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I KNOW I didn't cook THAT much more.
January 27, 2010 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Did my downstairs neighbor break my gas bill? Or does the meter reader need glasses?

Here's the stats: I'm in a 4-unit brownstone in Brooklyn, on the top floor. 2 persons in my apartment. One floor below me: a guy who lives alone, and often goes out of town. One floor below him: a family of four, kids ages 3 and 6 months. One floor below them: 3 women. All of us have the same size space, all of us have our own gas meters. Each unit controls their own thermostat; we have radiator heat via boilers in the basement.

A couple weeks ago, my roommate was home sick for the day, and when I got home he mentioned it had been awfully cold all day, and turning up the thermostat didn't seem to help. He pointed out that he'd turned the thermostat all the way up to 80. I'd also noticed it was chilly when I got in; it sure as hell wasn't 80 degrees, so I called the super. The super discovered that one of the radiator pipes had frozen; apparently, the downstairs neighbor had turned his heat OFF before leaving town for the month of December, and we had one good cold night and the pipes froze. They replaced the pipes that same day, we left the thrermostat at 80 for a couple hours to catch up, then turned it down to 68 and left it there, and it's been there ever since. All in all, the thermostat was only up a day and a half to two days.

Then yesterday, I got my gas bill. On average, my gas bill for that unit is between $75-$100 a month (using between 20-40 therms a month). The highest it ever got in two years was $121 (60 therms). But this bill was a whopping $300, with 196 therms usage.

My roommate and I tried to think of whether there was any excessive thing we did this past month -- and no, neither one of us cooked any more than usual, took any more showers than usual, or anything like that. The only anomaly was that two days of trying to turn up the heat while the radiator was down - but that was just two days. Not even.

I've already called the gas company to come out and re-check that meter (one of the three women on the ground floor told me that "yeah, our gas bill was a little weird too,") so someone really could have written something down wrong. But in case that's all correct -- is it possible that the two days we tried to turn up the thermostat while the radiator was down made THAT much of a difference? And, if so, should I bring that up with the neighbor who froze the pipes? Or, is it way more likely that it was a meter reading error?
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Home & Garden (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
That could be a water pressure issue within the boiler. There is a way to control the flow of water into the system, and if there wasn't enough pressure, the boiler would be running and heating it and the water not getting up to your apartment. I think the landlord needs to get things checked out. I don't think your neighbors caused the problem.
posted by frecklefaerie at 9:17 AM on January 27, 2010


Is it possible that the pipe freezing caused a leak?
posted by handee at 9:21 AM on January 27, 2010


Is it possible that you were running the heat higher than normally for longer than that one day when the pipes were frozen and didn't really realize it?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:22 AM on January 27, 2010


Is it possible that you were running the heat higher than normally for longer than that one day when the pipes were frozen and didn't really realize it?

Only by a day at most -- my first roommate originaly held the lease on the place 3 years ago, and we were both broke so we got really diligent about checking the thermostat. We often haven't had to turn the heat up that much as a rule anyway - I'm on the top floor, so I get everyone else's residual heat, especially when the downstairs neighbor is home (he really turns HIS heat up).

That could be a water pressure issue within the boiler. There is a way to control the flow of water into the system, and if there wasn't enough pressure, the boiler would be running and heating it and the water not getting up to your apartment. I think the landlord needs to get things checked out.

Come to think of it, I've noticed the hot water running out on showers now and then, but I chalked that up to my own dawdling in the shower sometimes. I have to call the landlord and the super to just let them know about the meter re-read, I'll mention that to them as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:28 AM on January 27, 2010


Is it possible that you were being billed without actual meter reads for some months? This happened to us once--our utility bill jumped dramatically one month, and when I called the company, it turned out they'd been doing "estimated" reads for almost a year, rather than sending an actual meter-reader to the house. They'd been underestimating, and we'd been underpaying, so when they finally sent a person out, the bill was through the roof, but only for the one month. I made arrangements with the company to do my own meter reads and call them in every month, so it wouldn't happen again.
posted by not that girl at 9:33 AM on January 27, 2010


When I lived up north & decided to cut back the heat because of obscene gas bills my neighbor immediately complained about the exact problem you're describing. After sorting it out with the landlord we determined the place wasn't insulated very well between floors and my heat was rising to the upstairs apartment. It may just have to be something you'll have to live with.
posted by torquemaniac at 9:39 AM on January 27, 2010


Is it possible that you were being billed without actual meter reads for some months?

Yeah, we thought about that too -- but I just pulled up my billing/reading history online, and while we DID have an estimated bill last month, but an actual read the month before that.

They generally do an actual reading every 2 months and estimate on the alternate months, and over the past year, we haven't had any problems with them not getting in on the months they need to do the actual reading. So even if the estimate was off, it'd still be a huge jump.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:42 AM on January 27, 2010


You could rule out a mistaken meter reading by reading the meter yourself. compare the numbers on your bill to the numbers on the meter. You'll need to extrapolate to account for your usage since the last bill, but this should get you close.

Oh, and turning the thermostat up to 80 to "catch up" doesn't make the house heat up any faster than if you just set it to 68.
posted by dalesd at 9:47 AM on January 27, 2010


Also, for future reference, stay on top of the actual/estimated read situation. Our meter reader didn't bother to let us know the transmitter thingy on the outside of the house wasn't actually reading, and this went on for over a year. Finally, they noticed, did an actual read, said we owed them 2 grand & I had to go through a lot of annoying hoops to get that $2000 to go away.

(And THAT happened only because our state had just passed a bill which basically said "gas companies, if you don't bother to read it or tell the homeowner there's a problem and a year goes by, you are SOL.")

The pressure in the pipes sounds likeliest to me, I would definitely call the landlord about it...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:58 AM on January 27, 2010


It could very well be a misread meter; I had the same thing happen on my electric bill recently; it was about the time my old analog meter turned over to all "0"s. My bill was about triple what I expected and when I read it myself the numbers didn't seem right. They straightened it out with no fuss; it was the first time something like that has happened to me in over 20 years of paying utility bills (that I know of) so it is uncommon but definitely happens.
posted by TedW at 10:04 AM on January 27, 2010


Oh, and turning the thermostat up to 80 to "catch up" doesn't make the house heat up any faster than if you just set it to 68.

We were cold. We weren't thinking clearly.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:08 AM on January 27, 2010


I'm betting on heat loss through the adjacent, unheated space. The thermostat is a switch that turns the boiler on or off, based on the temperature of the air around the thermostat. In order to compensate for the heat loss, your boiler was probably running all the time to keep your space heated.
posted by electroboy at 10:22 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nthing the "estimated" reading scam. Some years ago we went to Europe for two months, and before we left we made sure to turn off every appliance and electrical device (actually disconnecting from the wall sockets etc.). When we came back, we were confronted with one of the highest bills ever for the two months we were gone. When I called, I got the "estimated" explanation, apparently they go by usage patterns winter/summer etc. and that's what happened. I explained about our absence etc., but they refused to adjust the bill.
posted by VikingSword at 10:27 AM on January 27, 2010


The estimated readings aren't really a scam. They have to physically check the meters every so often, so you're not paying for anything you don't use, but you may have monthly bills that are higher or lower than your actual use, but those are corrected once they do a physical reading.
posted by electroboy at 10:36 AM on January 27, 2010


Oooh, good point electroboy. If the unit below you was going completely unheated, it's definitely possible that you were essentially paying to heat that unit.
posted by muddgirl at 10:42 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Alternately, since heat rises, when your neighbor below you heats his apartment, he is "subsidizing" your bill because some of his heat leaks into your space, and your boiler won't have to deliver as much air. So really, it's not that you're paying more this month - it's that you're paying less usually.
posted by muddgirl at 10:44 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


In some ways you're lucky his pipes froze. If you and the downstairs neighbor had kept his apartment warm enough to keep the pipes working, you would've heated his place until he returned.

Also, most leases include a requirement (or should) to keep your space at a minimum temperature, to keep things like this from happening. If you want to recover some of the cost of the extra gas from your neighbor, you may have a pretty good shot in small claims.
posted by electroboy at 11:15 AM on January 27, 2010


I'm confused. You have a separate gas bill than your neighbor, but you share the same boiler and pipes? That seems unlikely. More likely, your bill was higher because you've been heating your space and your neighbor's space below you the time he or she was gone. The pipes freezing is just a red herring.
posted by malp at 12:15 PM on January 27, 2010


I'll nth the neighbor's cold apartment changing your gas bill, and more likely because usually his heat being on keeps your apartment a bit warm too. We have a four-unit rental, two up and two down, and the upstairs apartments have always used far fewer therms than their (almost exact) counterparts below. Since I'm currently plugging leaks in the lower apartments -- openings to the crawlspace, really -- I expect the lowers to use less energy, which the uppers may compensate for by using more.
posted by dhartung at 12:47 PM on January 27, 2010


It's possible that his heat being on would have lowered our bill - but by 130 therms? That's how much of a leap this was.

I'm not questioning the fact that the bill DID rise, only the DEGREE to which it did. That's almost TRIPLE my usual usage rate.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:50 PM on January 27, 2010


It was cold enough to freeze pipes, so maybe it was extra cold. With the downstairs heat off, you got no extra heat, as well as having cold floors; this makes a lot of difference.
posted by theora55 at 1:42 PM on January 27, 2010


EmpressCallipygos's pipes froze because they run through the neighbor's apartment, and his heat was off. His pipes apparently didn't freeze, although they were certainly at risk of freezing.
posted by dalesd at 1:48 PM on January 27, 2010


It's possible that his heat being on would have lowered our bill - but by 130 therms?

There's probably zero insulation between his apartment and yours and likely a bunch of utility chases, poorly sealed off fireplaces, etc that are constantly leaking air. Not to mention the steam/hot water pipes from the boiler are losing quite a bit of heat when they run through his apartment, similar to if they were running on the outside of your building instead of the inside. Basically you're losing heat in multiple ways, and it was getting worse and worse as his apartment cooled, until the pipes froze (unclear whether it was his or yours).

A friend of mine lived next to an end unit rowhouse. When it was gutted for remodeling, his oil bill more or less tripled.
posted by electroboy at 2:14 PM on January 27, 2010


I have an update:

I discussed this with my roommate this evening, and it turns out I was WRONG about the downstairs neighbor leaving his heat off. Apparently, it was OUR pipe that froze (something about it being next to a very, very drafty window), and the landlord had told my roommate about the downstairs neighbor just as a cautionary tale ("oh, and don't ever turn your heat down, the way THIS guy did once..."). However, the actual physical pipe they fixed was apparently in the basement, because my roommate (who was home and witnessed this) said that they didn't rip up anything up here or anything, they just went down stairs and then an hour later called him and said "okay, you're good."

So now we have even LESS explanation for why the heat jacked up so high.

Actually my current theory is "a little of column A, a little column B" -- we may have had SOME increase because of a cold snap or that drafty window (which, incidentally, I dutifully sealed up -- but even so it really wasn't any more drafty than it's EVER been), but that increase was COMPOUNDED by a mistake on the part of the meter reader. Because even allowing for my gas usage last month being DOUBLE what I usually use doesn't cover the total amount of the hike.

However, my downstairs neighbor wasn't even a factor after all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:59 PM on January 27, 2010


If your pipe was frozen, was the boiler running? Where was the steam/hot water going?

My bet is that the meters are hooked up backwards and you are paying someone else's bill, and vice versa.
posted by gjc at 6:37 AM on January 28, 2010


Sounds fishy. A drafty window shouldn't be enough to freeze a pipe. I wonder if something like a circulation pump in the basement broke, or the pipes built up a bunch of scale that prevented the hot water from circulating. If the hot water wasn't circulating properly, the switch in the thermostat would stay closed, telling your boiler to keep working but the hot water wouldn't necessarily be reaching your apartment. I suppose you could go down to the basement and see if you could tell what they worked on.
posted by electroboy at 7:34 AM on January 28, 2010


i think your bill was so high because, while your pipe was frozen, yout thermostat was telling to boiler to give heat ... but no heat was actually coming. so your boiler was on and generating heat ... but not sending it anywhere, and your thermostat kept on asking for more. a couple of days of your boiler being always or constantly on would use a lot of gas.

turning the boiler off once you realized it was on and not providing you heat in your apartment would have kept your costs down. unfortunately, you ran the boiler on high for one or several days without knowing it.
posted by lester at 7:45 AM on January 28, 2010


Sounds fishy. A drafty window shouldn't be enough to freeze a pipe. I wonder if something like a circulation pump in the basement broke, or the pipes built up a bunch of scale that prevented the hot water from circulating.

Yeah, I was a little skeptical about the "your window froze the pipes" solution, and am more inclined to think something went screwy downstairs because that's where they did all the work. However, we haven't had any issue with the heat since then, and all told the heat was only out for about 48 hours. We also hadn't noticed anything prior to that (except for hot water sometimes running out during morning showers, but that's been a consistent issue, and is more a function of "people dawdling in showers in the morning"). Generally we take short showers and keep the heat at 68-70, and in a year and a half this has been the ONLY inconsistency of this size on my gas account.

If the hot water wasn't circulating properly, the switch in the thermostat would stay closed, telling your boiler to keep working but the hot water wouldn't necessarily be reaching your apartment.

That's possible, but could that short an outage have really used up THREE TIMES as much gas as I ever have?...that's why I'm inclined to think a combination of things is affecting the bill -- we may have had a spike, yeah, but I'm thinking the meter reader ALSO screwed up, and COMPOUNDED things.

So I guess my new question is: "I accept that my gas use may have spiked over those two days, but could it really have spiked THAT much?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:46 AM on January 28, 2010


Well, if the pump was just working inefficiently or a pipe was constricted, but not blocked, it could've happened over a long period of time. If your pump was circulating 2 gallons per minute of 200 degree water, rather than 10 gpm, it would certainly affect the amount of heat that was getting to your apartment. Similarly, if you have steam heat and have a section of pipe exposed to the cold, the steam could be condensing before it actually gets to your apartment. Since the thermostat is just a temperature controlled switch, it doesn't shut off the boiler until it reaches the correct temperature.

That's possible, but could that short an outage have really used up THREE TIMES as much gas as I ever have?

Keep in mind that you only noticed the problem once the boiler actually failed. It could've been operating inefficiently for some time. But it certainly could be the result of some weirdness with the estimated bill too. You could go look at the gas meter yourself and check the numbers.
posted by electroboy at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2010


Keep in mind that you only noticed the problem once the boiler actually failed. It could've been operating inefficiently for some time.

But if that were the case, I would have noticed a slow and steady increase over the course of a few months, no? That's not happened in this case -- I've printed out my account history for the past year and a half, and every other month's usage since July 2008 has been remarkably consistent (between 30 and 60 therms of usage). The one and only anomaly is last month, which suddenly jumped up from the previous month's standard 45 therms to MORE THAN TRIPLE my usual usage at 196 therms.

In the situation you're describing, wouldn't I have noticed something like, in August I was at 50 therms, then 80 in September, maybe 110 in October, 140 in November, 160 in December....a pattern like that?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 AM on January 28, 2010


Not necessarily. It could've started to fail/become blocked at the beginning of the month and didn't completely fail until the week when you noticed the heat was off. There's a lot of different ways it could've played out. This is all speculation. It's also possible that the failure has nothing to do with the gas bill, but I sort of doubt it.
posted by electroboy at 9:03 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Update: the guy came to read the meter, and the original reading was RIGHT. What's more, I'm STILL at a super-accelerated rate of usage (another 78 therms in only 3 weeks).

I've contacted my super to see if he can get to the bottom of this, because this is a huge anomaly (he thinks so too). His thought was that maybe when the guys fixed the heater when it went bust, they had the pilot light set wrong -- so it's taking much more gas to start the boiler when it needs to come on.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:47 AM on February 4, 2010


Further update --

The guy who fixed the heater came back, and we couldn't find anything amiss mechanically. He suggested the problem may be the meter ITSELF, and suggested I ask the gas company to "recalibrate the meter." "Although, they'll probably just replace the meter," he said.

That happened a week ago, and I've been keeping an eye on things. If it looks like it's under control -- my temp agent counselor has a roommate who works for the gas company, and she says her roommate may know who to contact about getting some of the bill reimbursed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:41 PM on February 26, 2010


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