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Trust the meter guy: It wasn't that hot

DWP's Moises Saucedo should know. He checks energy use at hundreds of addresses a day.

September 14, 2007|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Moises Saucedo peers over fences with a pair of binoculars and squeezes through small openings in backyard shrubbery. He jimmies open stuck gates and bluffs watchdogs into tail-wagging surrender.

Saucedo is on a mission, measuring how many electrons have been sacrificed to keep businesses and homes humming. Saucedo reads meters for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which can be treacherous work.

At this time of year, high temperatures translate into high utility bills. The recent Southern California heat wave was blamed in the deaths of 16 people, some said to be afraid to use their air conditioners because of the cost. Thousands of customers of DWP and Southern California Edison lost power for as long as three days. The sweltering weather produced the biggest electric power drain ever recorded by Edison and the second-biggest by the DWP.

But with few exceptions, the 1,008 meters that Saucedo canvassed in L.A.'s Wilshire Center area one day last week told him the same thing: The bills landing in mailboxes around the Southland might not be as bad as those paid during the long summer of 2006 -- but mainly because last summer was so brutally hot.

Of the 70 meters lining one apartment complex's basement, only five showed signs of high power consumption.

"I think if the heat wave had continued we would have gotten a lot more, but four or five hot days in a two-month-long billing cycle isn't going to amount to much," Saucedo said.

Representatives of DWP and Edison said that bills for electricity consumed in August would, for most customers, be no higher than during the comparable period last summer. The hottest spell in 2006 came during July, a heat storm so severe that its like occurs only once every 50 years, Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said.

That heat wave, and the power shortages that resulted from it, convinced some customers along Saucedo's route to hold out as long as they could this year before turning on their air conditioning. Some managed to do without it entirely.

"I didn't use it at all," said You Kang, a businessman who lives in an apartment building on South Westmoreland Avenue. "I didn't think it got that hot."

Another person on Saucedo's route, small-business owner Chan K. Lee, said he managed with fans except on two days when he cranked up the AC. On one of those days, he said, the cool air was needed for the comfort of guests.

"It has to be pretty hot before I'll use it, so I'm not expecting a big bill," Lee said.

After every heat wave, Saucedo and the meter readers of DWP and Southern California Edison are the first in Los Angeles to know whether customers are going to be in for sticker shock on their next energy bill.

Saucedo's sources are the electric meters that sometimes require creeping past angry dogs, thick cobwebs and scurrying armies of roaches. He must know every way in and out of buildings in a patrol area that covers several city blocks in a day.

But only a smattering of the meters -- maybe 5% -- registered an audible beep on Saucedo's hand-held computer, which signaled a reading that was more than 10% above or below the average power consumption for that residence.

"Nothing, no beeps, so the heat wave wasn't severe enough or long enough here to register on our two-month billing cycle," Saucedo said after checking another bank of meters.

If Angelenos see their Edison or DWP meter readers, it's only to catch a glimpse of them as they punch away on their hand-helds. What utility customers probably don't know is that each meter reader will cover an average of five miles on foot on every shift, reading 500 to more than 1,000 meters, as Saucedo did last week.

Even on a day when the temperature is down to the middle 80s, it's a pace that quickly draws out a sheen of sweat that doesn't go away and taxes everything from the lower back down to the soles of the feet.

Saucedo says the workday workout provides certain benefits.

"I never have to worry about eating big meals or desserts," said the 36-year-old, who gave up a job in a Coors beer warehouse in 1996 for the better DWP salary and benefits.

Saucedo says he wears only New Balance walking shoes, and he goes through about three pairs a year.

And he depends on several tools that are concealed as cleverly as those of a cat burglar.

A pair of binoculars lets him see badly placed or inaccessible meters. A small flashlight illuminates hallways that sometimes have no lights at all. A long-neck screwdriver comes into frequent use for jammed doors. A small hand mirror lets him see around corners.

Then there is the official DWP "dog stopper," worn on the hip in a sheath as if for a sword. It's a small black-and-orange umbrella.

"It keeps the dog away from you and startles him too. It really does work," said Saucedo, demonstrating by lunging forward, knees bent, as he rapidly opens and lowers the umbrella to dog height.

Though the meter readers work alone, support is seldom far away.

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