By Ellen Roseman Tue Dec 7 2010
Alan Skeoch was paying $477 a month for electricity used at his farm near Erin, Ont., using direct debits from his bank account.
On Dec. 1, Hydro One withdrew $11,907 from his account without notice, wiping out all his savings.
He had fallen behind on his payments because the electricity meter at his second property hadn’t been read since 2008.
“The burden of guilt seemed to be placed on my shoulders,” Skeoch, 71, a retired teacher and part-time CBC radio broadcaster, said by e-mail.
“Why did I not read the meter? (Are you kidding? What good would that do?)
“Did I not know that I was underpaying? (Are you kidding? I just paid my bill in equalized payments, automatically deducted, and trusted that they knew their business charges.)
“Had I not given them access to my bank account? (That was very stupid of me, I realize now.)”
Many utilities offer budget billing plans that let you pay the same amount each month and make catch-up payments once a year.
But you can end up with a whopping final adjustment if the utility sets the monthly installments too low – as Enbridge Gas did earlier this year, affecting 100,000 customers.
At least Enbridge put a temporary hold on preauthorized payments for those who received warning letters about high annual adjustments.
Hydro One, however, just swooped in without notice to grab the money from Skeoch’s bank account.
“Subsequent hysterics with three agents and three supervisors have got me nowhere,” he said, adding that he’d like to ban the phrase, “Have a nice day, sir,” used by one employee.
Skeoch went to the media with his story, which prompted Hydro One to offer a 24-month period to repay the difference between his estimates and his actual electricity usage for the past two years.
“We told him we would immediately made arrangements for the charges to be reversed. That may not have taken place with his bank yet, but it has been set in motion,” said utility spokeswoman Daniele Gauvin.
Electricity meters are read just once a year for seasonal accounts. That’s how the problem arose.
“If your cottage consumption was X in the summer of 2008, then we send you bills during the year based on that reading,” Gauvin explained.
“In the summer of 2009, we read it again when we can access your property and base the next year’s billing on the updated summer 2009 meter reading.”
In Skeoch’s case, Hydro One read the meter in summer 2008 and 2010, but not in 2009. So, the final reconciliation reflected increased energy usage over two years (from the 2008 baseline).
Starting in September, customers can see the amount owing and the withdrawal date on their bills. But Skeoch, who said he pays by preauthorized debits because he doesn’t want to worry, never looks at his bills.
He has an electric furnace and water heater at his country home, a 25-acre property that has been in his family since 1908.
“I’m getting rid of the furnace and water heater, but I’m not going to use an outhouse like my grandparents did,” he says.
Hydro One tries to call customers in Skeoch’s position to talk to them about spreading out their payments. But the call never took place.
“We’re reviewing our customer service process to identify ways we can improve,” said Gauvin.
In my view, companies should be accountable for recurring billing errors.
Hydro One could have made concessions to a retiree earning $3,000 a month – instead of sticking him with a bill of almost $12,000 – after failing to read his meter for two years.
But in a world where customers often take the blame for not spotting errors, you have to double-check your bills. Ask questions if something isn’t clear. Find out whether you’re up to date.
Pay attention to what you’re paying.
Ellen Roseman writes about personal finance and consumer issues. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.