Behind the notices is a new Public Utility Commission rule with a two-fold purpose - improving access to meters and limiting use of estimates rather than actual readings. Specifically, the rule requires transmission companies, which are responsible for reading meters, to notify customers if their meters are inaccessible for three consecutive months. The transmission company in the Houston area is CenterPoint Energy, which takes readings from 2 million meters.
Nearly 1,000 notices went out in October, the first billing cycle after the third month since the new rule took effect in July. "Getting accurate, timely readings is the goal," said Alicia Dixon, a CenterPoint spokeswoman.
"Disconnection of service is a last resort." The rule was aimed partly at easing the shock some customers received in the past when many months of estimated bills were followed by a larger bill reflecting their true power usage. In the past CenterPoint didn't have to notify customers why it was using estimates rather than actual readings. That meant customers might not be aware of access problems.
But the new rule requires transmission companies to post door hangers at houses where the meter can't be read. After the third month, the customer's retail electric company mails a similar notice. The notices say why the reader couldn't get access, such as a locked gate or unfriendly dog, and outline the three options customers can take to avoid losing their electric service.
The cheapest is to remove obstacles to the meter, by such means as keeping an animal inside or unlocking a gate. That might not be practical for customers who, for example, must leave their dogs in the yard when they are away or keep gates locked for security or safety reasons. A customer also can move the meter to a place where the readers can see it unobstructed, a potentially costly procedure for which the customer will have to pay.
Finally, the customer can agree to installation of a $69 device that allows workers to read the meter remotely from the street or other location nearby. CenterPoint doesn't charge the customer for the device but passes the cost on to the customer's electric retail company.
It's up to those companies to decide if they will charge the customer, but in most cases they do. CenterPoint is also responsible for reading natural gas meters in the Houston area and sometimes notifies customers that their gas meters are inaccessible. They are offered a choice of removing obstructions to the meter or taking their own readings and submitting them by mail.
Gas meters are not subject to the new PUC rule, though, because gas service is regulated instead by the Texas Railroad Commission and local cities. Tony Pannagl, a Houston technology industry recruiter who lives in a duplex in the Tanglewood neighborhood, received a notice in October from Reliant Energy, his retail electric provider.
Reliant informed him that his meter was inaccessible "...due to a bad or vicious dog...." The notice was the first time in the nine years that he and his wife have lived there that Pannagl remembers being told the power company had a problem reading the meter.
"I have a swimming pool, so I can't leave the gate open or unlocked because of safety," Pannagl said. He agreed to installation of a remote reading device, which occurred within days, but he isn't particularly pleased.
"I'm at a loss as to why I have to pay to improve their infrastructure," Pannagl said.
CenterPoint's counterpart in the Dallas area, Oncor, operates 3 million electric meters and sent notices to fewer than 1,000 customers in October because of the new rule, spokesman Chris Schein said.
San Antonio's city-owned utility, CPS, has been installing remote reading devices on some hard-to-reach meters recently, spokesman Bob McCullough said. Earlier this year, the Houston area experienced a surge in estimated readings. CenterPoint is usually able to read 98.5 percent of its meters every month, Dixon said, but in the spring that percentage slipped to about 90 percent.
PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said commission staff became aware of the problem and started to pressure the company to catch up. Dixon said CenterPoint's meter-reading percentage has since recovered after it hired more readers.