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.