FF12: $400 bill makes woman question new “smart meter"

EL DORADO, Kan. Lola Christenson had never seen anything like it before.

“Never a bill like $400,’ says 89-year-old Christensen.

She lives alone and makes less than $1,000 a month. That’s why she was shocked to see her July bill from Westar that showed she owed $410 for using 142 percent more electricity than the same month in 2015.

“No way. It takes half of my Social Security,"Christenson says.

She first called Westar which put a new “smart meter” in during that billing cycle. She asked them to check her meter and bill. She was told it costs $35.

“I said, 'In other words, you are going to charge me to see if you are overcharging me,'" Christenson says.

She called FactFinder 12 next. We called in Carlisle Heating and Air in El Dorado. Crews came to Christenson’s house and checked her heating and air systems, appliances, and looked for anything that would cause her bill to more than double.

“In this case it seems unusual. Nothing changed but this meter. There’s no real explanation as to what happened,” says owner John Grange.

Westar initially told us that it was hotter this summer than last. We pulled the temperatures for the 32-day period in question. The average was 79.7 degrees in 2015 and 80.9 degrees this year. It was slightly warmer, but not enough to explain the jump that Christenson experienced.

Grange says “smart meter" technology isn’t bad. Overall he likes it and says it will be better for the customer.

“I think they'll be more accurate. Digital is better and in most cases you're going to get a more fair reading,” says Grange.

But what if you don’t get a fair reading or believe your meter is faulty? Who checks the meters for accuracy other than Westar?

“There is not a party that comes out to test, however the manufacturer tests all meters before they leave the facility and then we test them as well,” says Gina Penzig with Westar.

Grange says while they are likely more accurate there could still be issues, and there’s no one else checking these meters. He says a third party check would likely mean more costs for consumers.

Both Grange and Westar says old, analog meters can run slower over time. Christenson says she was initially told by a Westar employee that her old meter was slow.

Westar performed its own energy audit and found areas Christenson could improve including some duct work and a room where sun comes in. It found nothing wrong with the meter. The bill also shows the old meter was reading at about the same rate. Grange says there's still no explanation.

“That doesn't make sense unless she decided to put in a pool, hot tub and ran the air conditioning with the windows open," he says.

Westar stands behind its meter, but admits things could have been handled differently.

“There are times, especially in hindsight, that a little more attention to detail we would have made a better call the first time a customer reached out to us. This is one of those situations,” says Penzig.

Because of that, Westar and Project Deserves helped take care of Christenson’s bill. “Through our Project Deserve program and our Care Fund that bill was taken care of.”

So what can you do if you suspect your bill is too high?

Grange says start with a call to a heating and air company for a check of your systems. He says the number one reason energy bills spike is because of a dirty air filter. Faulty air conditioners are often a culprit as well.

It’s also important to point out that Westar has raised rates 26 times or 43 percent since 2009.

You can also call Westar, but it normally charges you a fee to check a meter.

Westar says about half of its roughly 700,000 customers have smart meters so far. You can view the company's tips on how to save energy HERE.