Question: Last summer and fall, Southern California Edison knowingly supplied many consumers in our area with extremely low voltage--voltage at times below the legal limit. From June through September, we had problems with three of our major appliances:
--In June, the washing machine would not operate, and a capacitor was installed.
--In September, our four-ton air conditioner would not operate.
--In September, our 25-inch TV lost color and the sides of the picture.
The problem in each instance was low voltage. In September, the voltage reading at our home was recorded at 202 volts. But we incorrectly assumed at the time that the appliances were at fault and called the appropriate servicemen, incurring bills of $242.72. We filed a claim with SCE for that amount, feeling that since it was negligent in supplying sufficient voltage, and in not notifying users of the precariously low voltage--and its possible effect on appliances--it was responsible for payment of bills incurred by consumers.
Four months later, we were notified that they would pay for the TV repairs only. The "reasoning" being that we should have called their serviceman first. We feel that this is merely an excuse for SCE not to pay the full amount. My vociferous objections brought an offer to throw in the air-conditioning payment, but no washing machine. I'm sure that the representative with whom I talked has his instructions to keep the payment as low as possible. We feel that we, and all consumers, are being ripped off since this public utility is benefiting financially from this sort of thing.
We know from SCE's own servicemen that this is a monumental problem that is being kept from the general public.--J.C.
Answer: SCE's logic strikes me too as a bit odd. If the TV set blinks out, I don't think it would occur to me, either, to call the electric company rather than the nearest TV repair shop. (Although, ironically, that was the company's standard advice at one time for consumers experiencing appliance troubles, a spokesman for Southern California Edison says.)
You're quite right that all electric utilities are required by law--under the California Public Utilities Commission's Rule 14--to "make every effort to supply continual and reliable service" to their customers. And, according to Bill Adams, staff engineer for the Public Utilities Commission: "We do step in and issue admonishing letters" to electric companies when a pattern of erratic and substandard service begins emerging.
But isolated instances like yours, Adams adds, aren't all that common and, frankly, aren't even all that well understood by either the PUC or SCE. When outages occur, they tend to be across wide areas, are deliberate and are announced well beforehand. During hot summers, when air-conditioning demands are at their peak, for instance, "brownouts" are a common strategy for making sure that the entire system doesn't conk out in a massive blackout that can be near-catastrophic.
"Every user," Adams says, "has a code number on his monthly bill, and if the electric utility is going to engage in one of these 'rolling blackouts,' everyone has to be notified beforehand that those customers, for instance, with Code 07, are going to be without service for a few hours on such-and-such a date beginning at such-and-such an hour.
"After that, their service is restored and another area is shut down."
But isolated instances of low voltage are not only much trickier--and harder to explain--but usually take place without the electric company's knowledge--before or even after the fact, according to Bob Hull, a spokesman for Edison.
Legally, the PUC's Adams adds, the nominal voltage is either 120 volts or 240 volts--depending on the circuitry--with a minimum permissible voltage of either 110 or 220. On the circuits providing lighting needs, the maximum is 125 or 250 volts.
"On those 240 circuits where lighting needs aren't present," Adams continues, "the minimum is 90% of the nominal voltage--90% of 240 volts, or 216."
And SCE, Hull continues, "tries to keep our voltage, plus or minus, within 5% of the nominal voltage. Appliance manufacturers build their appliances with a tolerance of about 15% just to avoid this sort of thing."
So, how could the voltage in your home dip as low as 202 volts, which is way below everybody's tolerance level? It's a good question for which neither the PUC's Adams nor SCE's Hull has a ready answer.
"It's not common, but it happens," Adams adds. "And we don't really know why, usually. Once in a while a circuit in the house will malfunction, and you get a high-resistance connection, but we don't really know why or how."
And how frequently or rarely it happens and goes undetected--because no one's appliances are noticeably affected by the fluctuation--is equally unknown.