How can I argue down an aberrantly high electrical bill?
August 17, 2010 5:43 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to get an electrical company to reduce an aberrantly high bill? Bonus complication: it was my final bill, so I no longer live in their service area and I no longer have access to the apartment in question.

I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Bloomington, Indiana for the last two years, and got electricity from a company whose name rhymes with "Cuke Energy". Over the summer months while I lived there, my bill was usually between $60-$80. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the final bill, sent to me at my new address, and found that according to Cuke I owed nearly $170.

This charge, according to Cuke, was entirely due to my profligate energy usage: while I used between 450-700 kWh during the other summer months (Jun-Aug) I had lived at the address, they say that I used over 1800 kWh in the last month I lived there. I suspect that there was an error in the meter reading; given how hot July was, I can definitely believe that I consumed over 800 kWh, but an energy usage of triple (!) my previous summertime usage just seems entirely implausible. I've looked up the weather for the months that I still have bills for, and the period for which I got the aberrant bill was indeed the hottest since I've lived there: there were 434 cooling degree days in July, compared to 296 cooling degree days for the preceding June, the next hottest billing period. But still, it seems really unlikely that a ~50% increase in CDDs would result in a tripling of the energy used. (Or do I misunderstand the science here?)

I called Cuke's customer service line yesterday and spoke to a first-level telephone agent. He told me that all my readings were actual readings (not estimates) and said that he would schedule a re-reading for this Wednesday. Other than that, he was rather unhelpful, and was pretty adamant that if the reading came back the same, the bill would stand, full stop. I asked about dispute resolution procedures, and he implied that there weren't any. (IIRC, he repeated something about the bill standing if the re-reading comes back the same.)

As I noted up top, I now live nearly 1,000 miles away from Bloomington, and so I can't go look at the meter myself. I also can't flip breakers, check the insulation on appliances, or do anything that might help explain the extra usage (if it is in fact correct.) All I've got is weather data and my forceful personality (read: not forceful) to argue my case.

It's possible that this problem will all evaporate into thin air when I check my account balance on Thursday, but I suspect that it won't. Does the hivemind have any advice? Can I get these folks to see things my way? Or to at least discount the bill to something more reasonable? For any of you who've had dealings with Cuke Energy in the past, is there a billing dispute resolution procedure that I haven't been able to find yet? Any thoughts, advice, commiseration, or horror stories would be welcome.
posted by Johnny Assay to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
Do you have a tiered billing system? i.e. first X kwh costs y $/kwh and after that it costs y+z $/kwh?

It's possible that your normal bill falls into the low usage tier (below "baseline") and the increased usage during July pushed you into the high usage tier (above "baseline") for part of the month. The above baseline usage can be very expensive - this could account for the rapid increase in your bill.

Basically, a doubling in usage doesn't always translate into a doubling of your electric bill. It's possible with different rate tiers for a doubling in consumption to result in 3x or more in cost.
posted by NoDef at 5:52 AM on August 17, 2010

The power company here where we live did the same to us too - NoDef has it. The increased usage threw us into the higher bracket, and we paid more. It sucks, but there's not much you can argue over.
posted by LN at 6:05 AM on August 17, 2010

You should always call to take the power/water out of your name when you move, so you don't get billed if you leave something on, or for the next tenant's charges.
posted by delmoi at 6:15 AM on August 17, 2010

Best answer: About five years ago, my first summer in a house in Florida, I had an outrageously high electric bill one month. It turned out that they had, in fact, misread the meter. It does happen and I hope that's what happened to you.

Do you have a friend who can go look at the meter?
posted by mareli at 6:22 AM on August 17, 2010

In my area the electric company often does "estimated readings" based on the prior year's usage rate. The next month they will perform an actual meter reading and make up the difference either in my favor or theirs depending on how close they came with their estimation. Is it possible that something similar happened here?

Note: I also personally have a major problem with these estimated readings as I believe my company is commiting fraud by performing estimated readings during the more expensive summer months, then making up the difference during the less expensive fall months at the lower rate. In other words, they charge for more usage at the summer rate but only pay out at the fall rate, pocketing the difference.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:22 AM on August 17, 2010

Where I am, the power companies don't send someone to read the meter for every single bill - rather, they send someone to read the meter every so often and estimate your bills in between. It cuts costs, and reduces inconvenience for those of us with indoor meters.

For example, if they took a meter reading of 0 kWh in January 2008 and a meter reading of 3000 kWh in January 2009, in January 2010 they will estimate your meter reading to be about 6000 kWh and they'll bill you accordingly.

Sometimes their estimate will not be accurate; maybe you used more electricity than previous years, so your meter actually reads 7000 kWh in January 2010. If you pay for an estimated meter reading of 6000kWh then move out and say the meter reads 7000 kWh, you'll have to pay for that extra 1000 kWh of electricity you used.

In other words, perhaps it's not this year's bill that was too high but last year's bill that was too low.

Mistakes can be made though - like misreading meters.
posted by Mike1024 at 6:41 AM on August 17, 2010

Response by poster: Heh, I guess I included a lot of information in there. Just to clarify and elaborate on a few things:
  • The customer service rep said that all of the readings on my account were actual readings, not estimated readings. So I'm pretty sure it's not an estimated vs. actual thing.
  • I did take the account out of my name shortly after I left — I departed on a Friday and scheduled my service to be disconnected the following Monday. I don't know when the next tenants were scheduled to move in, but I assume it wasn't that promptly.
  • The actual number of kilowatt-hours is what's higher on the last bill, so a tiered rate system doesn't explain it. In fact, it looks like I paid about 11.3¢/kWh in June, but they're billing me at about 8.5¢/kWh for July.
Marell's "independent confirmation" route is not a bad idea, if I need more ammunition. I can probably get someone still in the area to check it out in the next couple of days.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:57 AM on August 17, 2010

This has been a really hot summer in Bloomington, as you know. My guess is that above a certain temperature your AC just couldn't keep up. Perhaps the low at night didn't drop below a certain point so your AC ran all night trying to keep up instead of turning off after midnight. Meter reading errors are statistically extremely uncommon. In the hottest summer in a long time run away air conditioners are extremely common.
posted by ChrisHartley at 7:39 AM on August 17, 2010

Did they actually read your meter every month right at the end of the month? My Dad recently moved and in addition to an elevated bill because of A/C usage he actually ended up paying for five and a half weeks of usage which made for a pretty scary bill.
posted by Mitheral at 8:08 AM on August 17, 2010

Response by poster: So, update.

On the "get a friend to check" front: a good, good friend of mine went to my apartment and took a picture of the meter. While I can see how it might be misread,* it pretty clearly shows that the current reading is about 900 kWh less than the reading on my bill. but it's a damn good piece of evidence to have.

On the "customer service" front: I called Cuke again today and... well, Kafkaesque is too strong a word, but this is one of the more absurd bureaucratic situations I've ever had to deal with. Apparently since this was my last bill and the account is closed, they can't schedule a re-reading after all, and they can't even change the reading in the account to the amount shown in the picture. (You'd think that they'd occasionally need to do this — I can't be the first person this has happened to — but no.) The customer service agent I talked to said that when the next scheduled reading took place at my address, at the beginning of September, he would re-examine the numbers to see whether the readings were consistent, and try to fix them if they weren't. In the meantime, he flagged my account to not trigger any collections activity when it rolls past due (since the due date on the aberrant bill is before the scheduled meter reading.) So now all I can do is wait frustratedly for a few weeks.

* As an aside: does anyone know why the dials on an analog electric meter don't all turn the same way? On my meter, the ones digit goes clockwise, the tens digit goes counter-clockwise, the hundreds digit goes clockwise, and continuing to alternate. I assume it's some product of the gearing used, but is it really that much more expensive to have them all turn the same way?
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:17 AM on August 19, 2010

The dials turn in opposite directions because they are driven by gears and 1) it's cheaper 2) more reliable 3) uses less power to operate 4) takes up less space; to not include idler gears required to make the dials turn all the same direction.
posted by Mitheral at 11:05 AM on August 19, 2010

Response by poster: Flipping back through my history, I realized that I never posted the conclusion to this.

I did manage to get them to adjust my bill, in the end. On the 20th, I contacted them via their web-form with a long and detailed letter describing who I had talked to and what they had said and done/tried to do. I also expressed my displeasure that I would have to wait for nearly a month after the end of service for this situation to be resolved, and intimated that I would lodge a complaint with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission if it wasn't resolved by the 27th.

The web-form, of course, cut my long letter off about halfway through. A customer service agent e-mailed me directly to tell me this and ask for the full letter, which then allowed me to send her the picture that my friend took as well. My final reading was adjusted down by the end of the day, reducing my bill by about $80. My account is now paid in full, so I can wash my hands of the whole affair.

So, lessons learned:
  1. Meter mis-readings do happen.
  2. Pictures help. I might have to make a habit of photographing my electrical meter whenever I move out of an apartment.
  3. I'm not sure if my name-dropping of the IURC was what helped my case, but it felt good.
  4. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Different people you contact may have different levels of authority or expertise.

posted by Johnny Assay at 9:32 AM on September 1, 2010

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