Measuring utility usage: Is your bill correct?

Updated: Oct. 8, 2019 at 6:03 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - From the wheels winding around outside the house, to the tabulations and terminology in the bills, utility consumption can cause power outages of the brain.

“If you really look at your monthly bill from a layman’s standpoint, it’s pretty indecipherable,” LG&E customer Tom Zoeller said.

Zoeller pays close attention to his thermostat and his utility bills. Recently, he suspected a problem.

“The bill seemed higher than it ought to be,” Zoeller said.

He said he couldn’t figure it out, so he called LG&E and requested a re-read of his meter.

“They informed me the meter had been re-read, and that there was an error,” Zoeller said. “It was too high. They used terminology, it’s a system glitch, it’s a system-generated bill, all this kind of jargon which really doesn’t tell anybody anything. System-generated? Well I want it system-generated right.”

He got a corrected bill, but he called WAVE 3 News with an interesting question.

“How do any of us know that the bills are accurate?” Zoeller asked.

WAVE 3 News went to LG&E’s Director of Advanced Meter Initiatives for answers.

"You simply go outside,” David Huff said. “Look at your meter, whether it’s gas or electric, compare the reading to the reading that’s on your bill.”

But the fact is most of us rely on the army of meter readers.

“If you spot an actual person reading the meter, you’re pretty lucky, because I don’t ever see them,” Zoeller said.

Huff said the meter readers are efficient and accurate while checking 500 to 700 meters per day per worker.

“We pay and we encourage our contractors for accurate reads,” Huff said. “We measure that. We’re at 99.8 percent accuracy.”

“We obtain the readings,” meter reader Bob Harbaugh said. “When we get back to the office at the end of the day, we dock them, downloads all the info, then the billing department takes care of the rest.”

LG&E said it estimates bills when there is a problem with weather or access to meters. Zoeller has received estimated bills with no weather or access problems at his house. Huff said the bottom line is it all works out in the end.

“A meter reader is much like an odometer on your car,” Huff said. “When we read it, if you drive more miles, it just increments. So if you’re keeping track over time, and maybe miss a reading, and you take a reading the next month, on average, these will average out and self correct.”

“This idea it’s just gonna self correct and your next bill will be less because your previous bill was more, I don’t have any faith in that,” Zoeller said. “If they can’t read the meter correctly in the first place, why would you think they’re gonna straighten it out later on?”

There is one alternative that guarantees accuracy: The smart meter. A total of 20,000 LG&E and KU customers are using them in a pilot program with thousands more on the waiting list.

“Smart meters eliminate the human error piece,” Huff said. “Because it’s an electronic read, whatever the meter’s reading.”

LG&E and KU pitched a proposal to require more than 1 million customers to use smart meters, but if you wanted to stay pat with your current meters, it would’ve cost you from $22 to $45 more per month. But the Kentucky Public Service Commission rejected that plan last summer.

Zoeller is left going back and forth between words like “estimated,” “actual” and “corrected” on his bills.

“It’s created a doubt in my mind from month to month whether the bill’s accurate or not,” Zoeller said.

It’s an important issue. The Energy Information Administration finds one-third of U.S. households now has trouble paying their energy bills.

Copyright 2019 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.