When your power company acts like the Three Stooges

Remember the Three Stooges routine where each Stooge points at the other two, and nobody makes a decision or accepts responsibility?

That’s what Jacquie Marzano says it was like dealing with Oncor Electric Delivery in Texas and its subcontractor after a smart-meter installation at her house in November blew out her swimming pool equipment. Her pool didn’t get cleaned for weeks, and she couldn’t get the help and answers she needed.

“They were in a circle, pointing left,” she said, then mimicking them. “It’s not our responsibility. It’s their responsibility.”

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, so began six months of failed attempts to get the subcontractor, Standard Utility of Fort Worth, to give a definitive response to her claim for $2,000 in repairs, she says.

“I called. I sent e-mails. I sent registered mail. I left messages on their website.”

I contacted Oncor, the utility that supplies electricity to retail providers and maintains transmission lines. A spokeswoman told me that Standard Utility is one of its main smart-meter installers.

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Oncor has overseen the installation of nearly 2 million smart meters in its service territory. Standard Utility has installed hundreds of thousands.

Oncor says Marzano, who lives in Dalworthington Gardens, did not send in the required paperwork. A claims adjuster needed an invoice showing the cost of repairs. Marzano did send an invoice for the first part of repairs, then sent an estimate for the rest. She hoped to receive a payment and use it for the rest of the repairs.

It was a standoff.

Oncor says it’s unlikely that the smart-meter installation damaged the pool equipment anyway.

And, generally, if an installation does cause damage, a contractor’s insurance pays the claim, Oncor says.

Tom Brockenbush, Standard Utility’s chief financial officer, told me in an interview, “Typically, in the past, our liability goes to the meter.”

If anything is damaged inside the house, “then we would not be responsible.” Complaints about smart-meter installations are very rare, he said.

After he studied the case file, Brockenbush sent an e-mail with more information. He called the confusion with Marzano unfortunate and described it as “a breakdown in communication between all of the parties involved.”

“Neither Standard Utility nor Oncor discovered any evidence to suggest that the damages were the result of either an Oncor equipment failure or an installation problem by Standard Utility.

“Nonetheless, it was Standard Utility’s decision to pay the claim to ensure a positive customer experience.”

A Standard Utility representative recently delivered the rest of the $2,000 claim to Marzano. She says that she is happy and that without a Watchdog intervention, “we would still be going round and round.”

Oncor says a smart-meter installation should cause a brief loss of electricity — “a blink” — followed by a reconnection that should not cause an electrical surge.

A spokeswoman said the company appreciates being notified of any problems with its contractors and recommends leaving a detailed message at the AskOncor.com website.

Aside from smart-meter installations, remember that Oncor, unlike power companies elsewhere, does not provide its customers with any surge protection.

The Watchdog recommends that all sensitive equipment, such as computers, kitchen appliances, TVs and stereo equipment, be connected to individual surge protectors. For added protection, have an electrician install a “whole-house surge protector” on the main line to protect appliances as well as phone and cable lines.

More Watchdog Nation reports on smart meters:

Meet the dog that hates smart meter installers

Here’s the latest on electricity smart meters

How to protect your home from electricity surges


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Here’s the latest on electricity smart meters

Americans are confused and worried about the installation of smart electric meters. Some believe the meters result in higher bills. In North Texas, where Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber lives, Oncor Electric Delivery denies that.

The Watchdog is on the case. Here’s the latest.

Dave Lieber of watchdognation.com explores the controversy over smart meters.

Remember that Oncor maintains the power lines and installs the new meters. Your electricity provider handles your billing.

Installation update

Almost 1 million new meters have been installed in Oncor’s service area. That’s about one-third of the more than 3 million residences and businesses that will receive them by 2013, the Public Utility Commission of Texas says.

The PUC hired a company to test the meters, and that continues. So far, 1,400 meters have been tested “and all were found to be accurate,” according to the PUC.

Oncor has acknowledged that 1,800 customers’ meter readings were in error, but the company blames human error during conversion to the new meters. It says the meters themselves are fine.

Meanwhile, in California, Pacific Gas and Electric has admitted that there were 43,000 cases in which smart meters had problems, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

“The utility found 23,000 meters that were installed improperly, 11,376 that failed to retain consumer usage information and 9,000 that had trouble connecting with the wireless network,” the paper reported. The utility said that only “a few” customers received inaccurate bills.

Turns out that the meters that were installed incorrectly were gas meters and that the “vast majority” of those customers got inaccurate bills, the paper reported.

California state officials, like those in Texas, continue investigating.

Installation difficulties

Thanks to Melodi and George Faris of Fort Worth for teaching me two important facts about smart-meter installations.

First, Oncor can enter your back yard to install the meters without your permission.

Second, during the installation, the power to your home will go off for several minutes.

Melodi Faris told me how she watched an Oncor installer climb over their wrought iron gate, then push a button that opened the gate to her driveway. When Melodi Faris confronted the installer, he denied climbing the fence. He said he reached through the gate and pushed the button. She measured the distance and told me that’s not possible.

After the power went off, the family’s phones went dead. Permanently.

They filed a claim with Oncor for the replacement cost, but it was denied. Oncor stated in a letter that it is not responsible for “voltage fluctuations or electrical interruptions.”

An Oncor spokeswoman told me that proper installation procedures were followed. Oncor left a notice on the front door that it would be doing work, and the installer knocked before entering the property. No one answered.

As for jumping the fence, she said, “In normal circumstances, he would use a ladder.”

Power goes off “no more than a minute or two,” she said.

“Every person should have protection for their appliances,” she added. “Surge protectors. That’s what we recommend.”

Website problems

A new website — www.SmartMeterTexas.com — is supposed to let customers with smart meters manage electric usage.

Greg McKinney of Arlington, who works on websites for a bank, says he cannot get the site to work for the new smart meter at his home.

“It’s as though they didn’t test the test before rolling it out,” he says.

He wrote to me: “Dave, I don’t know what you can do here, but it’s frustrating that with electricity deregulation, I’m supposed to educate myself about electricity usage. And the very tools that the PUC puts out there” don’t work.

The PUC tells me the site is operated by Oncor and other transmission and distribution utilities. Users must have smart meters for about a month or two before the site will work.

So far, 2,000 electric customers have enrolled, the PUC reports.

Doing the right thing

Donald Martin of Fort Worth is trying to do the right thing. He says he tallies his kilowatt-hour usage by looking at his smart meter every day.

“When I received my last bill, I compared their current meter reading to my recorded reading,” he wrote. “Their reading was 37 kWh more than my observation.”

He called TXU Energy, his retail provider, but says he couldn’t communicate with the rep and got frustrated.

The Watchdog contacted TXU. A spokeswoman listened to the tapes of his calls.

“He was really upset ….,” she told me. “He did not let us help him.”

Meanwhile, an Oncor spokeswoman told me that Martin’s problem was that his bill stated his meter was read on May 12, but the actual reading occurred on May 13, hence the difference in usage.

“We have two business days to get in there around that time to actually read the meter,” she said. “We read it the next day. Sometimes that happens. We try to stick to the schedule. We read so many meters in a day that this might happen.”

She also taught me — and you — a new trick to get better service from Oncor. Each city has an Oncor community manager. The managers’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses are listed on Oncor’s website.

Here’s how to find it: Go to oncor.com and look for the Community tab on the upper-right corner. On the drop-down menu click on Community and Customer Relations. On the left side, click on Local Contacts, then find your city and the local area manager.

“That’s something you can do if you don’t feel satisfied,” the Oncor spokeswoman says.


Read Dave Lieber’s previous post about how Smart meters are becoming urban legends.

Read an earlier Dave Lieber post about how Oncor doesn’t have a sufficient emergency alert system for its customers.

Read the Dave Lieber post about how to fight your electric company.


Read Texas PUC Chairman Barry Smitherman’s presentation to a Texas legislative committee in May 2010 here.

The latest PUC news release about independent smart meter testing is here.

Here is the complete rule for Texans about smart meters from the PUC.

This is the smart meter website that the state offers Texans to measure their usage. This is the PUC announcement about the site.


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

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation book won two national awards for social change.

Smart meters become urban legends

Smart meters are coming to your house. Eventually. But as the first wave of North Texans gets those digital meters, they are becoming the stuff of urban legend.

Look at what has happened to Oncor Electric Delivery.

Dave Lieber writes about Oncor's smart meters

This smart meter exhibit created by Oncor was picketed by members of SmartURCitizens.com.

The region’s major power supplier was energized about the rollout of the 3.4 million new digital meters. Oncor promised more control over your electric usage with real-time information about your spending.

What happened instead is a public relations disaster. Oncor’s smart meters, which debuted last month in parts of Fort Worth and Arlington, are turning into an urban legend: a story everyone hears but can’t tell whether it’s true.

In this urban legend, once a smart meter is installed, customers see a sharp spike in their next monthly electric bill.

Dave Lieber writes about smart meters.

Oncor presents a "smiley face" work inside its smart meter exhibit, but when some customers get their first bills under the new metering system, they are NOT smiling.

That belief is at the heart of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Oncor customers that cites “a dramatic and unreasonable rise” in electric bills after smart-meter installations. And a residents group, SmartURCitizens.com, is protesting and raising lots of questions about the meters. Group members even picketed the shining star of Oncor’s meter rollout, its traveling smart-meter exhibit trailer.

In its first five weeks, SmartURCitizens.com picked up 500 members.

Co-founder Ree Wattner testified before the Public Utility Commission on April 1. She asked for a three-month break in smart-meter installations. That request was denied. (To watch the broadcast, go to this site and search for the April 1, 2010 meeting to PUCT Open Meeting that shows only two parts. Click on “View part 2 of conference” and scroll to 45:30 in the timeline.)

There was a good piece of news, though, which could lead to a credible resolution.

The PUC hired Navigant Consulting to conduct a three-month investigation of smart meters in Texas. And when it comes to investigating power companies here, Navigant has a strong track record.

The company completed a nearly 400-page report in 2008 on questionable practices at the Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Central Texas. (You can read that report, which to Watchdog Nation is a textbook study of 21st century bad behavior in the pubic arena — or worse — here.) Former leaders of the cooperative face felony charges.

Navigant investigator Todd Lester, who ran that PEC inquiry, is handling the smart-meter examination. He promises detailed testing of 5,000 new digital meters in labs and in the field and side by side with old-style mechanical meters. He says he will follow the data from the meter all the way through billing, looking for flaws. Results are due in three months.

Oncor spokesman Chris Schein tells me: “So far there has not been any evidence to show there are widespread problems with either the meter accuracy or the software that would warrant us stopping the installation. If we found anything that would indicate that, we would be the first to stand up and say, ‘No more.'”

Oncor acknowledges 1,800 errors out of 800,000 meter installations. Those were human errors, not meter errors, it says.

Dallas lawyer Jason Berent, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of a Heath couple who believe they were overcharged, calls the smart-meter problem “the biggest controversy sitting just below the surface.”

His clients’ bill jumped to about $1,900 a month several months after a new meter was installed. For three months, the bill faced by Robert and Jennifer Cordts was almost $5,000, the lawsuit says.

Oncor has attributed the higher bills to the cold winter.

Tricia Lambert, the other founder of SmartURCitizens, tells me that Oncor’s strategy “is to discredit us as hystericals.”

She says calls are coming from people who are getting their electricity cut off because they can’t pay big winter bills, and she doesn’t believe that cold weather is the reason the bills shot up.

“These are hardworking Texans,” she says. “They are not ne’er-do-wells that don’t want to pay their bills. That’s who we’re fighting for.”

Schein says Oncor wants to help, not fight back. He says Oncor is doing everything it can to help customers understand their situations by “answering thousands of calls.”

One customer even sought his help on Facebook, and Schein said he happily obliged.

Tip: Become friends with Chris Schein on Facebook. After your smart meter is installed, if the next bill is high, you can either send a message or “poke” him.

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Want more? Read this latest Dave Lieber blog post about a Grapevine man who has a theory about why people believe smart meters are charging them more.

Dave Lieber writes the Dave Lieber Watchdog column at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where this report originally appeared.