The Iceman Cometh, predicted playwright Eugene O’Neill, but eventually, the iceman went, and so did the milkman and the doctor willing to make house calls. Next to disappear: San Diego Gas & Electric meter readers. Like the icemen many decades before, the meter readers are being eliminated by technology. But not without complaints that the company was falsely boosting its revenue by overestimating some bills instead of relying on the meter readers.
Beginning in November of this year, the San Diego Gas & Electric unit of Sempra Energy will be installing meters that can be read by two-way wireless communication technology. The installation of the new meters will be complete in 2011, at which time the meter readers will be gone. There are currently 202 of them, down from a high of 230. They belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and will be absorbed into other areas of the company or eliminated by attrition.
Some customers will be happy to see them go. “In the summertime, I got gas bills double what they should have been,” says Jack Glattery of El Cajon (not his real name). “I had representatives of the company come out. They agreed something was wrong, but the meter readers blamed the billing department, and the billing department blamed the meter readers. Then I learned how to read the meter. I call in the numbers each month. The bill has gone from $75 a month to $39. They wrote me a letter of apology.”
However, Glattery believes he was being fleeced for years: “They owe me tons of money,” he says. “I don’t believe they were reading the meter.” He found out from a friend that the meter readings are often estimated — and overestimated.
In mid-2000, San Diego’s Utility Consumers’ Action Network, which rides herd on local utilities, filed a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission against San Diego Gas & Electric. The local watchdog asked for a cease and desist order against the utility for alleged overestimation of customers’ bills, requesting restitution to customers who overpaid their bills without just cause. The company fought the charge, but eventually the two sides settled.
The utility had been estimating bills for more than 6 customers per 1000. It agreed to reduce the estimates to 5 per 1000 over a three-year period. The company never confessed it was overestimating bills but admitted that it was “overrelying on estimates,” according to company spokesperson Rachel Laing.
“Sometimes in areas that are inaccessible, the meter readers will skip reading the meter,” says Michael Shames, head of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network. “In 2000 and 2001, we had evidence of people’s bills being estimated — meter readers not doing their job. They were giving meter readers too many meters to read,” handing the company the opportunity to make excessive estimations. Now that the matter has been settled, “the complaints about meter estimations or misreads have gone down quite a bit.”
Now, with the advent of high-tech meters that can be read remotely and can also communicate with so-called smart appliances and thermostats, “Everybody’s happy,” says Laing. Yeah, until complaints start coming in.