For the second month, New Jersey residents are complaining of shockingly high utility bills after months of estimated meter readings, according to dozens of NJ.com readers and complaints to the Board of Public Utilities.
Between Aug. 24 and Sept 24, the Board of Public Utilities received more than 229 complaints regarding high utility bills for PSE&G, 36 for JCP&L, 26 for ACE and nine for Rockland, spokesman Peter Peretzman said in a statement to NJ Advance Media.
“My bill, it’s over $500,” said Kevin Davitt of Glen Rock. “We have a window unit so it eats up the electricity in the summer, but this was just unusually high.”
And Hoboken resident Kailey Elfstrum said her bill jumped from $106 to $523. While she expected her bill to go up when she moved from her one-bedroom apartment across the street to her two-bedroom apartment, she was dismayed at the hundreds more she suddenly owed.
Along with dozens of other confused customers, they reached out to PSE&G customer services, which has seen an increase in customers calling about skyrocketing bills due to estimated meter readings.
The utility giant explained that one of Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders enacted during the height of the coronavirus pandemic barred utility workers from entering people’s homes. That meant the company had to estimate meter readings beginning in March and through the summer, said Fred Daum, Executive Director of Customer Operations.
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Electricity usage history and average monthly temperature are two big factors that come into play with estimating usage, he said in an interview.
For example, if a customer’s August bill was estimated, the company looks at average temperature this year — 77 degrees — compared to last year’s 76 degrees. The customer’s usage should be very close to the same, so that charge is what’s used to create the estimated bill.
But what the system didn’t know is that there’s a pandemic, forcing people to spend more time at home, pushing their electricity usage up.
And because meter readers weren’t allowed near people’s homes to properly calculate electricity usage for months, estimates were lower than usual, Daum said. Now that workers are going back to accurately reading meters, it’s causing sticker shock across New Jersey.
“If homes are unoccupied from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., there’s no light switches, very flat AC usage, that’s how it normally is. But now, maybe there’s three or four people in the home, the TV is going, the laptop is going, people are coming in and out while the AC is on,” he said. “With the weather being the same — an apples to apples — the customer being home is what’s driving a higher bill.”
In September, although the average monthly temperature was only one degree cooler than 2019, customers saw their bills go up an average of 20% due to usage patterns.
“Our estimation logic has no way to know that you’ve been home more, so if you’ve been estimating months compared to last year’s bills when you weren’t home, when you get that accurate meter reading you’re going to be billed for all that usage from previous months,” he said.
Francis Tedesco, a spokesman for South Jersey utility company ACE, also noted the increase in customer calls due to high bills. He pointed to the hot summer weather and high energy usage as well.
JCP&L and Rockland did not respond for comment.
Residential meter readings resumed in July, when the executive order was lifted, so bills started being adjusted in the late summer. Customers can also submit their own meter readings to PSE&G to avoid estimates and keep your bill as accurate as possible.
But Elfstrum believes the utility company should’ve given a warning to customers who were going to see a sudden surge in their bill.
“It should have been a thoughtful calculation for these estimates, and I think that’s what upsetting to people,” she added.
Daum pointed out that PSE&G upgraded its deferred payment program for customers. Rather than paying back a high bill on a three- or six-month plan, the new program expanded to 24 months as a direct response to the pandemic.
All it takes is for a customer to call PSE&G and explain their can’t pay their bill. The company will spread the bill out over 24 months with no interest and no money down, and they will not ask for proof of unemployment or income. (More information can be found on their website here.)
“A high bill is in the eye of the beholder, so when a customer gets their bill and it’s higher than expected, they can call us at any time,” he said. “This gives customers much more breathing room to financially get back on their feet.”
New Jersey residents cannot have their utilities turned off for non-payment until Oct. 15, when Murphy’s utility service moratorium will be lifted.
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