy spiked to was just three or four therms twice a week, how the heck did it ever get up to the 186.05 total for the month of May? That would mean we used just over six therms per day. Again, I was no math major in college, but that just doesn't add up.

My guess is somewhere along the line we received misinformation. Whatever the reason, though, it does not make me very happy as a consumer to have to make so many calls just to get this mess figured out. Nor does it sit too well with me knowing this so-called shrewd wireless reader spinning away outside has already erred once.

While PG&E has made me one frustrated and confused customer, the good news to come out of all this is they have made me more aware of what I turn on at the house. Not to the point I'll ever fit my entire bill under its ridiculously low "baseline" rate, like they suggest I try to do, but at least to the point that I turn lights, televisions, and other appliances off much more rapidly than I used to.

I also try to take shorter and cooler showers. My wife, on the other hand, has not bought into the conservation efforts, so I am forced to yell "That's another therm!" into the bathroom each morning as she steams it up.

My guess is next time she sees our bill, though, she'll start being a bit more aware of her energy use. After all, life is just way too much of a gas not to.

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