Update: As several readers have pointed out, there’s a simpler explanation for the confusion: both the OP and I were misreading the meter. The first digit should be rounded “down” to 9, so the meter in the photo actually reads 997.4 MCF—which is more in line with the previous bill. Thanks to everyone who caught this and wrote in or commented! We hope this helps you out, Michael.

The original story:
Dominion Hope, a gas company in West Virginia, sent Michael a huge gas bill this month. On it, they indicated that the latest reading was a real reading, not an estimate. Michael checked his meter himself and saw that the “actual” reading they billed for was in fact off by about 13 thousand cubic feet (MCF) let’s just say “a lot.”

He’s been asking around and has found three other people who have also been overcharged for “actual” readings. We called Dominion and spoke with a CSR, and they verified that an actual employee came out to the address and read the meter. If he did, then that’s one incompetent meter reader.

We’ll go ahead and post the first part of Michael’s story, and the original photo, so that future readers can see why there was a misunderstanding.

We get our heating gas from Dominion Hope, and after receiving a \$200 bill for one month’s gas I got suspicious, mainly because we keep the heat at about 50 degrees during the winter. (My fiancée and I are just out of college and used to roughing it so we can save money; our roommate previously studied in Alaska and ‘has put up with worse.’) I went out to check the meter and rapidly became confused. The bill said that a human had read the meter at 992.4 million cubic feet on December 26, 2008, yet looking at the meter, I read it on Feb 7, 2009 as 979 MCF, or a difference of about 20 million cubic feet [really, about 13 MCF. -Ed.]. Given that 10 MCF costs about \$150 in our area, this comes to a pretty substantial sum!

Remember to always compare the reading on your bill with the actual reading on your meter. It’s easy to do—here are some instructions if it’s your first time.

RELATED
“How To Read A Water Meter”

1. thebluepill says:

I had to deal with Dominion hope in WV for many years when I lived there. they were Terrible about actually reading the meter and going by “estimates”.. It was always a circus.

I would have to call them several times per year and go out to the meter and read the numbers to them to get an adjustment.. It was a pain in the arse..

• Anonymous says:

@thebluepill: Honestly its a pain but there’s really no other way.
1. Reading meters is the most boring tedious job you could ever have so it is hard to find competent people to do it for the some what low wage.
2.Getting the reading correct every time is also impossible. They are just too hard to read. Guy who have read them for 20 years still make mistakes.

2. Stephen Brooks says:

Profits are profits, Its like comcast in my area, they have a monopoly so they won’t do anything for you if you call. The area near me has way better customer service because comcast is 1 of 3 providers with competition. Without competition, you won’t get anything done right.

• snowburnt says:

@Stephen Brooks: They might not do anything for you but if they’re in the wrong I’m sure the state AG will do something for you

3. kryrinn says:

A friend of mine had this issue in KS with her water company – she had shut down a hog farm operation, and they were still billing her about \$150 a month for water… (based off “real readings”, too) It was a small town, so it took her dad dragging the utility company local president out and showing him the closed farm, the meter that was WAY lower than what they were being billed.

I know my mom had issues with the gas company doing that in town, too… they said it was because our dogs barking in the house were too intimidating for the meter man to read the meter. uh huh.

4. Trai_Dep says:

I was getting w-i-l-d-l-y fluctuating gas bills, from \$30 to \$200. And I’m a low-energy consuming household. Finally irked enough to brave the phone, they explained how they read every other month, using a “complex algorithm utilizing that month’s bill last year as a baseline”. I patiently explained that last year, I was nowhere NEAR triple digits and the CS rep explained, basically, “that’s the complex algorithm part”.
I said, that’s craaaazy. And asked them simply to use last month’s bill for the month they skip reading and balance things out when they come by and do a physical reading. Just skip the “complex algorithm” part. After much mock concern over my “missing out” on this cutting-edge predictive technology, they agreed to do so.

> My bills are now within a few bucks of each other with no wild swings.

So yeah, the utility companys’ tricks are manifold, but call them if your bill looks odd and press hard enough, nicely, and they’ll back down.

• Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

@Trai_Dep: I agree. NYSEG here in NY does that, they come out every other month and in between, do an “actual” read. They would estimate a \$50 bill, then next month, they would say “Oh you actually used \$100 in electric, so you owe us \$50 on top of THIS month’s \$100 bill.” So you’d pay \$50 one month, and \$150 the next.

I called in my own readings, and that was the end of THAT hell.

• Chris Walters says:

@Trai_Dep:

“that’s the complex algorithm part”

Brilliant. I’m going to use this.

• Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

@Trai_Dep: “but call them if your bill looks odd and press hard enough, nicely, and they’ll back down. “

We have a pretty vibrant local blogging community (moreso since our local paper got bought out by a national conglomerate and quit running much local news). I just blogged about a problem with my gas bill … and THEY called ME because apparently the local blogging community is that powerful these days.

To be honest, it was disconcerting. But the issue got fixed. Which is more than I can say for those maroons at my student loan lender whom I’ve been hassling for two solid months now.

5. henwy says:

I don’t quite see the benefit in doing this unless it’s really fraud on a massive and conspiratorial scope. I mean, it’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul. If they overcharge him now, they’ll just have to charge him less at some point down the line. If they undercharge him now, then they’ll just charge him more at some point. Why would it even be worth the effort to lie about the meter reading? At some point, it’s going to pan out one way or the other unless it’s some sort of massive conspiracy where every meter reader is told to make up higher numbers. The chances of that is just insane. It’s not worth the crapstorm that would hit if even a single person decided to spill the beans.

• sleze69 says:

@henwy: That might not be true. If the cost of natural gas is more expensive in a certain month that is overcharged and low during the “adjustment month,” a gas company has a HUGE incentive to overestimate everyone’s gas during the high-cost month.

• Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

@henwy: “It’s not worth the crapstorm that would hit if even a single person decided to spill the beans. “

What crapstorm? It’s a monopoly. My local gas and electric utility is in the active process of being sued by the state for being a monopoly and for a wide variety of entertaining frauds resulting in sky-high rates … but the rates haven’t gone down and not a damn thing has happened to how they provide service.

Even if they lose, I doubt anything will change. I grew up in Chicago, and Com Ed couldn’t even tie its own shoes, let alone provide reliable electricity that didn’t result in hundreds of seasonal deaths during heat waves and cold snaps (or post night watchmen at one of the most insecure nuclear facilities in the USA, as we discovered after 9/11 when the feds had finally had it with their “soft target” and inability to guard it). Nothing ever happens to Com Ed, and people actively DIE from Com Ed’s incompetence.

• henwy says:

RICO.

• Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

@henwy: Sounds good, but I have no doubt they’d continue to suck. It’s not like there’s a big line of awesome monopolistic utility companies waiting to take over for the ones that suck.

• snowburnt says:

@henwy: Seriously? If someone is ripping you off you don’t bend over and ask for more. You call them on it. If they do it again you call them on it again. If they continue to do it, you call a local news paper, a local TV station, you local AG, your state AG, some utility watchdog association. You don’t continue to take it because “if they don’t charge you right they’ll make up for it later”. They need to charge you right EVERY TIME. I understand the convenience of the “algorithms” to figure out how much you owe, but if they’re off, they need to be corrected or it’s fraud.

6. Matt says:

This happened to me too, here in Salt Lake City. They read my meter as twice as what it should have been. My bill went from \$45 to \$91, when my mom who lives a few blocks away heats a house 3x the size of my apartment for \$104 a month. One quick call to Questar fixed that right up. Worst part is that they recently changed over to the wireless meters, where they just drive down the street and pick up the readings digitally. I don’t understand how they could have screwed that up.

• sumgai says:

@Matt:

Salt Lake City? Heck, I’m surprised that your gas company didn’t try to lure you and three friends to their next breakthrough multi-level marketing (a.k.a. pyramid scheme) meeting.

I make it a point to always check my meters on the same day the company takes their readings. I will start taking photographs as well, after reading this. I’d love to catch them if they every try to squeeze a few extra bucks outta me.

• Matt says:

@sumgai: We do have a shitload of MLMs. But the company I work for makes a large portion of their revenue selling all the MLMs tradeshow services for their “sales conventions”. So it’s a good thing.

7. bobhope2112 says:

Is that the actual dial? I would like to see the rest of it, but the one in the picture appears to be showing an absolute reading of 974,000 in an unspecified unit. For it to mesh with the story, the unit would have to be kilo-(cubic feet). That seems off to me.

My gas meter is very similar in apperance, and reads in cubic feet. Last month, I consumed about 200 cubic feet of natural gas. Although I only use gas to heat my water, there seems to be an order of magnitude problem in this story.

• Raywind says:

@bobhope2112: I was wondering that, myself. Who measures residential usage of natural gas in millions of cubic feet?

• Raywind says:

@Raywind: Looking again at the dials, it appears like the paper is actually covering the numbers in question. Above each dial is the magnitude, from 1M on the left, to 100k’s, 10k’s, 1000s.

There’s also a ‘half-foot’ measurement on the bottom, so I’m assuming they would go to the right from 1/2’s, 10’s, 100’s.

• Raywind says:

@Raywind: Whups. That’s “Per Rev”.. no edit, no delete. Just ignore my rambling. ;)

• Chris Walters says:

@bobhope2112: Check my update at the bottom of the post. Did Michael and I misread the meter?

• Anonymous says:

@Chris Walters: I don’t think the units are quite right. I think Mcm is a thousand cubit centimeters, not a million (the M being the roman numeral for 1000) Based on the link you provided to Unitil Customer Service, where they are saying that ccf is hundred cubic feet ( C being the roman numeral for 100). therefor i think that the meter is reading 97,400 cubic meters, or 97.4 Mcm

• Brian Traylor says:

@Chris Walters: M as a prefix when referring to measurements of natural gas volume stands for thousand, not million. That meter reads 9,974,000 cubic feet. The left-most dial is in thousands, then ten-thousands, then hundred-thousands, then millions. I’m not sure about the bill, because only a snippet is included, but the meter is 9,974 MCF where M means thousand.

• Brian Traylor says:

@Brian Traylor: Apologies to all. I screwed the pooch and missed the “X per rev”. The meter reads 997.4 MCF, not 9,974 MCF. Apologies.

• Hyman Decent says:

@Brian Traylor: As BambiIckle explains below, it’s actually 997.4 MCF.

8. Brunette Bookworm says:

Ugh, I keep going through this with my electric company. My December bill was the highest ever so I bet they estimated even though it said actual. January was way low so they must have read it. This month’s is high again. It says actual but I doubt that considering they day it says they read it was white-out conditions and we ended up with around two feet of snow. At least if they estimate, say on the bill estimated. There is a space for it.

• tange1 says:

@Red-headed bookworm: Go read your own meter – you can tell how many KW you used if you just look.

• Brunette Bookworm says:

@tange1: I live in an apartment and I’m actually not sure which is mine….that plus the two feet of snow that just melted kept me from doing that. :) Next time I get a bill I’m checking it.

• vermontwriter says:

@Red-headed bookworm: Sounds like our electric company. Our December bill was normal. We got our January bill and it was 3 times our December bill. I flipped. They told us they’d estimated December bills and that we should wait and see what happens this month.

We’ve been heating strictly with wood this winter, so we haven’t been running our clothes dryer at all or our furnace. So logically our bill should be lower.

9. bobhope2112 says:

Correction: I used about 200 centi-(cubic feet) last month, and payed about 0.20 per CCF. My meter still reads in plain old CF.

10. Nighthawke says:

This is a job for the PUC. You got a company misreading your meter and balks at fixing it, give your state PUC a ring and ask them how they can help you resolve it.

11. Parsnip says:

We have Dominion People’s here in Pittsburgh. After three straight months of \$300+ gas bills, 4 months of “estimated readings” that were nowhere close to what our actual usage was, and an actual meter read that was over by 28 MCF (Yeah. That’s a lot. A whole lot.) we finally complained to our state Public Utilities Commission. We ended up with a pretty thorough investigation that proved our meter was read “incorrectly” and were issued a credit of over 900 dollars by Dominion for all we had overpaid in our estimated readings and by the huge “mistake” in the actual reading. We requested a refund. They wouldn’t issue that… only a credit.

The good news is that our average gas bill was actually only \$188 per month for November, December, and January. The bad news is that we stressed ourselves out for a few months thinking it was over 300.

• lostingenerica says:

@pezstar: I have Dominion Peoples in Pittsburgh too. I found out that they only read the meter every OTHER month and expect you do to it for them every other month. I had an estimate of \$309, I called in the actual reading and saved about \$100.

12. Anonymous says:

I learned in grade school, that January came after December, so what I see on this bill is the current reading is estimated to be 4.5. This means the meter went past 0 during the month.
1000-992.4=7.6. 7.6+4.5 =12.1 units used. I keep my house 68, turn it down to 55 for the night and while we are at work. My gas bill was \$380.00 last month. These college students need to get out into the real world and find out what life is really like. It also might be good to learn how to read a bill.

13. Anonymous says:

It looks like you’re reading the wrong digits to me. The top left digit is “1,000,000 per rev” which tells me it’s the hundred-thousands place. By that, it looks like it’s currently reading 997400 in some unknown unit, probably thousands of cubic feet. 992.4 million is less than 997.4 million, so no time warping has occurred…

14. se7a7n7 says:

I guessing this is a matter of lazy metering readers who just sit in their truck and fudge the meter readings based on guesses. They would do this because they don’t feel like doing their actual job.

This is like the ACORN voter registration fraud case, where there were part-time workers fudging registration cards so they could get paid. It wasn’t about trying to alter election results at all.

• Corporate-Shill says:

@se7a7n7:

Ah yes, money for doing a job.

• LorenPechtel says:

@se7a7n7: That’s exactly my thought, also. We don’t know if they are perhaps actually following up and firing the cheaters.

15. sirwired says:

This could also be a simple mis-type, or a meter-reader with bad handwriting on his clipboard. It happens…

SirWired

16. Eric Barbier says:

Why did you hide the meter number on your bill? It would only proove that it’s the correct bill, since we can read the number on the meter anyway.

Note that maybe I’m wrong and the number we see isn’t the one used by the company…

17. Anonymous says:

That’s fraud. It’s a crime. Ring the CSR, demand a human reread the meter the next day under threat that you will swear a complaint of fraud with the police tomorrow.

If they at any point threaten to cut off your gas tell them you will take that as an attempt to obstruct justice and if the gas is switched off you will swear the complaint of fraud and add a complaint of obstruction of justice.

There is no way that this can be tolerated.

• tange1 says:

@RosettaCoates: All worked up and this ended up being an issue of none of us knowing how to read the meter.

18. MrsLopsided says:

Newer meters are read electronically. The meter reader points a hand held device towards the meter and doesn’t get close enough to actually read the dials. Perhaps there is a problem with their gizmo.

• uberbucket says:

@MrsLopsided:
I saw a guy one day reaching over my back fence and waving some sort of electrical contrivance at the back of my house. My paranoia was unfounded as it was just the meter reader.

They still have dials on meters?

19. oldgraygeek says:

I was doing PC support at the local power company right after a merger. They got rid of all their meter readers and outsourced the work.
I got sent out to fix a desktop at the new contractor’s offices, which was a company created by retired power company employees — and found that they were the stupidest mo-fo’s I had ever met… and I’m from New Jersey! They were hiring guys who had been fired from every small business in the area (I went to school with them) to read meters. These clowns would smoke pot all day, and make up the readings out of thin air for half their route.

20. Michael Kohne says:

I don’t know the company, but if they are still reading meters by physically looking at the meter (instead of by driving past with a radio system, like many localities do), then it’s entirely possible they are using a system (such as a piece of paper) that allows them to make mistakes like putting the reading against the wrong address. This could cause them to bill you based on your neighbor’s meter.

Alternately, they could have a really screwed up back-end computer system that’s putting readings in wrong places.

I don’t know they, but I tend to think that if a power company were going to cheat you on the bill, they’d do it with the estimated readings, where it’s much easier to get away with all sorts of issues, since the readings are by definition not real, and they can’t be blamed for having bad estimates.

Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.

21. Anonymous says:

Dec 26, 2008
992.4

Jan 28, 2009
4.5 (estimate) 12.1+

Feb 7, 2009
97.4 92.9+

what this means is that since Dec 26, the house has used 105 units over this period. which is more like 60/month; their “estimate” shows that the meter rolls around, estimating that after 999, it resets to zero.

22. TCTH says:

Our Electric Utility, Southern California Edison, used to do this bill based on “estimated usage” thing on a regular basis.

We caught them when, in the aftermath of the post Enron energy “crisis” here, our bill tripled from one month to the next and we decided to start taking our own readings and comparing them to those listed on the bills.

We found out that the amount use they had charged us for was more than the entire amount of the three previous bills combined, even though we had instituted strict conservation measures previously, when the Enron thing first started coming to light and the bills actually DID start going up. We had been able to keep the increases at a bearable level until this particular month and there was just no viable reason for the massive increase.

When we confronted them, the bill was adjusted to the actual meter readings and we paid it. They promised that they would indeed read the meters from then on and that there would be no more “estimated usage” bills. I’ve moved since then and don’t know what’s happened there in the intervening years.

We later heard from a former employee of theirs that they had done this to hundreds of people in our area at the same time thinking that most people would simply chalk it up to the Enron scandal and reluctantly pay it.

I’ve often wondered how much we actually overpaid our bills by when they were “estimating” our usage as a routine measure before Enron hit the fan.

23. Shrew2u says:

Dominion offers its customers the chance to enter their own meter readings:

[www.dom.com]

I’d probably take a daily photo of my meter and enter my daily readings in the form provided, submit a written dispute for every bill with an incorrect reading, and also review all past bills to see when the incorrect readings began. It may have been as simple as a transposed number on one month’s reading that is now being carried forward. Who knows?

24. bobhope2112 says:

After the update: It still does not make sense that the meter is reading 997.4 MCF. If that first digit is a 9, instead of a zero, doesn’t that just make the [B]absolute[/B] reading of the meter 9.974 MCF?

• Nathan Oliver says:

@bobhope2112: As I understand it, that dial is 1 MCF per revolution, meaning that once it goes all the way around, you’ve used 1MCF. That means that each tenth of a revolution is 1/10 MCF, or 100,000 CF. So when the dial points to 9, then you’ve used 900,000 CF.

25. bobhope2112 says:

Another correction: Earlier I referred to 100 cubic feet as CCF or centi-(cubic feet). The latter would not be correct as centi- means 1/100–not 100. CCF does, however, mean 100 cubic feet.

26. bobhope2112 says:

Ok, now I’m just making a mess of the comments. If have since taken 10 seconds to learn that MCF is not one million cubic feet, but rather 1000 cubic feet. Sorry for stupiding up the thread.

• Chris Walters says:

@bobhope2112: I’m way ahead of you there.

27. Hyman Decent says:

Dominion Hope, a gas company in West Virginia, sent Michael a huge gas bill this month. On it, they indicated that the latest reading was a real reading, not an estimate… We called Dominion and spoke with a CSR, and they verified that an actual employee came out to the address and read the meter.

WTF? The bill clearly says the reading on January 28 was estimated. The one on December 26 was an actual reading.

• Hyman Decent says:

@Hyman Decent: Which means the estimated reading was way off if the meter read 997.4 on February 7:
1,004.5
–  997.4
————
7.1 MCF

28. MrsLopsided says:

Congrats on the correction.

“When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong”
Jerry Orbach/Dirty Dancing

29. 12-Inch Idongivafuck Sandwich says:

So the \$200 bill is correct?

• I_am_Awesome says:

Looks like it, yeah.

• Gary Albert says:

@I_am_Awesome: No, it isn’t correct, they estimated a reading of 4.5 for January 28th, when the true reading on February 7th was 997.4, so the bill is more than double what it should have been

• Anonymous says:

@Gary Albert: Well, the bill is correct, in so far, as the person is being correctly charged for the difference between the actual reading on Dec. 28 and the estimated reading calculated on Jan 28.
Problem is the Jan 28th estimate is very bad.
My gas company allows you to dispute estimated readings and they’ll send out a person to do an actual reading and adjust your bill.

30. chiieddy says:

Not mentioned here, but the minimum you should keep your thermostat at is 55 deg F. Otherwise you risk your pipes freezing on cold nights.

31. Anonymous says:

In the Uk if you can get the power company to read the meter it is a miracle. The idiots who sited our gas meter in a sunken outside cabinet with the dial facing the front wall of the sunken cabinet. The only way I c an read the meter is the set a digital camera on macro take the picture of the dial then blow up the frame (cant bend leg as have just had a total new knee implant and it takes a while to bend!) Powee company e-on is owned by the French – just to add insult to injury..

32. lostingenerica says:

Dominion only reads my gas meeter every other month, which is bullsh*t. I’m paying for a service, and the least they can do is actually read it. People shouldn’t have to do this for them.

33. Smorgasbord says:

I used to be a meter reader. Meters that have dials have to be read BACKWARDS, from right to left. Sometimes the needle is off. It might be just a little PAST a number, but the ACTUAL READING should be the number before it.

Anyone reading a dial type meter for the first time would read the meter in the picture as 0974, since the far left dial is ON THE NUMBER “0.” If you read it from right to left you get 4799, since the needle that is second from the left isn’t past the “0.” This would make an error of 1,000 cubic feet. I have seen dials where the needle is past the “0”, but the next dial to the left hasn’t gone past the zero yet. This means THAT dial is still a “9.”

Some utilities bill on a scale, so that the more you use, the cheaper it gets. If they over read the bill, they could be charging you at a lower rate. The over reading actually saves you money if you can afford to pay THAT bill.

34. Anonymous says:

The irony (for those of us in North Central Mass and New Hampshire) is that the link above goes to Unitil, which is currently under investigation by the Mass attorney general for their spectacularly awful response to the ice storm in December. They then estimated our power bills at (in some cases) 7 times our actual usage, and two months later the bills still haven’t been adjusted. Oh, and did I mention that our rates are 30% higher than the rest of New England?

35. coren says:

Chris, thanks for correcting the article, but without reading the comments I still wouldn’t know what was going on – maybe a little explanation that his estimate was still way off from actual usage?

Also, if he reads it at 997.9, why is the picture of 997.4?

36. RogueWarrior says:

What’s just as goofy is the way the water company charges you for sewer service. Cubic feet of water used last month: 0. Fee \$0.00. Sewer charge: \$20.00. Ummm…huh?

37. FLConsumer says:

The worst estimated billing I’ve seen was in Florida after the hurricanes. Some of the power cos took your highest bill ever, then doubled or tripled it and called it your estimated bill for that month.