KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- In January, Seth Chapman was asked to provide Consumers Energy with a picture of the electric meter on his Kalamazoo home. He was then billed $2,889.91 because the utility claimed he had been underbilled for nearly four years.
Chapman is just one in the long list of people who have contacted the FOX 17 Problem Solvers about Consumers Energy's practice of using estimated meter readings. Complaints have been piling since 2008, prompting the Michigan Public Service Commission to investigate.
Chapman got word from Consumers Energy January 11 that he would be responsible for $2889.91 for energy usage that was underestimated by the company for the past 46 months.
“I would like at least to know that they would call me and say, Hey it’s been a year, can we get a reading?’ But four years is just outrageous,” Chapman said.
Consumers Energy says that there are multiple reasons why they do estimated meter reads. If the meter isn't openly available, they will use an algorithm to estimate a bill for that month based weather conditions and the customer's past usage. This practice can lead to over- and under-estimations that force customers to play catch-up on future bills.
In Chapman’s case, his meter is in the basement, so it's not easily accessible to Consumers Energy meter readers. Chapman said that he would have been happy to be available if they needed to read it and ahd reached out to him, something he said Consumers never did.
Consumers Energy has since given him a 20% discount and is replacing his meter with a smart meter, an automated device the utility hopes will provide more accurate readings. They are also permitting Chapman to spread out payments over the next four years. Chapman says that starting in February, he has to pay $50 extra every month in addition to his normal bill.
Consumers Energy could not confirm or deny that the current investigation into the algorithm practices of estimated bills will affect Chapman’s gas bills.
Chapman expressed his frustration that nowhere in Consumers Energy's terms of agreement does it say anything about who is supposed to be providing or asking for meter reads, and, more importantly, when they're supposed to be done.
The MPSC said it has received more than a thousand complaints about estimated bills from 2010 to 2015. Consumers Energy declined to give FOX 17 the number of complaints they have received directly.
“I know they are estimating, because my meter is in the basement,” Chapman said, "but to me Consumers Energy is a really big company, and it seems like they would be accurate or at least fairly accurate with their estimations. But turns out they aren’t at all."
The MPSC launched a probe into Consumers’ estimation practices in January. Consumers is due to present its own findings - a self-review - on February 18. The MPSC will then take a month to review those findings, document issues, and recommend solutions. The results are due back to Consumers by May.