Electric bill mystery!
September 30, 2019 5:14 AM   Subscribe

Help solve the mystery of our electric bill, which was weirdly high for over 3 years and then magically fixed itself.....

So, about 4 years ago my husband and I bought a condo (in an old Victorian that had been converted into 3 units). We couldn't move in right away after the closing, so the old owners rented it back from us for a couple months and paid us rent. They also covered utilities (keeping them on their original account) during that time. Then for one month the condo was empty (actually empty, we stopped by once or twice just to check it out), but obviously we switched the utility accounts to our names. When we got the electric bill for that first month, it seemed strangely high....I don't recall the exact amount but it was like $100+. For an empty house. No lights, no AC (the house has AC but it was off, at that time we didn't have any sort of smart thermostat so it was just plain off), basically just the fridge and whatever other minimal background stuff needs to run. Nothing plugged in otherwise because we hadn't moved anything in.

We called the electric company but we didn't really have anything to go on other then to say, "This SEEMS too high." Of course they said it was fine, maybe our appliances weren't efficient enough, etc. They supposedly sent someone out to check the meters, multiple times (there are 4 meters on the house, one for each unit plus the common spaces) and said that was fine. We moved in, our bill went up compared to that first month (obviously, since we were living there now) but remained strangely high. Our electric company sends these "How you're doing compared to your neighbors" summaries quarterly and we were consistently scoring in the "inefficient" or "highly inefficient" range, even though I think our habits are pretty moderate and we both work in offices so we aren't even home much.

ANYWAY, whatever, I resolved to stop worrying about it and fighting with the electric company. Shortly after we moved in we did their "energy audit" program and got a bunch of free fancy lightbulbs, which helped the bills a bit. THEN, about 6 months ago, after living in the condo for 3.5 years, our bill showed up one month and was about HALF what it had been the month before (and the same month a year before that). And it's continued that way ever since. We have done nothing different, no new appliances ever, no new thermostat (since we moved in), no changes to how often we are home. Now our "compared to your neighbors" scores are consistently in the efficient range. It's awesome. We are going to save at least $600 this year.

BUT WHY?? What happened? Clearly it was their error somehow but I'm curious what could have happened. Do you have ideas? A few other notes:
-As I mentioned, it is a condo building with other units and a small amount of common space that is on its own meter. But the common space bill is very low each month and hasn't jumped up, so I don't think anything was being mis-billed there.
-We live in a big city and there are other streets with our same street name but different zip code. We always suspected that somehow we were getting billed for some other home in addition to our use (or instead of our use, just bills were swapped) but supposedly they checked our physical meter and the numbers were correct so....I dunno.

Sleuths, what say you?
posted by Bebo to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm assuming that there has been a change in kwh used during the billing period or a change in cost/kwh, right? More info might help.
posted by she's not there at 5:33 AM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Any chance there was a circuit on your meter that made it to one of your neighbours outlets? Anyone else move out about the time the bill dropped?

I was in a place where this happened, the circuits were an actual rats nest (and probably not safe, but that’s another story), and somehow there was an outlet in the basement that was attached to my meter. I was on the 2nd floor.
posted by Jobst at 5:34 AM on September 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Did a neighbor move 6 months ago? Seems like the most logical explanation is that the units weren't properly split and you're paying for someone else's usage that they have now stopped
posted by missmagenta at 5:35 AM on September 30, 2019

Nope, no one has moved from either of the other units during this time! And yes, she's not there, the bill is showing much lower kwh used during the billing periods all of a sudden.

Interesting thought about whether a circuit could be mis-connected somehow, that's a whole thing that I'm not sure I'm capable of addressing...I've looked at the circuit breaker box and they are all labeled (and nothing jumped out at me as obviously weird).
posted by Bebo at 5:42 AM on September 30, 2019

If you're not already privy to the details about this, ask your condo association if any electrical work was done in the building around that time. If an electrician fixed a problem like what was described above, they might not have told anyone. (Or, on the flip side, they could have screwed something up, and someone else could be paying for your power, although that sounds unlikely since your bills have been high.)
posted by nosila at 6:22 AM on September 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'd be wondering if another unit was borrowing my electricity (knowingly or unknowingly) for all this time. And then it was recently fixed, either by rerouting the circuit correctly or just disconnecting it at their end.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:40 AM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Well, it’s too late now, but you could have had the power company disconnect your power for a week while you were on vacation. This would have highlighted the misconnection since your freeloading neighbor would be powerless. The other thing that springs to mind is that the meter was bad and when they “checked” it nothing was really checked.

It might be interesting to ask them whether they recently replaced your meter, but even if they did, good luck getting some bureaucrat to pay you back the overcharges.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:43 AM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Our electric company sends these "How you're doing compared to your neighbors" summaries...

Are you with ComEd (Illinois) and, if so, are you on the real-time pricing plan?
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:44 AM on September 30, 2019

This happened to me. I was living on the third floor of a three-family home, and one month my electric bill shot up for no apparent reason and stayed that way for another two or three months. I had to call the electric company a few times in order to get someone to actually listen to me and not just try and convince me that I had some mystery appliance in my apartment that was suddenly using tons of electricity. They reluctantly agreed to send someone out to check things out. I think the technician flipped the breaker for my apartment and saw that the meter was still spinning. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, the electric company had recently replaced all of the meters at the house. Something got mixed up in the process so I was getting billed for the first floor apartment (which was larger and had several tenants), and vice versa. They fixed it and credited my account for the mistaken charges.
posted by lomes at 6:52 AM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think you were definitely on the hook for one of the other unit's electricity, and it was fixed. I actually went through that, and the utility company considered it a really big deal and the landlord got in a lot of trouble for it. It's too late now, but that is what they should have been investigating. It's a thing that can happen in converted spaces, which mine was as well.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 6:54 AM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

A similar thing happened to me and it turned out that the outdoor lighting for our shared areas was hooked up to our meter. The bills dropped a chunk when the lights stopped working.
posted by RandomInconsistencies at 7:30 AM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

So many variables beyond your control. Do you have the old bills to compare with the new ones? Sometimes the meter calibration is included on the bill. If a correction factor is different now, they probably had something entered wrongly.

Did they change the meter? Many utilities can replace the meter without warning. If you have physical access to the meters, see if they're all about the same age. If one looks suspiciously newer, perhaps the utility swapped out the old one?

Is the fridge you kept running an older one? Some fridges have troublesome compressor motors that can cause higher apparent loads than you might expect.

Are any of the readings on the old bills estimated? Sometimes utilities assume a new owner/tenant will be a good source of credit and estimate the bills much higher until someone complains. Look for an asterisk or other subtle mark on the bills to denote estimation.

Are you looking to get money back, or is this just for your interest? The money back route, though it is likely your right (while still with the claim period where you are), can be a lot of paperwork and yelling.
posted by scruss at 7:33 AM on September 30, 2019

My ultility company has an online feature where you can see a summary of usage by address. It gives the highest, lowest, and annual-ish average rates. If yours has a similar thing, you could check around for a neighbor whose numbers are oddly low, and/or whose high seems to be out of line with the average (as if there might have been a recent change).
posted by teremala at 7:58 AM on September 30, 2019

Can you get a history of bills for the other 2 units, plus the common area (which as an owner, shouldn't be an issue)? Any changes within the building should be evident. If usage in the other units has been consistent, I would take your case back to the power company and make some noises. (Good luck.)
posted by she's not there at 8:36 AM on September 30, 2019

You can check if your meter is indeed measuring your electricity and only your electricity.

The meter will have some reasonably quick way to see whether any power at all is being drawn; depending on the meter type this could be anything from a rotating disc to a flashing light to something you need to press buttons to interrogate. Find out what that is for your meter.

Next, turn off and preferably unplug every appliance from every power outlet in your home, and turn off all the lights as well. If you have an electric hot water service, turn that off at the breaker as well. If your meter still shows electricity being consumed at all, then either there's something running in your home that you're unaware of, or you're paying for somebody else's electricity.

Next, plug a nice fat load like a fan heater into a wall outlet, crank it up to full, and check the meter. It should be completely obvious that plenty of juice is being drawn. Take that heater around every outlet in the house; every single one should show that same clear difference between load-on and load-off conditions. If you can find an outlet that runs your fan heater without your meter registering it, then that outlet is hooked up to somebody else's supply.
posted by flabdablet at 10:12 AM on September 30, 2019

There's a common meter, but it may be wired incorrectly. So:

Communal laundry in the basement, with machine upgrades in the spring?
Old, leaky freezer loitering in the basement, finally removed 6 months ago?
Neighbor with a woodworking hobby, running equipment in the basement, has changed habits?
Hallway lighting on your tab, and a recent-ish repair + new energy-efficient bulbs?
Alarm system for building malfunctioning?
Are there outside outlets, which might tie to your meter?

I'm able to see the breakout of hourly usage on my bill -- since you and your husband are out of the house weekdays from 9-5, seeing repeated peaks happening midday on old bills might be revealing. Or all day Sunday, when the laundry machines were in use. Or the yard service swtiched to gas-powered equipment. Or a neighbor ditched their electric car or alley-parked RV, which was drawing from a circuit billed to you...

It's an old Victorian house converted into separate units, and conversions are kind of known for mis-wiring. Hire an independent electrician who'll test each circuit, trace the lines throughout the building, and compile their findings in a report. Then contact the utilty company again.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:37 AM on September 30, 2019

Well, it’s too late now, but you could have had the power company disconnect your power for a week while you were on vacation.

You don't have to get a power company involved; just flip your main breaker off.
posted by Mitheral at 8:33 PM on September 30, 2019

If you have access to the breaker panel, I'd feel if any of the breakers were warm, when everything was supposed to be turned off. If you get a real electrician, they can use a "current clamp" probe to check each wire (coming from each breaker, accessible when panel cover is off) to see if any are carrying juice.
posted by intermod at 9:05 PM on September 30, 2019

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