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Dana Parsons

Tilting at Electric Windmills

August 09, 1995|Dana Parsons

It's too hot to do any real work today, so why not just sit around and complain for a while? It's shiftless of me, I know, but in these days of corporate downsizing in America, what are they going to do, fire me?

Uh, strike that.

I'm feeling especially powerless today, because I'm battling the electric company. I know what you're thinking--why not just declare war on Russia and get it over with?

Yes, I too know my plight is hopeless, but every so often it does a soul good to take on a monopolistic corporate giant.

So if you'll just indulge me, maybe telling the tale will help me. Maybe it'll help you too, although lost as I am in my own problems, I can't say that I really care.


Most months, my payment procedure is the same: get the electric bill, write the check, mail it.

Because I live alone and seldom permit house guests, my bills are remarkably consistent. When you hear the phrase "static electricity," they're talking about my Southern California Edison bills. They're almost always in the $15 to $20 range. Two months ago, for example, the bill was $17. Then, inexplicably, it went to $27 the next month, about a 60% increase. That caught my eye, because I was out of town for one-third of the billing period.

This month, however, the bill shot up to $45. Suddenly we're talking a 160% increase. I haven't had a bill that high since my parents visited in the winter three years ago and kept every light in the house on and did laundry on the half-hour.

I knew I couldn't possibly run up a bill that high, so I called Edison. Surer of my cause than the fiercest Crusader, I girded for pitched phone battle with whatever unsuspecting customer representative the company was foolish enough to set in my path.

Unfortunately, my opponent turned out to be a very nice woman who agreed the bill stood out like a sore thumb, in contrast to the previous 12 months. She dispatched me to check the meter to see if the reading approximated what was on the bill.

Doing that, I called back and got a man the second time around. Drat, he was equally polite (what are they teaching these customer reps, anyway?), but when I told him the meter reading was in the ballpark of that stated on the bill, he pointed out, somewhat convincingly, that the meter wouldn't have self-corrected had it been out of whack. I felt the momentum switch to Edison.

I beseeched him (continuing in the Crusader mode) to come up with an explanation, but the best he could suggest was that I might have left the refrigerator door ajar for an inordinate length of time.

Ha! Little does he know that I have nothing in my refrigerator and, therefore, never open or close it. And to think that a college-educated man such as myself would leave the refrigerator door open. . . . Does he take me for a dimwit?


Knowing I was right but sensing things were going badly in the "proving it" department, I decided to press my case. In my next call, I insisted on speaking to a supervisor. Shortly, a woman came to the phone.

I launched into a defense of my position and was just building up a good head of steam when she interrupted. She said she didn't want to take any more of my time and that she could see from a review of my bills that the current one looked highly suspicious. She said she'd be happy to send someone out to check the meter and, if I wanted, various appliances in my home.

Well, sure, thanks, I said, suddenly feeling more like a cream puff than a Crusader.

That's where we left it. Sometime in the next couple weeks or so, someone will try and figure out why my bill has skyrocketed.

Millie Paul, an Edison spokeswoman in Los Angeles, said the company sends out about 50 million bills a year. Of those, she said, the company receives 67,000 inquiries to check meters. She said she didn't know how many customers "win" their cases.

I have a hunch the answer may be "zero."

Summing up, here's what I know:

* My usage couldn't have increased 160%.

* I won't be able to convince Edison of that.

* I will pay the disputed figure.

And yet, as powerless as I feel, the hostility is gone. If only someone at Edison had at least been haughty, so I could feel like the morally vested "little guy" taking on the system.

Instead, I feel a bit like John Cleese, the British comedian of Monty Python fame, who once told of his hassles with the Electricity Board.

In a letter to the board, Cleese complained at length of numerous poor services. But at the end of the letter, Cleese said he felt compelled to add: "However, I should like to congratulate you on the continuing excellent quality of your electricity."

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