Broken meters, crossed wires: How to find out if something else is causing your high utility bill

GR Chhina’s bill says his electricity consumption doubled after ATCO installed a new meter, and he can’t figure out why.

Linda MacAngus had a similar issue. After months of phone calls to Enmax, it turned out the technician had connected a neighbouring condo’s wires to her meter by accident when installing it last fall.

And Calum and Joyce Rees are staring at a mysterious energy consumption increase on their bill that’s rising so high, they worry they’ll have to sell and move. 

None of these three found much help from their utility provider. 

When they’ve called, they were quoted fees of over $100 to investigate — only reimbursed if they’re right in guessing something is broken, and no information on whether it’s wise to take the risk.

“I had all kinds of excuses, even down to one person who said that my boiler must be hooked up to the electric meter and that would be causing it,” said MacAngus. “Well, I knew that wasn’t true, and I have in-floor heating. So when they said the fans were being used more in the winter, I knew that wasn’t right.”

“They even said that my two strings of LED lights on the balcony might be doing it.… Nobody would say, ‘Well, yeah, this sounds serious. Let’s take a look at it.'”

MacAngus says it’s important to trust your gut. She pushed back, and in her case, Enmax did send someone free of charge. Finally, after months of stress, she was reimbursed for what she had overpaid after a technician confirmed the wiring crossing issue on her meter. 

This might seem rare, but CBC Calgary’s call-out to the community on utility bills turned up multiple examples of meter issues and people being told they needed to pay a fee to get it checked out. And with inflation driving up costs across the board, many folks don’t have $100 or more to risk on getting the meter checked. They’re frustrated.

Salwa El-Maghwry, who helps families struggling to pay utility bills in her role at Rise Calgary, says she’s seen issues, too.

One of her clients who lives alone recently received a $900 bill for one month. It was normally $400-$500 in that household. El-Maghwry and the client called the provincial advocate and Enmax customer service to see what should be done.

Salwa El-Maghwry has helped advocate for hundreds of people having issues with their utility bills in her work as the utilities expert on the Rise Calgary team. (Submitted by Salwa El-Maghwry)

“To me, it sounded really ridiculous.… We ended up having Enmax visit the home to take a look at the meter itself,” she said in a Q&A event on utility bills hosted by CBC Calgary.

“Forty-five days later, the client received a letter in the mail stating that their meter was going to be upgraded. As a result, their utility bill for the month afterwards was $260 in the middle of the winter and Enmax did forgive the total $900 for the month before.”

The customer didn’t get repaid for any previous months.

Members of the CBC Calgary texting community who thought their meter might be broken were quoted various amounts to have their metres checked, from no charge to $119 at Fortis, $123 at ATCO, to Enmax’s charge of $205 to $263. When asked, Fortis and ATCO both said they normally visit in person first and charge only if there is a dispute that goes to appeal.

On the other hand, Dennis Bigras, who lives in Strathmore and gets his energy from Epcor, says no one even mentioned a charge when he called. He keeps a record of all his bills. When he noticed a weird spike, he compared with previous bills and flagged the discrepancy.

“The other thing that I noticed about my meter is on the outside there are digital numbers, and some of those digital numbers were not clear. That was another factor that I flagged to them,” he said.

Epcor sent a technician and swapped out his meter. Then it monitored his new meter for two months, determined there had been a problem with the old one and credited his account for the months he overpaid.

Dennis Bigras noticed the numbers on his meter weren’t appearing clearly, so he brought that to the attention of his provider. (Oseremen Irete/CBC)

To shed light on what might be causing these problems, CBC News called Alex Frost, a power line technician program instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton.

He says broken meters aren’t a common issue. But they do happen. And that’s why it’s important to keep a close eye on the consumption listed on your bills. If your consumption changes with no other changes in your house or usage, it could be the cause.

“Modern meters are very good. They don’t typically fail in a way that will negatively affect the customer. With analog meters, sometimes just because of the age, they get a little bit older and they tend to slow down a little bit. In that case, it’ll actually benefit the customer and they might see a slightly smaller bill.”

If an older model meter is swapped out for a newer meter, a customer could see their bill go up.

“Chances are the meter was slowing down, and while they still have consistent power, the meter isn’t reading correctly,” said Frost. “Then when they replace it, the new meter is actually reading out proper consumption levels for that house, and unfortunately they have to pay more.”

He recommends people read their meters themselves every month. A digital meter will show your kilowatt-hour (kWh) usage to date on its screen, and you can click this link to learn how to read an analog meter. If what you see on the meter doesn’t reflect what’s on the bill, it should be brought up with the provider.

Meters can also be broken or damaged physically by things like falling ice. Voltage issues are a hint something could be wrong. Watch for lights that are brighter than they should be or electronics failing.

Enmax declined to be interviewed for this story.

In an emailed statement, it said there is no cost for replacement if the meter is found to be damaged. The company says it conducted 10 meter-testing service calls in Calgary in the past 12 months.

Fortis vice-president of customer relations Todd Dettling says meter issues are rare. Fortis has more than 570,000 metres, and at any one time, roughly 90 are having issues.

Understanding your electricity meter can be confusing, but it can be an important tool when something goes awry. (Mike Symington/CBC)

“If the investigation is required at a field level, that’s something that we would do free of charge. Typically, we resolve those situations through that activity,” he said.

“The intent is to really educate first and really try to get an understanding of what might be causing these higher energy requirements in the home or business.”

As for the Rees family, they’re going to make that call to Enmax. The $200-plus fee is tough to swallow right now, but it’s either try testing or keep watching the bills mount and be forced to move.

Calum and Joyce say they began noticing issues in February when consumption on their Enmax bill doubled compared with the same month the year before. They recently plugged their household information into the Utilities Consumer Advocate’s cost comparison tool and got an error message.

“It kept saying, ‘there must be something wrong. The data you’re inputting shouldn’t add up to this,'” said Joyce.

For them, the possibility of having to pay the fee should there be nothing wrong with their meter is daunting — but necessary.

“We would definitely be looking at that 200 bucks as an investment,” said Calum. “If it does show that there’s some amendments that need to be made to the meter, it’d be worthwhile.”


Replay

Watch our panel of local experts take audience questions on Alberta utility bills — how to get the best deal, where to go for help and how to insulate your home. Read all our recent coverage of the growing utility costs at cbc.ca/utilities.

Tackling utility bills

18 days ago

Duration 57:08

Have your questions answered about utility bills. 57:08

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