By Sherry Listgarten
The curious case of the broken-not-broken gas meterUploaded: Aug 28, 2022
Every month I send Palo Alto Utilities a photo of my gas and electric meters and they bill me a few days later. (1) That has worked fine until this year.
In February my bill showed zero gas and electricity use. I sent the utility a note along with the meter photos. I wanted them to fix the bill so they didn’t end up combining two months of usage into the March bill, which would mean more of my usage was charged at Tier 2 rates.
Here is the picture of the gas meter that I sent in.
I didn’t hear back, so I sent the utility a note again a few weeks later.
Two days later the utility replied, saying that since we are close to the next billing cycle, they’ll just make any needed adjustments then. I again explained the point about Tier 2 charges and they pushed back while also claiming that the photo of my gas meter was in fact a photo of a water meter. Huh?
I responded and a few days later they fixed the billing.
Fine, that would have been that, except now I’m suspecting that the zero bill was intentional. They didn’t believe the gas meter reading -- it was too low -- and they wanted to confirm it the following month. You can see how much lower it was this year than last year because I electrified my heat in November.
I came to this realization because something similar happened again last week.
A few days ago I received a bill showing that I used 12 therms of gas in July. But ever since I replaced my gas water heater with a heat pump water heater in May, my usage has been much lower, maybe 1 therm per month. That equates to about 10 hours per month on the gas stove (my one remaining gas appliance), which seems about right since I don’t cook much in the summer.
So I checked the meter photo I had sent in and they had mis-read it. I sent them a note and the meter photo.
They said they would send a meter reader out to confirm the reading.
Okay. I asked when that would happen so I could unlock the gate.
The next morning, before I had a chance to reply, I saw a Utilities truck drive up and park in front of my house. I said hi and asked if he was there to read the meter. He said no, he was there to replace the meter. I was not expecting that, but fine. I figured he would read the old meter first to confirm the reading. I sent a note to the utility with the update, saying I hoped they could fix the bill.
Apparently, no, the problem seems to be that I am in fact using gas and the old meter was just not recording it properly.
I’m not sure what is going to happen now. Are they going to fix my bill as I asked? Will I have to pay for a phantom gas water heater? The old meter is gone and the new meter reads …. zero.
This cracked me up. Is Palo Alto so unprepared for homes to actually start electrifying that they can’t recognize it when they see it? Even with the electrification permits on file?
My takeaways: I hope that smart meters will eliminate some of this confusion. And I hope that low gas use in our homes becomes so normal that the utility figures out how to handle it without replacing perfectly good meters. But I also recognize that 1 in 6 households are behind on their utility bills and that may be one reason why Palo Alto Utilities is being extra careful. So I can’t really complain. And I do now have a nice, easier-to-read meter that I expect to continue to run very slowly until I replace my stove. But for those of you who are electrifying -- and I hope there are many of you -- my advice is to check your bills a little more carefully than usual.
Update (Aug 30): The utility responded and has adjusted my bill. Hopefully they will keep electrification in mind when they see a big drop in residential gas use, and hopefully you guys will give them plenty of cause to see that!
Notes and References
1. The meter reader doesn’t come by because I keep my gates locked due to my dog and to prevent theft.
Current Climate Data (July 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard
Over 16% of light-duty vehicles sold in California this year were plug-in or fuel cell (hydrogen), up from 12% last year and 8% the year before. That is great progress!
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