A Cold Shower A Day Keeps The Gas Company Away

Erstwhile Consumerist guest blogger and Upgrade Travel editor Mark Ashley has been taking a lot of cold showers lately. Heck, his nipples protrude like fleshy awls. Yet unlike most men who take to basking themselves in an icy deluge, Mark is not trying to extend his life or cut down on his sex drive: the situation’s been thrust upon him by Chicago People’s Energy (as Communist a name for a gas company as I’ve ever heard).

A deadbeat ex-tenant doesn’t pay his bills. A gas man lies to enter the building in order to “check the meters”, but instead turns off the gas. All of the gas in the building is switched off, in a town where October sometimes sees blizzards. Cold showers cause Mark’s genitals to shrivel so much they actually emerge from the backside as a tail.

But does Chicago People’s care? Absolutely not. According to them, emergencies involve lethal gas leaks or exploding buildings, not a failure to provide the service that every tenant in the building pays for. But if your baby suddenly develops cross-eyes and starts acting a little funny and you notice you smell gas? They’ll be right over.

Mark’s email, after the jump.

If you ever want an example of how a monopoly has no incentive to provide customer service, PeoplesEnergy of Illinois, the gas company for the city of Chicago, is your textbook case.

Peoples Energy inspector id#16131, Luis, lied to get access to our basement, saying he needed to “check the meters.” Instead, he shut off the gas on the main meter. The result: No hot water in the building. Cold showers for all!

Why the cutoff? It turns out the guy who *formerly* lived in apartment #1 was a complete deadbeat who didn’t pay his bills, but he moved out in June. It didn’t matter that the new residents were already living there for a couple months; the old account for that meter was unpaid, so PeoplesEnergy shut off the gas.

The problem is that this specific meter controls the hot water supply for the entire house. I live in a 140 year old building in Chicago. The water pipes, gas lines, and electricity were all retrofitted. Poorly. So the billing is a little wacky, for both gas and electric. Our building has three units. I’m not sure why, but the downstairs unit got stuck with the hot water heater for the entire building on their gas meter. (How the tenants work that out vis-a-vis the rent is not my business; it’s between them and the landlord.) But when they get shut off, we all lose hot water.

After the shut-off, the building owner called to get the account restored, and ended up paying the deadbeat ex-resident’s bill to clear things up. That’s a four-digit bill that should never have been the landlord’s responsibility, so big props there.

The gas company thanked the landlord for the payment and announced that service would be restored 10 days later. 10 days!!? Apparently, no hot water or heat does not constitute an emergency. Luckily, it’s been warm enough to be without heat, so far. But this is Chicago, and I’ve seen snow in October.

Multiple calls, by tenants as well as the building owner, have been escalated to supervisors, “floor supervisors,” and beyond. They have all come back with the same response. The corporate policy is that this is not an emergency. The company recently clarified: Only a burning building or a gas leak will qualify as an emergency. Having no heat or hot water? Not an emergency. (The logical next step: Call gas company. “Hi, I smell gas.” Maybe that will cut the wait to 5 days instead of 10.)

This is par for the course with this company. A few years ago they installed new gas lines on the street and forgot to turn the gas back on when they finished. It took several days to get service restored because of their error. One of these days they’re going to be hit with a lawsuit, either in a class action, or by the family of a baby or senior citizen who freezes to death, all because they didn’t turn the gas on.

We’re following this up with the Illinois Commerce Commission, who has a helpline for this sort of thing — http://www.icc.illinois.gov/en/naturalgas.aspx — but thus far there’s little hope of the company doing anything before Wednesday of next week.

One lesson I’ve learned is never to let the gas company into the building unless I called them first. Another lesson is that, in the future, if I need a gas company serviceperson to come out, I will have to lie about a leak to get them to come out. And why not: They lied to me to get access to the building; I can lie to them just as well.


Edit Your Comment

  1. “The logical next step: Call gas company. “Hi, I smell gas.””

    In college we had a Vietnamese janitor attached to our dorm who spoke excellent English, but whenever she needed central maintenance to come take care of something (even stuck potato chips in the vending machine), she would call them and say “Emergency! Emergency! No English! Emergency! No English!” in a very heavy accent. It worked like a charm every time.

    Maybe you should try that. “Emergency! Gas! No English! Gas! Emergency! No English!”

    Also, I’m gobsmacked that lack of heat isn’t an “emergency” — out of curiosity, have you called your alderman or the mayor’s office? Daley loves to score the political points off the nasty evil utilities when he can do it cheaply. (Particularly with the statewide rate-hike fiasco — every politician is trying to make hay.)

  2. misskaz says:

    People’s Energy is full of a bunch of idiots. My boyfriend lived without cooking gas for something like 5 years because he could not get People’s Energy to understand that he was not the previous tenant with the outstanding bill. Faxes of leases and whatnot went unreceived or ignored, and eventually he gave up and lived on take out and microwavable food.

    I had an issue with them as well. I found out I should have been paying for cooking gas at my apartment (a miscommunication with the landlord made me think he was paying it) because I found a bright orange shut off notice lying face up on the sidewalk two doors down from our building. I called, I wrote, I begged them to send me a bill because I’m not a deadbeat and I’m happy to pay it. I never received one. Now I’m afraid to ever try to open a new account with them in my name because I’m sure they’ll claim I have an outstanding bill.

  3. Pelagius says:

    “Cold showers cause Mark’s genitals to shrivel so much they actually emerge from the backside as a tail.”

    Ben, that line alone makes up for the Massachusetts Liquor Store Fiasco and then some…

  4. Tallanvor says:

    I had a problem where People’s Energy didn’t cancel my account when I moved, and I ended up getting a big bill from them at my new address 6 months later. Amazingly enough, though, when I called them up and told them when I had called and requested that my service be cancelled, they adjusted my bill accordingly.

    But I agree with McGee… Call Daley’s office and file a complaint there. One building probably isn’t enough to warrant a press conference, but you know he loves any opportunity to make the utility companies look bad.

  5. twigg says:

    I had problems once with Peoples Energy while living in Chicago. I moved out of an apartment and moved my service to a new address, cancelling service at the old. Peoples somehow neglected to turn off my service _and_ failed to send the bill to my new address. And the new tenant never called them to set up her service for the first month. Imagine my horror months later when I found this on my credit report months later: I had a delinquent account 90 days past due!

    When I contacted Peoples about the problem they had no record of my call (hmm, they somehow managed to set up service at my new address). They suggested I could get a letter from my old landlord listing the date I had moved out of the old address and then they’d reverse the charges (which I had to pay at that point to avoid collections) and remove the incident from my credit. I did all of that, but they still declined to remove the incident from my credit history or credit me for the money I spent to keep someone else warm for a month.

    I still hate them.

  6. AcilletaM says:

    Pelagius, I think this is a Brownlee post.

  7. kerry says:

    I’m with Eyebrows, call your alderman’s office and tell them what’s up. They might be able to make a threatening call to Peoples or something.
    It’s weird, the biggest problem I ever had with them was when they insisted they needed to come to my building to close my account, then never showed. When I called back they said the first appointment wasn’t necessary and closed my account, then sent me a check for my account credit. Not too shabby.

  8. Lesley says:

    Now I feel like I have no right to ever complain about Nashville Gas ever again. But I still hate them. I hate that I pay a minimum amount every month just for the privilege of having a gas line connected to my house. And I hate the former owners of my house for not getting an electric heat pump.

    Thankfully, the water heaters are electric!

  9. Spaceman Bill Leah says:

    Peoples is actually my favorite Chicago utility. Not really shocking considering its cometition is Comcast & ComEd. When I first moved to my new apartment, we kept getting notices saying that the company had to adjust our meter. Well the meteer access in my building is through a wall in the lower level flat so we thought it would be handled. It never was but I kept getting bills and paid them. Finally, after the building was sold, the new landlord took notice & scheduled an appointment. Much to my surprise, my next Peoples bill had a credit for over $700! That made me happy, they acknowledged the overbill from estimating gas usage & promptly fixed it without my ever knowing there was a problem. I like that.

  10. So many disgruntled Chicagoans on this site!

  11. AcilletaM says:

    That’s what political corruption gets you. Oh, and alderman who want to be your mother and protect you from things like trans fat and foie gras but aren’t willing to try to get you a decent wage.

    BTW, if your looking for a story Ben, ComEd here did some nice political manuvering to manufacture an artificially high rate hike using an “auction”.

  12. AlexG says:

    My favorite People’s story involves their recent settlement for bilking customers in conjunction with Enron. The blanket settlement called for People’s Gas customers in the city of Chicago to receive a $100 refund, while customers in the North Suburbs of North Shore Gas got something like $20.

    The problem was they paid the refund not based on what company you were a customer of when the fraud took place, but who you are currently a customer of. Thus someone who moved to Chicago a month before the settlement got a $100 refund despite not being a People’s customer at the time of the criminal activity, while people like me who moved up north only got $20 despite being a People’s customer when they were artificially jacking up the price.

  13. B Borrman says:

    I moved to Chicago two years ago with my wife and two dogs. In December. I’m an idiot, I admit that, who moves to Chicago in December?

    Well, on day three in our lovely new place, People’s shows up. “Hey, we need to look at the meters to send the last tenant their final bill.” Idiot me let them in.

    He comes back upstairs and says, “Here’s your notice of cut-off. The last tenant never ended their service so we can’t start yours.”

    I beg and plead, but there’s no sympathy from the gas man. So I call and explain the situation and they figure out that it was a paperwork mix up.

    Then tell me that the next appointment is ten days away. In December. It was going to be 15 degrees the next day.

    So I go out and buy three space heaters at Home Depot. We live in the bed room for three days. Stuffing towels under the door to keep the heat in.

    Finally, I see a People’s service guy on the street. I beg and plead. I offer $50 bucks.

    A bribe, that’s all it took to get my heat back.

  14. FLConsumer says:

    Has anyone bothered to call up a TV station up there? This would make for good 6pm TV…esp. if you have pictures of crying kids, etc.

  15. THe trouble is it’s sort-of par for the course for Chicago-area utilities. When I was growing up, we EXPECTED our power to go out at strange times for no apparent reason because ComEd was Just. That. Incompetent.

  16. katewrath says:

    Sad to say, poor Mark is a victim of the calendar as much as People’s Gas. I totally agree that Chicago can be frickin’ cold even in late September, but I believe the various city agencies don’t consider missing heat a crisis except between 10/15 and 3/15.

    (No, I can’t explain the commenter who had his heat turned off in December. I am totally dumbfounded by that turn of events. But not by the fact that a $50 bribe got his gas turned back on. He’s just lucky it wasn’t $100.)

  17. kerry says:

    katewrath – I think the city itself has to enforce heating issues between those dates when it’s not due to billing issues. For example, the city insists that my landlord turn the furnace on by the 15th of October, but if I’m a homeowner and don’t pay my gas bill, it’s kind of out of the city’s hands. That said, this is Peoples Energy’s mistake, not Mark’s, so he might be able to find a sympathetic ear at the alderman level who can light a proverbial fire under them. I agree that it would be hella easier if it was after the 15th.