PG&E customer perplexed by sudden spike in gas bill

February 4, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
We have heard lots of concern that Pacific Gas & Electric's new smart meters may be giving false readings and inflating consumers' electric bills. But this time, an old meter has come into doubt.

In this case, it was a man's gas bill. It suddenly shot way up for no apparent reason. But as he found out, it can be very hard to prove you did not use the energy the meter says you did.

Stanley Smith has a stable routine. He cooks a couple times a day, does laundry a couple times a week, and sets his thermostat at 62 degrees. So there was no reason for his gas bill to be six times higher than usual.

"I didn't use that much gas," Smith said. "I know I didn't use that much gas."

Smith's gas bill is normally about $35 a month during the summer. However, it shot up to $175 in May and then up to $237 in June, which made no sense. In the dead of summer, he did not even turn on his heater.

"I said that can't be right because it was twice as high as February," Smith said.

So he called PG&E and a technician checked all the appliances. There were no leaks. So PG&E tested his gas meter and surprisingly it found the readings were too low, not too high.

"What that meant was I must've used it," Smith said. "I said, 'No I didn't use it. I didn't even have the furnace on."

PG&E took the old meter away and put in one of the new smart meters. Soon, Smith's bill dropped back down to normal -- $34 in July. Smith says he is sure the old meter malfunctioned. It had been there at least since he moved in 40 years ago, and he did not want to pay for gas he had not used.

"I hadn't paid the bill until I thought I was going to get this straightened out because it was up to $400 something dollars at the end," he said.

But when Smith did not pay the full amount, PG&E threatened to shut off the gas. Months went by. He filed a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission. PG&E still denied him a refund, saying the meter ran slow. So he called 7 On Your Side and we contacted PG&E.

"We were unable to determine what led to this again huge spike in his bill, we wanted to work with him and we wanted also to give him the benefit of the doubt," Blair Jones of PG&E said. "He's been a long-time customer."

PG&E told 7 On Your Side it could not figure out why the meter was under-reading while his gas bill was spiking. So the company agreed to charge him only for his normal use and it refunded him $307.

"So you guys got involved and shoot, you guys did a good job," Smith said. "So I was happy."

PG&E says if you see a sudden change in your usual gas or electric usage, the company will send out a technician to try to determine the cause. And as Smith did, you can complain to the PUC if you still think you were overcharged.