The $1,000 Gas Bills

David City, Nebraska residents were shocked to open their Aquila gas bills and find bills several hundreds of dollars over the norm, in some cases as high as $1,000. Aquila says that an inexperienced meter reader incorrectly read meters in the area too low for several months and now that the error has been caught, 1,100 affected residents will have to make up the difference. Customers aren’t too thrilled. Aquila is giving them three months to pay up, saying that all they’re doing is charging customers for the gas they used, that to do otherwise would be unfair to other Aquila customers, and that they won’t be shutting off anyone due to this billing snafu. Resident Cheryl Gregg was none too thrilled, saying, “A lot of companies that you go into, if they make a mistake, they take the loss. That’s kind of how it works.” What do you think? Should Alquila have paid for the cost of its mistake or is it only fair for customers to pay for the gas they used?

(Thanks to Stephen!)

Comments

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  1. jamesdenver says:

    OT – but a perfect example of why to never allow a company to directly debit your checking account (via routing # or debit card) each month.

  2. snoop-blog says:

    i thought all utilities were billed like this.

  3. WhirlyBird says:

    It’s funny how no one complained when their bills were too low for several months.

  4. beavis88 says:

    @WhirlyBird: No kidding. Pay up, people.

  5. nonzenze says:

    I agree that the customers should pay what they used but the company should give them more time. 3 months to pay a back ‘several’ months of under-charges is somewhat short. That said, the company seems to be doing the right thing, why is this on Consumerist?

  6. jwarner132 says:

    The customers basically got an interest-free loan from Aquila for a few months. It’s only fair that they pay it back, although I definitely understand that some people who spent their reduced-bill savings may have trouble paying it back in three months. This is a good reminder to always have an emergency savings account.

  7. friendlynerd says:

    Well I think since it’s an admitted case of employee incompetence, then yes the gas company should eat it. It’s not like the customers were stiffing them intentionally.

  8. AaronC says:

    No, The customer should be responsible for the product they used. While it is great customer service for a company to eat the cost, it is by no means the companies responsability. I believe people expect companies to bend over backwards for them a little too much. No company is perfect, they are run by people after all. I think the customers should pay up, but they should be given pleanty of time. The company is right, they are just charging for what they are owed. people make mistakes, that doesn’t mean you should get a free ride.

  9. You use gas. You are billed improperly for that gas over period X.

    Once the error is discovered, you are responsible for the billing error and must complete payment by period Y, which is equivalent in length until period X. As a benefit, you don’t have to pay for the marginal interest rate on the cash short that Aquila held for the period of time in which they had provided more gas than they had received payment for.

  10. opfreak says:

    they should pay. the company however should give them the same number of months as the mistake took place to pay the money back.

  11. BlondeGrlz says:

    Why is this up for debate? When the government takes too few estimated taxes out of your paycheck for 12 months, come April do people get to say “Oh well, your mistake, I aint payin.” I wish it worked like that.

  12. adambadam says:

    They only think I think that would be messed up is that if they were charged a higher rate for the gas because it was not noticed until later and the price has gone up, if it has.

  13. cwlodarczyk says:

    I would like to see Aquila suck it up and say “our bad, don’t worry about it”, but knowing that’ll never happen they need to give their customers longer than 3 months to pay up. There are a lot of people who simply can’t come up with an extra $300 per month to be able to pay this down.

    How about if they finance a yearlong lone to these customers to reduce the pressure to come up with a lump sum of cash?

  14. billbillbillbill says:

    A friend of mine had this happen to them. They moved into a new apartment during the summer so they had no idea how much it was going to cost to heat the place during the winter. Their bill was not too high in December and January so they thought they had a nice insulated apartment. Then in February, they got the $500 makeup bill. They disputed and told that if they had known the amount up front, they would have dropped their thermostat a few degrees to lower the bill. After escalating it a few levels, they got them to drop the bill in half.

  15. humphrmi says:

    So what happens if, during the time that they were under-reading the meters, someone moved? After they transfer the bill to a new tenant / owner, they aren’t responsible for future bills. So who gets stuck with making up the under-reading, the new tenant / owner?

    This is a pet peeve of mine. Nicor Gas here in suburban Chicago has to “estimate” my readings most months because my gas meter is inside the house and I’m not usually home when their reader comes by. So I end up with months of waaaay over-estimated usage, followed by a month with a nearly zero usage, followed by more months of over-estimation. When I first complained to Nicor, they suggested that I take the readings and call them in. But then they wouldn’t accept my readings because – duh – they had been overestimating for months and wanted proof (i.e. a reading by one of their guys) that the meter was as low as I said it was. So I called and complained again, and they basically shrugged and said “move your meter outside (at your expense).”

    Gas company billing is all a scam.

  16. gorckat says:

    I agree 100% with the utility in this case.

    Sometimes, in places without radio equipped meters read from the street by a passing vehicle, a tech can’t get into a home, so the utility will estimate based on prior usage and whether. Then, next month, you pay up if short and get credit if you were over billed.

    Basically the same thing here.

    I work at an energy assistance program, and the one thing that I think actually changes behavior is teaching people how to read and understand their bills. When someone learns how to determine how much electricity and gas they use, it makes it more likely they will conserve energy to save money because they can see the progress on their bill.

    If these customers had been similarly knowledgeable (and assuming the bills provide the information the utilities we work with do), they’d have caught the errors themselves and the smart ones (the ones who know they’d have to catch it up at some point) would have checked the meter themselves and called it in (something you can usually do if the bill says the reading was estimated).

    (Sorry for all the parenthesis in that last section :P)

  17. gamehendge2000 says:

    you should just rename this site Companiest, where it’s about people trying to scam companies out of a few bucks. Then these stories will at least be more in tune with the site’s purpose.

  18. WayDownRiver says:

    Strange how these things are offered up for debate.

    It’s not the most pleasant thing to deal with a power utility, but I’ve never heard of customers not having to pay for their energy use because the meter was misread a few times (Cheryl Gregg’s wisdom nothwithstanding).

    I’m not blaming the consumer, but there is such a thing as understanding your own utility bills and realizing that you’re being underbilled. If you’re so out of touch with your energy use, you’re part of the problem.

  19. kamikasee says:

    @blondegrlz:
    In all fairness, it is your employer that does this, not the government.

  20. longtimegeek says:

    If you read the linked article the mis-reads were for 2 months (mid-november to mid-december). It also says ‘at least’ 3 months (more if needed) to make up the difference. Aquila is my gas provider so I really did want to check out how they handle it and it really does seem fair.

  21. brent_w says:

    There are a lot of people quick to trust the gas company here.

    This could have been an easy way to drive winter profits up.

    Most people don’t know how to read their own gas, they trust the utility company to get it right.

    If winter starts and people notice that their heating bills aren’t too bad then they feel like its safe to keep the house a bit warmer and use more gas as a result.

    Then the gas company gets to come back later and say … uh oh … look at all the extra gas you used … PAY UP!

    Its not right, those people were essentially lied to about their gas consumption, and they made a financial decision to raise the thermostat based on false data provided by the company.

  22. deVious says:

    @gamehendge2000: I’m not sure what the scam you’re referring to is here. It was the company’s mistake – it’s not like the customers were messing with the meters.

    I agree that they should pay for their usage, but it’d be interesting to see whether they used more gas than normal because of the lower bills in prior months.

  23. Dibbler says:

    @gamehendge2000: So true…

    Pay up and 3 months is very generous since the misread gas bills are probably from the last 3 months anyway. I have Aquila and they suck but still these people need to pay their bills.

    One thing that sucks about Aquila is that you have to pay $20 a months whether you use gas or not. All summer I pay my money just to have the pleasure of having Aquila around. Service fees are a rip off!

  24. Munsoned says:

    Same problem happens with Pepco and other utilities that “estimate” readings. In my case, they ran a few of those estimates low, resulting in a big make-up bill. Sure, the terminology is a little different (“estimate” does not have the connotation of “final”), but the result is the same. At the end of the day, I owe what I owe. (Bonus: Pepco did not offer me any grace period for the large make-up bill).

  25. Aphex242 says:

    Yeah they should probably get a little more flexibility from the company, but they DO owe the money.

  26. vr4z06gt says:

    i agree, the gas company should eat the loss, if i bought gasoline, and the machine said it was 20cents cheaper, they wouldn’t charge me the difference if i went back later, if you can’t do it right thats your the companies problem…….

  27. vr4z06gt says:

    how is this any different….

  28. ancientsociety says:

    The gas co. should eat it. It’s not the customer’s fault Aquila hired an idiot who can’t properly read and record meter #s (it’s not rocket science).

  29. LorneReams says:

    I think it’s funny that if the situation was reversed, the company may say that they will not offer a refund because too much time has passed. Doesn’t this come up from time to time?

  30. nonzenze says:

    vr4z – OK, but if the gas company accidentally overcharges you, you have to eat the loss.

  31. uberbucket says:

    Woo-hoo, free gas!

    I noticed the gas customers weren’t that concerned when they were paying half what they should be.

    You used it, you pay for it.

  32. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    That said, the company seems to be doing the right thing, why is this on Consumerist?

    @nonzenze:

    What do you think? Should Alquila have paid for the cost of its mistake or is it only fair for customers to pay for the gas they used?

    – OP

  33. chartrule says:

    while the gas company should get the money its owed

    your still going to have people that go we paid for those months end of discussion while others will pay the extra money being charged

  34. katylostherart says:

    @WhirlyBird: while i agree the company should be able to recoup its losses it’s sometimes difficult to tell what a utility bill will be. i remember when our power company got broken apart as a part of deregulation. we’re on a plan where we just pay a flat fee each month and the difference is made up over the year, sometimes less sometimes more deal. however, the first bill after the power company had to sell off its plants resulted in a $600 bill and there was no warning that the price would skyrocket that way. these people probably didn’t notice their bill was too low because it fit in a general price range that they were used to.

  35. Coder4Life says:

    This happened to us, but they billed us really high for about 2 months and the last month the bill was around $50.

  36. NVSmythe says:

    @beavis88: Seriously, would you complain if your bill was to low. Stop blaming the consumers, gas bills fluctuate depending on the season/month to month. So to compare directly you would have to remember what you payed a year ago.

    Saying that, I would be pissed but I would understand and pay it.

  37. stinerman says:

    I run into a similar situation with my gas bill. Every other month they do estimated readings. They’re off so badly that I basically pay a month ahead of time.

    For instance I’ve had a bill of ~$300 for a month and then next month getting charged for about $25.

  38. GenXCub says:

    I’m really surprised at the number of people who are siding with the gas company here. And full disclosure, I work for a natural gas utility.

    The way I see it, it should be treated as a commodity. If you went to your local grocery store and bought a box of Frosted Flakes (which is unmarked with price), they said $1 please, and you pay it and leave; But the next time you go in, the guy ahead of you in line is charged $2 for his frosted flakes, and then you’re charged $3 for your frosted flakes right after, and they cite that you were mischarged the first time and now you have to pay up.

    This is why I’d side with the customer here.

  39. DeeJayQueue says:

    Ok, imagine you go through the drive through at Wendy’s every day. You order the same value meal, and it comes with a medium drink. One day they start giving you a large drink but not charging you any more.
    After a few days of this you say “Hey I’m getting a large drink now” and they say “Well I guess that’s what the value meal comes with.” So, you keep on getting your large drinks with your value meal for a few months, and then one day you go through the line and they say “Yeah, we made a mistake and you were supposed to be getting medium drinks this whole time, so you owe us for the difference. Sorry about your luck.”

    That kind of thing would never happen at Wendy’s, so why would it be acceptable with the gas company? The meters belong to them, the pipes and reading equipment belong to them, if they can’t or choose not to read it properly that’s hardly the fault of the consumer.
    It’s the same bullshit as “The register made a mistake/is down/can’t process transactions” excuse. I’m not buying something from the register, I’m buying it from you. The system you use to properly charge me, take and organize the money I give you is none of my business, and if it’s not working properly it’s your problem not mine.

  40. RustysNailed says:

    Yes, the customers did use the gas, but the utility made the billing error and should be responsible for their own mistake.

  41. Underpants Gnome says:

    This happened to me in an old apartment. The meter broke and didn’t charge me for 3 months. Then they hit me with a big bill, but gave me an equal amount of time to pay it (3 months).
    I agree its no fun to get a bill like that. I complained and grumbled, but it was the fair thing to do, and if they’d been overcharging me, I would have expected a refund.

  42. Boy Howdy says:

    I think the customers should explain to the gas company that they understand, and will pay the extra, but that their bill payment policy only allows them to correct billing errors in the past three months.

    Unfortunately, any undercharging which may have occurred more than three months ago can’t be corrected.

    It’s their policy, you see.

  43. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    There’s an error in the post. According to the article you linked to:

    Schwartz said Aquila is giving customers at least* three months to pay the bills and more time if they need it.

    *emphasis mine

    So it sounds like time shouldn’t be an issue in getting bill paid if the company is being sincere in that they won’t be cutting anyone off over this mistake.

  44. MercuryPDX says:

    This is why I use balanced billing. It’s easier to take a hit/spike over the course of a year than all at once.

  45. stacye says:

    @Boy Howdy: I came here to say this, also.

  46. Ciao_Bambina says:

    I work for an electric/natural gas utility a third the size of Aquila. We have checks and balances in place that prevent just this sort of thing from happening, including switching the meter readers’ routes around every few months and automatic computer alerts that go to our customer service dept. when an area of reads is unusually high or low at any one time.

    We are also getting ready to install automatic meter reading technology which will allow one employee to drive through several neighborhoods and read hundreds of meters in a day. Eventually the meter data will be automatically sent back to the utility, without the need for the reader. The consumer will also have access to his own info and will be able to monitor and adjust usage.

    Step up, Aquila! If my little ute can do it, so can you!

  47. NotATool says:

    @humphrmi: My meter is outside, yet Nicor “estimates” every other month. I suppose they do this because they can basically cut their meter reading costs in half (only read 6x per year, not 12). But, it’s annoying. Why not just bill every other month then?

  48. Nighthawke says:

    PUC time for this one. Asses screwed up and are nailing folks, some of them are probably on limited income. Think that the state needs to step in and force this operation to eat at least 1/2 the bills in dispute, and mitigate the rest in interest-free payments over a fixed time period.

  49. bodah says:

    The utility company here estimated our electric wrong for a whole year, then sent us a $900 bill after we moved. We had a few months to pay too.

    Pay up, your bills were artificially low.

  50. zerj says:

    I think the problem is it isn’t really knowable how much gas you are using. Yes if you noticed your bill seemed low then certainly you shouldn’t have a problem.

    However how about if I had just mswitched to gas service from oil? I could potentially see hey look gas does save me money. If this is all it costs then I WILL take that 1/2 hour hot shower every morning.

    How does a consumer know what the cost of a hot shower is if not from reading the gas bill? Without a correct reference here it could be the utilities fault.

  51. TPS Reporter says:

    I think the gas company should get its money, but they should allow the customer to spread it out over 6 to 12 months. It might be hard for some of these people to come up with the cash to pay it off in 3 months. That would seem fair to the customer and to the gas company. Both are really at fault – the customer for not noticing a $300 average drop each month and the gas company for not training the employee correctly.

  52. gamehendge2000 says:

    @DeeJayQueue:

    “The system you use to properly charge me, take and organize the money I give you is none of my business, and if it’s not working properly it’s your problem not mine.”

    No – it becomes your problem and your neighbor’s problem. Everyone’s rates will eventually increase to cover the write-offs.

    The “company should eat it mentality” is a simpler term for socialism – trying to make it everyone else’s problem.

    Companies are allowed to make mistakes. I sure as hell wouldn’t want my employer to not pay me for the time spent on my mistakes at work.

  53. Zagroseckt says:

    i dont know about this spifick gas company but around here we get a minimum usige bill that kicks in if you use less than x amount of gas.
    if the bills are exctreamly low some of these people may be overpaying from the Base charge considering i doubt the billing system knows to retrograde all that under charging.

    that 1k bill may only be 800$ if it was red properly

  54. forgottenpassword says:

    WHOOPS!!!! My bad!!! *shrug*

    NOW PAY UP!!!!!!!!!!

    Why is it when the business screws up, its perfectly acceptable, but if a customer does…. he pays thru the nose?

    IMO they should take all that extra cash they neglected to collect & spread it out in customer’s bills during a whole year’s time.

  55. ezacharyk says:

    I think that the gas company is in the right. If the employee was trained properly but failed to do their job properly, they should not be held liable.

    But that said, 3 months to pay what equals one morgage payment for some people is pretty short. It should be spread over the next year.

    When you signed the contract for you gas, you agreed to pay for all gas you used. It doesn’t say that you agree to pay for the gas they think you used.

  56. Tank says:

    It’s a good thing he’s a meter reader and not a waiter – they’d take the shortage out of his check.

  57. crabbyman6 says:

    This reminds me of a situation in my home town. The Borough recently raised water rates, which hadn’t been raised in something like 20 years, so they were incredibly low. Well, now everyone with a new house is complaining about the cost and everyone with an old house is saying “what, mine hardly went up at all”. So the Borough investigates and it turns out the old meters wear out and don’t measure properly. So now everyone with an old meter lives in fear that they’ll get a new one and everyone with a new one demands they all get replaced.

  58. SadSam says:

    We live in a small city that has its own city run utility system (neighboring towns and cities receive power from the big for-profit company) and we have these kinds of issues all the time.

    Sometimes the city goes months without reading meters and guestimates/averages use to come up with a bill (this is permissible in the case of an emergency – i.d. they can’t read meters due to a hurricane) but the bill is to be clearly marked ‘estimated’. This is an old city and the water meters are in the alley behind the homes and its easy to see they have not been read in months or years because the meters are buried under grass, rocks, dirt, etc. This happened to us a couple of times, utility bills that make no sense and we compared our water meter (which is not covered by any debris) with the bill and when the numbers are off we call them on it and the ‘re-read’ the meter and correct the bill. In our fine city, when the error goes the other way, in that they’ve been under billing for months you get hit with all the charges in one month.

  59. kevinhall says:

    The customers should pay what they owe. When I bought my house the gas company sent me huge bills from some other meter for about 6 months. They clearly screwed up, but I never claimed not to owe them anything, merely to get the bill right so I could pay exactly what was owed – no more and no less. I wouldn’t expect to pay more than I owe due to their mistake and I would not expect to pay less. Anything else on my part or theirs would be unethical and dishonest.

    In this case they have admitted a mistake, corrected it, and given a reasonable amount of time to come up with the money owed without threats of cutting off service or anything else.

  60. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    However how about if I had just mswitched to gas service from oil?

    @zerj: That’s a good point.

  61. DeliBoy says:

    @GenXCub: and @DeeJayQueue: I was about to used the same retail analogy. Much like a grocer mis-weighing beef. No one would expect the customer to make reparations three months later.

    And I agree, this situation is unique only because the customers are ‘tied’ in a way to their energy supplier in a way that most people are not ‘tied’ to a grocery store.

    To those to are blaming the customers for not noticing the sudden drop in their bill: A portion of these homeowners may have undertaken energy-saving measures in their home, which may explain some of the reduction.

    More importantly, why didn’t Aquila notice the sudden drop in readings? You’d think a big utility like this would have people examining trends on a very frequent basis. Come on Aquila, pony up and purchase a copy of SPSS.

  62. opsomath says:

    I think the Wendy’s analogy is perfectly accurate. And it’s not socialism to say that a company should have to pay for its mistakes. It’s socialism to say that the TAXPAYER should have to pay for its mistakes.

  63. vincedotcom says:

    PG and E did this to me. Their meter was broken for years–BROKEN. It read nothing for gas use and after they fixed it they ‘estimated’ my usage for the previous time and billed me.

  64. Sir Winston Thriller says:

    Similar problem happened to us, but Vermont Gas gave us a choice–pay now or pay over 12 months with no interest.

  65. PinkBox says:

    My opinion is that yes, the customers need to pay some of it back, but perhaps the energy company should bear some of the responsibility of getting it wrong to begin with.

    Maybe discount what the customers owe, and give them a little longer than the three months to pay the bill back.

    Power bills seem to vary for a wide variety of reasons, so it isn’t fair to assume that all of the customers realized that they were paying far less than they should.

    I can’t even tell you how much my last bill was, with how much it varies.

  66. DeeJayQueue says:

    @gamehendge2000: Ok, so if I read my bill wrong and overpay for 6 months, I should expect to be able to get a refund of that money right? Right? Yeah, no. Doesn’t work that way.

    As utility customers we agree to pay for what we use, but we also have to trust that the company is accurately determining what that number is. If they gave us the tools to read our own meters and trusted us to read them accurately, and we still messed it up, then it would be on us to repay what we incorrectly mis-billed for.

    If I go into the grocery store and items scan higher than they’re marked on the shelf, I get the shelf price, not what rings in the register. That’s the fault of the store for inconsistencies in their register system. In other words, the store eats it when they make a mistake.

    Yes companies are allowed to make mistakes, as are people, but being allowed to and being excused from the consequences thereof are entirely different things. If the gas customers were simply not paying the bills, or paying less than the bill was for, then it would be their fault and they’d owe the money. But since they have no way of making sure the meter reads are correct and accurate, and since it was a mistake on the part of the gas company I think they should eat it as a loss, and use the opportunity to make sure they train their meter readers how to do their jobs right, or maybe invest in better meters or reading technologies.

    Accountability. When party A makes a mistake, party A is accountable for it. Don’t pass the buck, and don’t ask your customers to pay for your fuckups.

  67. mechanismatic says:

    I’m surprised how many people here are siding with the company. The employee made a mistake. The company is responsible for that mistake because it hired the employee. If the company experiences this error once, then it should take steps to correct the mistake, not correct the result and overburden the customer who likely was happy to receive a lower bill but probably didn’t suspect it was an error. If the customer caused the mistake, okay, pay up. If not the company eats it. People here have posted that the customers should have known how much their bills should have been. That’s a crock.

    Would you still argue that the customers still owe the money if there were a greater gap in time since the mistake was made? What if the company under-billed for 5 years and then saddled customers with a $20,000 bill?

    Or what if the company made the mistake but didn’t catch it for ten years. Ten years later they give the customers a bill for the $1000. Should they still have to pay it? What about twenty years? How long before the company should just eat it? Immediately. If the company can’t bill properly, then it doesn’t deserve its money. Most companies wouldn’t give anything back if they over-billed. People would scream that the customer should have checked their statement. Well, the company should take personal responsibility for its mistake and check its damn statement next time.

  68. brandymb says:

    Nothing unusual. PG&E here is CA has done that to me. I still had to pay…

  69. gmanj says:

    @GenXCub:

    Well, the retail example is not a particularly accurate analogy, since mispricing, and mistaken quantities are a bit different from each other.

    Having said that, if the retailer was hooked up to your home and was your sole provider of food, you can bet they would then have the wherewithal to make you pay for things you got away with earlier. I mean, come on, they don’t chase you down for the mispriced corn flakes not because they don’t think they should be entitled as a matter of fairness, but because they have virtually no way of ever identifying and/or proving something like that sufficiently to do so. The Gas Company does.

  70. guspaz says:

    People should have to pay, but the company needs to understand that not everybody can foot a giant bill with no notice. The company needs to give people a reasonable amount of time to pay (interest free). After all, the company is the one who made the mistake, the least they can do is make it easy for people to pay them back.

    People on low income, what if they only have $200 a month of disposable income, and are expected to pay this $1000 bill in three months? Give them a year to pay it, they’ll get the money back eventually.

  71. gmanj says:

    @DeeJayQueue:

    In what municipality do you live?!? I have never accidentally overpaid a bill without it then turning up as a credit to my account. I have never seen a reputable outfit try to argue they can keep the overage and not do so.

  72. gingerCE says:

    Opposite happened to me. Was paying high electric bills–much higher than last years, then got a huge credit–usage in the negatives–didn’t have to pay 3 months of electric bills.

    I believe they 100% need to pay what they owe because they used that gas/electric, but I think payment plans are needed–12 months interest free is a lot easier to take than a $1000 bill at once.

  73. DeeJayQueue says:

    @gmanj: How would you know if you had been overpaying? If you pay what’s on the bill and after the fact it turns out they were reading the meter wrong in their favor, do you think you’d get it back? Maybe month to month when they reconcile their estimated readings with the actual ones, but if the meter is calibrated wrong or if there’s some other problem you’d never know it.

  74. enine says:

    I had a meter reader mis read my electric meter one month. My average $30/month electric bill was $300 all of a sudden and the electric company refused to beleive there was something wrong.

  75. radio1 says:

    Isn’t this question really about how high energy prices are?

    I mean really, not everyone is out to stiff companies. But companies are certainly out to stiff consumers, hence websites like this.

    Frankly, I think anyone who does side with the gas company has never been on the wrong side of an extremely gas bill once winter hits. If you ever did, you would be more sympathetic to these people plights.

    I think the gas company should at least eat 50% of the cost or 100% if it is public-chartered utility. Why is the consumer’s fault if the gas company can’t train people correctly?

  76. Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg says:

    @mechanismatic:

    I’m surprised how many people here are siding with the company.

    Why? They’re in the right. When you sign up for service, you agree to abide by the rules of the service. And the rules for meter reading, estimating, billing, etc are typically spelled out very clearly, in detail, in the appropriate tariffs that the utilites are required to abide by.

    If the company had to eat the charges in cases like this, it would be a simple matter for customers to rip them off on a regular basis. This isn’t controversial, or uncommon. When you sign up for gas, electric, or water, you agree to pay for all of the commodity you actually use.

    The real issue here is the meter reader – was this an actual legit mistake, or a case of a lazy meter reader sitting in his truck just making them up and doing a bad job of it?

  77. tkr5 says:

    Except in egregious circumstances, it is very difficult for the consumer to catch a mistake, as most people don’t pay attention to each penny.

    Given that, we make decisions about our future behaviors based on the costs of past behaviors.
    1) We are constantly doing new things. If something (like the cost) changes at the same time, we will attribute the change to our new behavior, which will make us either more or less likely to do it. Those of you who get bills based on estimates know this, and don’t make those assumptions about how this months behavior relates to the bill.

    2) If you have extra money at the end of the month, you might spend it on something you wouldn’t otherwise buy. If you know that you might have to pay up big in the future, however, you probably wouldn’t spend it.

    So, because these residents likely (and rightly so) made different decisions because of the gas companies mistake, through no fault of their own, the gas company should not ask them to make up the difference now.

  78. Dibbler says:

    @crabbyman6: I had the same thing happen at my old house. I moved into my new house and my first electric bill was $350 for one month so I called the electric company and they replaced the meter and the next month my bill was $60. I think I had the case of an old meter that ran too fast.

  79. keith4298 says:

    @gorckat: This wasn’t an estimated reading though. The people getting the bill saw that it said “actual” reading. In that situation, I don’t think it’s as cut and dry. Personally, I think they should have as long to pay as they were incorrectly billed.

  80. stopNgoBeau says:

    If I go to McDonalds five times, and they undercharge me each time, do they make up the difference when I go the sixth time? NO! Sorry folks, but the utility screwed up, said “You only used this much this month, and here are the numbers to show it.” They should not have to “make up” what the meter company screwed up in reading.

  81. Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg says:

    @DeeJayQueue:

    If you pay what’s on the bill and after the fact it turns out they were reading the meter wrong in their favor, do you think you’d get it back?

    I don’t think that, I know it for a fact. This isn’t Bank of America we’re talking about here, it’s a government regulated utility. I got estimated bills for almost eight months once. When they finally got an actual meter reading, I wound up with a credit of more than four hundred bucks. So yes, they will (and do) give it back to you.

    if the meter is calibrated wrong or if there’s some other problem you’d never know it.

    If you suspect that it might be out of whack, call them up and say so. They’re required to test it, and if it’s off by more than the allowable amount they are required to prorate your bills going back quite a ways. Unless the meter is off the other way and was actually underreporting your usage, in which case they WILL eat the difference. Of course, you’ll no longer be getting the benefit of that meter, so your bills will go up.

  82. arthurat says:

    pay up folks!!

  83. Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg says:

    @keith4298:

    The people getting the bill saw that it said “actual” reading. In that situation, I don’t think it’s as cut and dry

    Now that I’ve gone and read the actual article it see it isn’t about bad estimates, but that doesn’t really change anything.

    For everyone going on about “if the situation were reversed, would they give the money back?!” the answer is YES, they would – they have to. If there is a demonstrable error that causes them to overbill you, they will give you an appropriate refund.

    It’s simple, really – The customer agreed to pay for all of the gas they actually use, so long as both parties are acting in good faith, the “injured” party must be made whole if a mistake is made.

    The company in this case is being pretty reasonable – they’re giving them at least three months to pay (more if requested), they’ve admitted it was their mistake and apologized, and they’ve promised not to shut anyone off.

  84. marzak says:

    I went 3 months without being billed for electricity once. When I got the bill i wasn’t happy, but I paid for the usage. These people need to stop crying and pay the man.

  85. TechnoDestructo says:

    Jeez, their accountants must be retired military finance troops.

    When the military makes a pay error, they correct it all at once. If they overpay you 10000 bucks over the course of several years, you’ll get zero pay for a few months until the error is covered. In these cases I don’t think food and housing allowances are affected, though, so no one’s going to starve over it.

    It works the other way, too. That’s how I got several thousand dollars in foreign language pay in one month.

    Seriously, as a utility, they’ve got to realize they have customers living paycheck to paycheck, and they can’t absorb that blow all at once. Prorate it over the same length of time that it took to build up the discrepancy, and I don’t think anyone can complain.

  86. pfeng says:

    I had my water meter misread by a few thousand gallons too high one month. The water company apologized; we both were fine with it because the correct reading next month would show I’d only used a few dozen gallons (instead of my typical few thousand).

    In this case, the amount paid by the customers averages out. Let’s say they typically use 100 gallons* a month. Month one they’re billed for 10 gallons, month two they’re billed for 10 gallons, month three they’re billed for 280 gallons. Yeah, month three hurts a lot more, but the TOTAL you pay for that three month period isn’t any worse than it would have been if the bills were “correct”.

    Giving their customers time to pay off the higher-than-average billing is nice of them to do. If I were their customer, I’d be happy with their apology, leeway, and hopefully assurance that meter readers would be better trained. Sure, I’d grumble, but I wouldn’t expect to thousands of dollars of utility use to be just ignored.

    * I don’t know if gas is measured in gallons. My house is all electric. So if it’s not gallons, then SORRY :P

  87. itsallme says:

    The gas company is operating within the law:

    From [www.sos.ne.gov]

    015.09C Adjustments to Bills for Other Meter Errors: If a ratepayer has been overcharged or undercharged as a result of an incorrect reading of the meter, incorrect application of a utility tariff, incorrect connection of the meter, application of an incorrect multiplier or constant or other similar reason, the overcharge must be credited or refunded to the atepayer or the undercharge may be billed to the ratepayer. The refund, credit, or charge shall not exceed six months, unless the date of the error can be fixed with reasonable certainty, in which case the refund or charge must be computed, subject to statutory limits, from that date.

  88. Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg says:

    @GenXCub: If you went to your local grocery store and bought a box of Frosted Flakes
    @DeeJayQueue: Ok, imagine you go through the drive through at Wendy’s every day.
    @stopNgoBeau: If I go to McDonalds five times,

    Unless you’ve entered into an ongoing, long term, credit based supply contract whose terms are dictated and enforced by a governmental regulatory agency with [Insert Retail Company Here], this analogy does not work.

    Really, folks. There are a lot of gas companies that suck, and even more that do some royally crappy things to consumers. But this isn’t one of those cases.

  89. DeeJayQueue says:

    @TinyBug:

    Unless the meter is off the other way and was actually underreporting your usage, in which case they WILL eat the difference.

    umm, isn’t that the whole point of this post? That the meters were being under-reported for 3 months and now they DON’T want to eat the difference?

    This isn’t Bank of America we’re talking about here, it’s a government regulated utility.

    Yes, because government regulated utilities are paragons of virtue and completely above corruption or human error. That’s why dealing with the government is so easy and straightforward, because it’s staffed with the nation’s best and brighest. /sarcasm.

    Give me a break. When faced with a choice between getting in trouble with your higher-ups for poor read accuracy and overbilling, and saying nothing and keeping the money, I wonder which way some people will go.

    Case in point, the last apartment complex I lived in. For some reason even though we each had a meter the bill had a “common heat” line item on it. The landlord explained it some fishy way, but essentially the tenants in the quad were subsidizing each other’s heat a little bit. All of our bills started skyrocketing way past normal. Come to find out that the unscrupulous meter reader guy had gone into a vacant apartment and cranked the heat up all the way. Nobody knew, and I guess the previous tenant was getting billed for it, but so were we, the current quad tenants. The landlord told us not to pay, so we didn’t. The gas company (some local co-op) threatened to take us all to collections but when we confronted the manager with the evidence that their meter reader was the only one who was granted access to the vacant unit, and did so right when our bills got jacked, he dropped the whole thing like a hot potato.

    I know that’s not the case everywhere, and if other people have had more pleasant experiences with their utility companies, more power to them, but don’t rely on government oversight to keep them honest.

  90. jimmy37 says:

    Resident Cheryl Gregg was none too thrilled, saying, “A lot of companies that you go into, if they make a mistake, they take the loss. That’s kind of how it works.”

    What kind of BS is that??? So if the bill comes out higher the next month because of another reading mistake, does the company get to keep the extra??

    This is insane! People take out mortgages they can’t afford and want someone to bail them out. Now, these same cheats use a service and don’t want to pay for it.

  91. jimmy37 says:

    There is absolutely no excuse for anyone not to pay their bill. It makes no difference if there is a billing error, they still owe for what they used. It is only fair to amortize this difference into the future, so that people don’t incur any extra debt.

    Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not restricted to retail. Look at taxes. People complain when they have to write a check to the IRS and splurge when they get a refund. In both cases, what people are missing is that there is a specific tax obligation they’ve incurred. Regardless, whether they have to pay or get a refund, this obligation stays the same. Only people’s perceptions change.

  92. gorckat says:

    Would you still argue that the customers still owe the money if there were a greater gap in time since the mistake was made? What if the company under-billed for 5 years and then saddled customers with a $20,000 bill?

    I’ve seen people owe 12k after two years due to billing errors/problems to do with the account not changing from the landlord’s to the tenant’s name, and yes- I think they owe the money.

    @gorckat: This wasn’t an estimated reading though. The people getting the bill saw that it said “actual” reading. In that situation, I don’t think it’s as cut and dry. Personally, I think they should have as long to pay as they were incorrectly billed.

    That’s why I went into explaining how people knowing how to read their bill and understanding how to compare it to historical energy usage makes it more likely they’d query the utility on why their bill was so low.

    If they see that last December (or w/e) they used 200 therms of gas and this year, at the same daily temp, they used 20, then they know something is really wrong.

  93. Optimistic Prime says:

    @WhirlyBird: Exactly. Apparently something is wrong when owe 20 bucks on your gas bill, in the winter… You can’t beat the budget plan your gas company offers. It’s the same every month of the year, but you end up getting ahead at the very least in the summer months.

    I rent, so I haven’t had a gas bill in a couple of years, but I know every other month is an estimate anyhow. One month is usually low, and the next will be high. In the end it does average out.

  94. SmellyGatto says:

    1. You should have to pay

    2. The utility should extend a nominal credit to everyone for the trouble they caused.

    3. You should have the same amount of time to pay as they messed up.

    4. The utility company looks childish using the “fair to everyone” line.

  95. Optimistic Prime says:

    @cwlodarczyk: Sure it’s an extra $300 a month, but by all means they should have an extra grand (at least in theory) sitting around from what they did not pay in the first place. Someone noted the price hike, if any, should be taken into account. Absolutely. If you used 100 MCF when the price was $12, but the rate is now $13, that’s a $100 you didn’t really spend.

  96. @WhirlyBird: “It’s funny how no one complained when their bills were too low for several months.”

    Depending on how low is too low, they may not have noticed. Our bills skyrocket from about $20 for natural gas in the summer to around $300 a month in the winter. Moreover, we had a price increase last spring. If they’d been MEANING to bill me $300 and had only been billing me $250, it would still have registered as “okay winter gas bill” and “higher than last year.” I’d be FLAMING PISSED if they suddenly wanted me to pay six months of back charges for THEIR error, particularly when they JUST raised my rates up the wazoo.

    I don’t think it’s wrong of them to want customers to pay, but sending letters to customers explaining the situation (not just surprise bills), and then offering several payment options AT NO COST to the consumer (as it was the company’s error) would be more appropriate. For example, maybe they could spread it over four months in the summer when gas bills are low and people might have more wiggle room in the budget.

  97. Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg says:

    @DeeJayQueue:umm, isn’t that the whole point of this post? That the meters were being under-reported for 3 months and now they DON’T want to eat the difference?

    No, the meters in this case were reporting correctly, but were being incorrectly recorded. That’s significantly different from a meter that is reporting incorrectly because it is improperly calibrated.

    If meter reading mistakes were cause for a refund, a single typographical error could be like winning the lottery.

    Yes, because government regulated utilities are paragons of virtue and completely above corruption or human error.

    no, because utilities are usually required by law to adhere to their tariffs, and face stiff fines and penalties if they don’t. They are rife with human error, which is why there are well established, agreed upon rules that they must adhere to when correcting those errors. like in this case.

    For some reason even though we each had a meter the bill had a “common heat” line item on it. The landlord explained it some fishy way,

    Apartment complexes often have a separate meter for the gas used to heat the stairwells, hallways etc. You know – the “common areas”.

    essentially the tenants in the quad were subsidizing each other’s heat a little bit.

    Doubtful. More likely you were sharing the cost of the “common area” meter. And turning up the heat in one apartment would have absolutely no effect on that.

    Tell me, did your bill come directly from the utility, or did it somehow go through the landlord? Cause it sounds to me like the landlord was actually the culprit here – rigging the game to make you guys pay for the heat in empty apartments.

    The landlord told us not to pay, so we didn’t.

    Why on earth would you take the advice of a guy who gave you a “fishy” explanation in the first place?

    The gas company (some local co-op) threatened to take us all to collections but when we confronted the manager with the evidence that their meter reader was the only one who was granted access to the vacant unit, and did so right when our bills got jacked, he dropped the whole thing like a hot potato.

    Um, what? you had evidence that the meter reader had access to the inside of an apartment? If so, then he most certainly was not the only one with access to it. (Super, landlord, previous tenant, etc). If he didn’t have access to the inside of the apartment, how the hell did he turn the heat up?

  98. @pfeng: It’s measured in therms, which is the heat equivalent of the heat generated by burning 100 cubic feet of natural gas. Which is to say it’s 100 cubic feet of natural gas. :) But they measure some other heating gases in therms and then they have to apply a conversion factor.

  99. plumpkin says:

    @gorckkat – excellent points. Being aware of your average usage can also identify potential problems – like a meter leak (if the smell doesn’t)

  100. life11235 says:

    This has happened to me before. The Power company “estimated” power consumption because the rep reading it didn’t know where the meter was. He found it 18 months later and we were hit in one month with a $2000 power bill.

    Seems to me if you used it, then they may have a billing right to it. But it would go a long way PR wise if they were to make it a little easier on the conumer, possibly reducing the amount or giving more than just 3 months to pay the difference.

  101. ShadowFalls says:

    Though people should pay for what they used, what about the other view of it? People do not accurately know exactly what they used, that is what the meters are for.

    There were some times when the electric bill was low simply because of less usage that was not noticed. People might not think there is an issue and spend the extra to pay off credit card debt or something of the sort.

    Besides, going back and saying you owe us this when we originally said you owed this amount and you paid it also has an issue with being legal.

  102. Elbee23 says:

    I think the utility company should be responsible, at least for the months after the first one in which the error occurred.

    The reason: Most gas customers, I suspect, determine how much gas to use based in large part on the prior month’s bill. If the bill is high in one month, a typical user might pile on the blankets and drop the thermostat the next. If it’s low, the same user might light up the gas fireplace more often the next month.

    To the extent that the gas company’s error warped perceptions of the price of gas, and thus caused customers to use more gas than they otherwise would have, I think the gas company should be responsible for the result.

  103. Maulleigh says:

    Good question. I think the company screwed up so should take the hit. However, if my oil bill was half what it typically was/is, it would be cause for alarm. I’d definitely think something was wrong.

    The company should have noticed a huge fluctuation like that.

    If it was the US govt, customers should definitely pay for what they used. Private companies should take the hit.

  104. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    Depending on how low is too low, they may not have noticed.

    @Eyebrows McGee: Over a period of two months? People’s bills went up hundreds of dollars when the mistake was caught. How do you not notice your energy bill dropping $100+ dollars?

    If this were over a period of a year or more, then yes the drop would have been small and easy to miss. But they were only being miss billed for a couple of months. Their bills must have had to drop by a lot to be getting charged hundreds now.

    The example zerj used, people who switched energy companies around the time it happened, makes more sense. It would also make more sense if there was a rate change.
    ——————————————————
    Also, since people keep saying they should get more time:

    Schwartz said Aquila is giving customers at least three months to pay the bills and more time if they need it.

  105. Shaggy says:

    I actually had something similar happen to my mom, only the gas company was overcharging her rather than undercharging her. And not by a small amount, either; when it all got added up, the gas company owed my mom almost $2000. You know what their solution was? They would “credit” my mom’s gas bill by $10 a month until the full $2000 was repayed. When my mom asked them to send a check to her, they refused. When we had a lawyer give them a call, well, things got cleared up real quick. They sent my mom a check via overnight delivery.

  106. sibertater says:

    I have to say that I didn’t read anyone else’s comments but I want to say that you know if you’re not receiving the correct bill. If your gas bill is usually $200 in the winter and suddenly it’s only $89…you should call someone. I know I would.

    I wasn’t receiving my cable bill and I knew that I should have paid it, but it hadn’t come. So I called the cable company and they continued to screw up my bill for the next 3 months but I put a reminder on my calendar to pay it. Otherwise, waiting for a bill, I would have had a $400 cable bill.

  107. derobert says:

    @zerj: Well, you could take the definition of a BTU to find 1therm will raise the temp. of 100,000 lbs of water 1°F. 1 gallon of water weighs 8.34 lbs.

    A modern (post-’92) showehead gives 2.5 gallons/minute, or 75 gallons for a 30 minute shower. Assuming half of that is hot water, and you’re heating that water +80°F, you get:

    (75÷2) gallons × 8.34 lbs/gallon = 312.75 lbs
    312.75 lbs of water * 80°F = 25,020 BTU = ~.25 therm

    If you get 50% efficiency, that’d be .5 therms of gas.

    /me wonders how badly he screwed up the math

  108. The Marionette says:

    It would be different if the companies OVERcharged them, then they should have to credit the customers, but now the customers are pissed because they don’t get the free gas that they didn’t pay for.

  109. spamtasticus says:

    They should pay for the difference but over the same amount of time it took them to figure it out.

  110. john_nyc says:

    The customer used it, so they should pay for it. When viewed on a seasonal basis, they aren’t paying any more than they would have otherwise.

    Everyone else in the country is paying more for heating fuel this winter than ever. Did these people think that all of a sudden their houses became super-efficient or that Aquila found a great deal on some used natural gas on ebay?

    The fact that they got a break on their heating bill during the holidays and now they have 3 or more months to pay off the difference (during warmer months) really means that they got an interest-free loan.

  111. jagwee1 says:

    Many comments here are assumming that the gas company should be given the benefit of doubt….suuuuure. Show proof of mistake by providing the miscalculated bills and the true reading on my meter here. Also,in regard to whirlybirds comment (they did not complain when the bill was too low) I see nowhere in this article that customers ever stated that. What is said ” the bills were several hundred dollars over the norm, some as much as 1000 dollars” Not even close to meaning the same thing. Maybe whirlytroll should reread the article(or maybe he can not read and he is possibly the illiterate that read the meter incorrectly in the first place).How difficult is it for an individual to record numbers? They are not doing anything other than this…no calculation etc. Just simply copying the numbers, hmmmmm. I tend to not trust this company and with very good reason. Company needs to prove the claims. I run small business and would be embarrassed to make such claims to customers without showing proof. Even then, would most likely not reveal my incompetence, take the loss. I hope they did not do the installation of gas pipe , regulators etc. May be good idea to have reputable company inspect before houses start to blow up. It is a scam. Just happen to not record numbers correctly on hundreds of houses for several months….suuuuure!

  112. zenmonkey13 says:

    Well if the previous post legal post is correct the customers should pay up. It sucks that the gas company isn’t giving them max six months to pay up. It just shows how they view their customers. Looks like the customers will have to suck it up, but I would change gas companies. That kind of customer service in unacceptable.

    During on of my moves the phone company disconnected my phone a day early because the rep failed to mention they don’t do disconnects on Sundays. It took them a month to do the hookup at my new place because of a backlog, and they charged me for the month I didn’t have service. Sure they refunded me the month, but I just cancelled my account and switched companies.

    I hate when big companies treat their customers like beggars that should be grateful for the “wonderful” service they provide.

    Pay the bill and switch companies

  113. @Rectilinear Propagation: Like I said, my bills fluctuate within a $300 range over the course of the year, and they vary by as much as $100 in the winter depending on how cold the month was. And I live in a tiny, well-insulated house — we have friends whose bills are up to $1000 in winter and negligible ($50) in summer. They could easily experience a $200 or $300 fluctuation month-to-month in winter, and routinely do.

    My gas co. provides us the mean monthly temperature each month so when it jumps by $100 you can see that it’s been 5 degrees cooler this month than last month, but many of the peaks and valleys still seem totally inexplicable. I’ve tracked my month-to-month usage of gas every month since we moved here, and in 3 years of data, it’s STILL difficult to recognize any trends other than summer/winter, and impossible to predict monthly bills in the winter.

  114. kerry says:

    @NotATool: People’s Gas (in Chicago) used to estimate with me every other month, then they just said “screw it” at some point and started only billing me every other month. I found that to be much better than unpredictable bills.

  115. synergy says:

    I guess it’s too much to ask that people notice what’s normal for their bill. Someone must’ve noticed that their bill was too low, but they didn’t say anything.

  116. ohgoodness says:

    @friendlynerd: ditto

  117. enerdream says:

    The users should have to pay for the gas they used, but they should only pay per bill what was forgotten per bill, not some arbitrary deadline like three months, if the ammount they didn’t pay was $0.50 every week, they should pay it back at that rate.

  118. whitedevil01 says:

    Companies should be aware of the usage of customers. In this case, the company screwed up… it’s not the customer’s fault that the technician misread the meter.

    The company should eat the cost instead of passing it on to the customers.

  119. hermes77 says:

    While it was awfully nice of the gas company to give all those people the interest free loan for several months, since they didn’t request it it’s not really a loan. The company however appears to be doing the right thing to correct the problem. They did own up to the mistake, as opposed to just saying that they read the meter and that’s what it said and they could send someone to check it again and you hafta pay it all now. Also, in all probability they won’t flip after three months either. Utilities have an agreement you can make with them to pay down your past due balance over time. Usually at a nominal rate. What it sounds like to me is that after the 3 months they’ll want the agreement or late fees and penalties. All very reasonable sounding to me. $1000 over 3 months is $333.33 a month. The customers should rink fewer lattes and pay their bills. The company should extend better terms to those who are having difficulty in the 3 month term, but there has to be a limit to it. I’d say it’d be the right thing for them to extend the 3 month period to 6 months ON REQUEST. Since it was SEVERAL months of misreading (several is seven or more) they should be flexible. It’d go a long way to making people happy to be their customers if they allowed people to extend the 3 months to 6 months, and you just can’t buy that kind of good will.