The battle cry for residents in a seniors community in Fort Worth, Texas goes like this:
“I’m gettin’ beat ’cause I want to use some heat!”
Residents tried to figure out why their electric bills have doubled in the past few months.
Last week, they called a meeting and invited me. They showed me their bills, almost all of them from TXU Energy. They had a lot of theories about what went wrong — meters not read properly, for example.
It was bitterly cold in late December. Of course bills go up.
But then I dug deeper into their cases, looking at their bills and asking each resident two crucial questions:
What kilowatt-per-hour rate do you pay?
When does your contract expire?
Almost nobody knew the answers. Their problem, it seems, is much worse than high winter bills. Most likely, these residents are paying more than necessary because they haven’t shopped around for electricity. Unfortunately, many Texans still don’t know how to do that.
We worked on their cases, and in the end, I hope I solved their problem. Best of all, my solution may work for you, too. But before we get to that, let’s listen to a few of the residents:
Martha Beaman: “My bill was $28 in November. Then, in December, it was $256. And for January, it was $233. I am never at home. I work. This is stressful because my wages haven’t gone up as the bill goes up. I have to calculate every penny I earn because my job has been cut back on hours this month. I’m struggling.”
Shirley Stockton: “I knew the cold weather was coming and cranked my heater down to 65. I turned my water heater off through the cold snap, and the bill still went from $36 to $96. I only turn my water heater on every few days when I need it.” (When she called to tell a TXU rep that, she says the rep told her that hot water “is a privilege.”)
Debbie Wilson: Her bill jumped from $78 to $176 to $272: “After I got the high bill for December, I cut my thermostat to 67. I use oxygen at night, so I have to have enough electricity to pay for that. I’d rather go cold than not have my air at night.”
Anita Mayfield: Her bill went from $64 to $149. “I’m getting tired of cooking on a microwave. I wear sweats all the time. I have the thermostat turned down to 60 degrees. I wash in cold water. When you live on a fixed income, you can’t afford this. You don’t know where you are going to pay these extras from.”
Charlie Berry: His bill went from $40 to $176 to $227. “At this rate, by the time I get the next bill, I’m going to have to apply for assistance from the U.S. government just to pay my electric bill.”
Steve Kerr: “During the cold snap I was out of town for three weeks with the heating system turned off.” His bill went from $90 to $146 to $236. He is skeptical about whether the meter was read. “Whether or not it was read — that’s the $64,000 question,” he says.
Oncor spokeswoman Carol Peters said later that the bills are higher because this has been the second-coldest winter in the past two decades. “There’s a 30 percent increase in the heating requirements over last year,” she said. Oncor delivers the electricity through the lines and hires the meter readers. TXU is the residents’ retail provider by their choice.
TXU spokeswoman Sophia Stoller looked at 13 cases of Providence Village residents provided by The Watchdog. All but one seemed accurate, she said. In the questionable case, the initial bill looked too low.
TXU offers several ways for customers to get help with their bills, including a 10 percent discount as part of the Low Income Discount Plan. But you have to ask. TXU Energy Aid helps customers who say they have a hardship, such as loss of job or illness.
When I looked at the residents’ bills, I found that many are paying as much as 13, 14 or 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.
However, last week, the state-run PowertoChoose.org Web site showed the lowest prices I’ve seen — 8.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
So the quickest way to lower your electric bill is not to turn down a thermostat or turn off a water heater but to learn when your contract expires and shop for a better deal. If there’s a cancellation fee, it will be more than covered in a few months by cutting a 15-cent rate almost in half.
As proof, one Providence Village resident said she paid $250 to cancel her contract before it expired so she could switch to Green Mountain Energy. Her neighbors sighed when Helen Nash reported that her recent bill was only $93.
If you’re not sure about the best way to shop around, I’ve got you covered. I’ve distributed tens of thousands of free copies of my guide showing how to get the best buy in Texas electricity. You can find it by clicking here on “Dave Lieber Guide to Saving on Your Electricity Bill.”
You can also e-mail me at email@example.com or request a copy at Dave Lieber, Star-Telegram, P.O. Box 1870, Fort Worth, TX 76101.
What to do If you need help on your electric bill, call 211.
Customers who receive food stamps or Medicaid may qualify for the Lite Up Texas discount or other assistance.
Ask your electric company whether it offers assistance. Also ask to pay a big bill over several months, allowed under law.
On Feb. 3, 2010, Tarrant County Human Services will take applications from those who are retired or on disability and receive no other income. Call 817-531-5620 on Wednesday and ask for an appointment. Only 500 appointments will be scheduled.
Source: Tarrant County Human Services
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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber