Tenant/Landlord: Shared Metering
October 3, 2006 4:42 AM   Subscribe

I just found out that I'm paying for another tenant's electricity usage (and have been for the last 4 years). What now?

Yesterday, the local power company sent a rep. to the 2-family building where I live. She was looking for the upstairs tenant, who was not available. The rep. told me the power to the 2nd floor was shut off 2 months ago (presumably for non-payment), and the tenant did not complain.

Last night, I saw light coming from the 2nd floor, as well as the sound of a TV. Obviously, there is electricity getting to the apartment even though the power was shut off at the meter. Being just 2 electric meter in the basement, it's clear the power is coming through my meter...

Here's the problem: I know this condition is called "shared metering," and there are clear laws concerning this type of situation, with the full responsibility & costs associated with the rectification placed squarely upon the landlord. I like my landlord, and he gives me a good deal on the rent because I'm a friend-of-a-friend. However, I've lived here for 4 years, and apparently I've been paying a large portion of the electrical usage of the other tenant for the entire time. I was aware of the lack of a "house meter" (I am paying for external lights & lights in common areas), but I had no problem with that, since those lights are either in my control and/or are attached to motion sensors, so the costs associated are negligible.

My options: grin & bear it (and continue to pay for the other tenant's electrical usage); get the power corp. involved in an investigation (which would cause my landlord to incur the expenses of probably rewiring the entire house, as well as all the penalties & fees associated with the shared metering condition); come to an agreement with the landlord (and I have *no* idea what would be a fair & equitable solution).

Any ideas??

Thanks in advance!
posted by NYScott to Human Relations (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd talk to your landlord about it. Find out whether upstairs being able to get juice through your meter is something he's actually aware of.

If the power company tried to cut the upstairs tenant off and was surprised at not getting a complaint, then the power company at least believes that the upstairs electricity is supposed to be connected via the meter they cut off.

I'm thinking the wacky funster upstairs may be running lights and a TV through a jury-rigged connection to an external light socket so as to avoid paying for juice. If that's what's going on, your landlord needs to know.

You might try turning off the breakers that supply the common-area lighting next time you see evidence of electricity use upstairs.
posted by flabdablet at 4:53 AM on October 3, 2006

You've paid for electricty that you didnt use? Then someone owes you money.

I would talk to your landlord straight away.
posted by lemonfridge at 4:56 AM on October 3, 2006

If you want to estimate how much it is costing you, unplug everything in your place before you go away for a day, a week, vacation, whatever. Read your meter, go away, then read it again when you get home. Try to get a representative sample, not just a single Saturday night. Compare that rate to your normal rate. Figure out the monthly average of electricity stolen. Then you'll know what you're dealing with and how much trouble it's worth to you.

I might show the numbers to the landlord and ask for an adjustment of that much. Let the landlord absorb the cost or pass it on to the other tenant or fix the wiring.
posted by pracowity at 5:25 AM on October 3, 2006

A couple of things come to mind:
First, how has the power been restored to this neighbor? It could be a very dangerous
( as flabdablet said), jury-rig.
Second, are you sure it's been 4 years, or could it be just since the tenant was cutoff ?
posted by lobstah at 5:37 AM on October 3, 2006

lobstah's right ... i think your neighbor jury-rigged it since his power was shut off ... you should tell your landlord about this, as he's as much of a (potential) victim of your neighbor as you are

has your electricity usage jumped in comparison to this time last year? ... i think it's likely you've only been carrying your neighbor for a couple of months
posted by pyramid termite at 6:03 AM on October 3, 2006

This happened to me once with heating oil. I worked out a equation with the owner of the company, he agreed to it. Anyway you look at it, you're owed money. Start with the landlord and escalate as you need to.
posted by miniape at 6:21 AM on October 3, 2006

Personally, I would involve the electric company in this. It's in their interest to get it straightened out properly, both the billing situation from the past four years (to avoid getting sued), and the proper set-up and billing in the future.

You shouldn't care about your landlord having to rewire the building. If he wants to rent it out as 2 apartments, then he should have it wired as such. You'd just be screwing over the next tenant who has to foot somebody else's power bill. Also, they've got plenty of experience with situations like this.

However, it's also very possible that you have not been paying the top tenant's power bill. If there are two meters, it sounds like the building probably is already wired for power to 2 separate apartments. Maybe, however, one or two outlets upstairs remain on the lower unit's system. It is also possible that the upstairs tenant just ran an extension cord to somewhere like an exterior outlet, which you've already mentioned you are paying for.
posted by MrZero at 6:58 AM on October 3, 2006

Response by poster: ===============

flabdablet: as for the tenant jerry-rigging an electric supply, I doubt it. The external light sockets & outlets are well within my view, and I did check them this morning before leaving for work. The rep. from the power company was also in the basement yesterday, and didn't mention seeing any jerry-rigged set up.

Also, several years ago, I worked for this power company for 4 years, although not as an electrician, but I have seen many ingenious meter-circumventing techniques during my tenure. I don't think the "wacky funster" in question :o) has the knowledge needed for a surreptitious hook-up, from what I know of him.

I did email my landlord this morning, and he replied, so he's now on record as knowing about the issue.

pracowity: good suggestions, thanks! Unfortunately, I recently came back from a week-long vacation, and don't have any more vacation planned for another 2.5 months...

lobstah & pyramid termite: The power company rep. told me the tenant's power was shut of at the meter 2 months ago. I reviewed my account online and there's no noticeable spike in usage, month-to-month or year-to-year. This leads me to believe it's a pure "shared metering" situation, and not a jerry-rigged theft of service. If my suspicions are true and this is a shared meter, then this has been going on since day one, four years ago.

Assuming I'm correct about the shared metering, I had no reason to suspect this situation; when I moved in, there was already a tenant upstairs, so the first bill I got included his usage as well as mine, so I assumed that was what my usage amounted to. After he moved out, the apartment was only empty for 30 days--during June, so I'd just begun running the a/c and wouldn't have noticed any change in my electricity usage... My first bill after the new tenant moved in would be the July bill--peak of the a/c season, so I would have attributed the increased usage to having run the a/c day & night.

I know one should never assume...... but for the sake of argument (and to give myself a little ammunition when/if the time comes), if this is a wiring/shared metering issue, and if my landlord doesn't want to spend thousands of dollars to rewire the whole house, how do I find a fair & equitable resolution? How do I estimate what is owed to me for 2002-2006, and how do I figure out a dollar amount for "today" until the end of my lease (July 2007)? The best people to ask would be the power company, but if I get them involved, they'll be required to run a formal investigation, which then forces my landlord to abide by their ruling (which, most likely means rewiring the whole building). Additionally, after I left my job at the power company, it was bought by a much larger company, and many of the contacts I once had there were either laid off, retired, or moved to different locations...

Again, thank you for your help!

posted by NYScott at 6:58 AM on October 3, 2006

"come to an agreement with the landlord (and I have *no* idea what would be a fair & equitable solution). "

Assuming that the other suite is, unknown to your landlord, fed from your meter the easiest way moving forward to handle this is move your building to a single meter and then either split the bill by sq footage or have electricity included in your rent (same thing, different pile). It may not be possible to reconfigure the wiring without tearing into walls etc. And your landlord will probably just evict both of you if you don't agree to either the split or rent increase.
posted by Mitheral at 7:15 AM on October 3, 2006

If you have copies of your previous bills, and can prove that you've been paying for electricity for the whole unit, I'd demand compensation based on square footage.
posted by muddgirl at 7:28 AM on October 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

In my opinion, I think it's going to be virtually impossible for you to figure out how much (if any) electricity has been pulling off your meter for the last four years. If the upstairs unit was using your power to the degree you're indicating (running lights, TV, major appliances such as the fridge) their power bill must have been very, very low. For four years, nobody said anything about an electric bill that must have amounted to hardly anything? I think those previous tenants were definitely paying something, and not an alarmingly small amount. I would call my electric company if I got $5 statements two months in a row. Further, the upstairs tenant was clearly paying a bill at some point, otherwise it makes no sense that the electric company would try to turn off his power. More than likely, that's from nonpayment. I'm not an expert, but logically, I think you haven't been paying the upstairs bill...at least for very long. Is it possible that it's wired in such a way that the upstairs unit will pull off the electricity from downstairs in the event that the apartment is getting no electricity at all?
posted by theantikitty at 7:29 AM on October 3, 2006

My roommates and I found out that a small office adjacent to our townhouse unit was using our electricity. The property manager had a fridge in there. When we realized we were paying it, we contacted the landlord, and they told us they would reimburse us for the power we had paid for. Here's what we did:

Make an excel spreadsheet, and get ALL of your old bills ready.

Cost per month:
Price of kilowatt hours at that month * wattage of applicances in use * average hours appliances in use * (1 + a conservative interest rate, compounded monthly) ^ number of months ago

In our case we estimated 500W for the fridge and 8 hours of operation per day, which is 4kWh per day, or about 120kWh per month. That could be about $20 per month (which made sense given our bills) - it adds up! And if you include the interest you're owed it gets quite large. We made very conservative estimates for every factor (save the cost of electricity, which was exact), and still we realized we were owed was over $1000 over the last two years. Which we withheld from rent, including a letter and the spreadsheet to explain, and they never came back to us.

You should make a rough estimate of the amount of power your tenant was using. Wattage of a lightbulb depends on the bulb - could be 40, could be 100 - you could look up an average TV wattage online. If you can you should calculate the amount of power you think you should be using, and compare with your old bills; if there is a discrepancy, see if you can explain it by adding your neighbors costs.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:50 AM on October 3, 2006

I don't know how your electric company bills you but where I am the companies tend to estimate your usage and average it out over the entire year. This is so you don't get hit with a spike during colder months (if you use electric heat) or summer months (assuming you use air conditioning). This is could account for the absence of any peaks in your bills.
posted by LunaticFringe at 8:40 AM on October 3, 2006

Oh, I guess I should add that the company will read the meter quaterly and adjust the bills to account for actual usage. With my parent's this meant that they got a credit in their account (two months free per year) even though the amount they paid for the rest of the year didn't change. YMMV.
posted by LunaticFringe at 8:42 AM on October 3, 2006

You say the electric company rep was in the basement - you weren't? Do you have access to the circuit breaker? From the whole description I'd assume there's one or more outlets upstairs that are coming off your breaker rather than theirs. Possibly they never noticed this till all the rest of their outlets stopped working and that's why you haven't noticed a jump in use.... yet. Now that they're down to just a few working plugs you can probably expect they'll be using them a LOT more.

If they're industrious, they may end up using those plugs more even if they get their power hooked back up now that they know it's not on their bill. My only worry if I were you, aside from paying for other people's shit, would be that someone living without power except for a few plugs could start making dangerous choices. Hotplates, space heaters, long extension cords to take light/tv to other areas of the apt, etc.
posted by phearlez at 8:44 AM on October 3, 2006

I would definitely get the power company involved. There is the safety issue first and foremost. It will also give you additional muscle to get the situation corrected and perhaps even to get compensated. Unfortunately, the person who probably owes you is the other tenant who sounds like he lacks the funds to pay you. I wouldn't think the landlord is off the hook though, especially if the house is just wired this way and he led you to believe that your meter was limited solely to your unit. I would think he would be at fault whether he knew or not. If on the other hand, the tenant tapped into your wiring unbeknownst to the landlord then it might be harder to get the money from the landlord.
posted by caddis at 9:04 AM on October 3, 2006

but I have seen many ingenious meter-circumventing techniques during my tenure

i would love to hear more about these. sounds fascinating.

posted by fishfucker at 9:55 AM on October 3, 2006

Response by poster: ==============================
All great points & suggestions - thank you.

While I hadn't visited the basement recently, I have been down there several times within the last 2 months (we had some heavy rain & flooding this summer), and there were no jumpers on the meters, or rigging on the breakers.

theantikitty: it's possible that one half of the apartment is powered from my meter (like the dining room & bedrooms), while the other half is on the correct meter (like the kitchen & living room), and if that's the case, then the bulk of the bill (fridge, range, microwave, dishwasher, TV, stereo, ceiling fan, etc.) is correctly applied to his meter, while the less power-hungry items are on my meter. In that scenario, the 2nd floor would have a "reasonable" bill, and the addition to my bill wouldn't be huge.

phearlez: "they may end up using those plugs more even if they get their power hooked back up now that they know it's not on their bill." EXCELLENT point. I'll have to keep that in mind if I decide to negotiate with my landlord w/out any electrical work being undertaken. And your other points are correct, too. As a former power company employee, I saw many instances of people using hot plates, space heaters, kerosene lamps, candles, etc., with disastrous consequences.

caddis: from what I've read, it's entirely the landlord's responsibility, if it's a true shared-metering situation, since the landlord is 100% responsible for the wiring of the house. If it's a case of the other tenant deliberately bypassing the meter, it's a criminal matter (theft of service), and the thief is 100% responsible.

I'm going to place an anonymous call to the power company and see what they have to say about it. I'm betting they'll tell me to have them open an investigation, but hopefully they'll give me some more information, too.

Still welcome to more suggestions!

Thanks again.
posted by NYScott at 9:58 AM on October 3, 2006

It could be worse.

(Side note - this guy was caught because a friend who rented one of his apartments called the cable company about an outage...)
posted by gottabefunky at 10:36 AM on October 3, 2006

I used to work for the electric company. They're very good about finding exactly what's happened. Also, they can attach a meter to find how much current is being diverted and can look up your records from before the diversion started. This makes it easy to prove how much has been stolen from you.

If you don't get satisfaction from the electric company, go to your state's public service commission, the state agency that supervises utilities. They all have complaint offices.

You'll probably have trouble collecting from the people who are stealing the service from you. If they ignore the utility bills, they'll ignore you. A lawsuit in small claims court can get you a lein against their assets, but if they don't have anything, there isn't much you can do.
posted by KRS at 11:01 AM on October 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

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