It wasn’t the Christmas gift Karim Guirguis was hoping for. On Dec. 27, the Ajax, Ont., man woke up to a surprise bill from Enbridge Gas for more than $1,600.
The notice told him his billing for the previous eight months had been inaccurate. Enbridge had not checked his gas meter since April, and had instead been relying on estimates. It turns out, those estimates were way off — a discrepancy that landed Guirguis facing what he calls a “whopping bill.”
Guirguis is part of a growing number of Ontarians facing frustrations — or even financial hardship — over infrequent meter readings, and inaccurate estimates by Enbridge, the country’s largest natural gas distribution company.
In 2021 the province’s energy regulator launched a review of this problem and other customer service concerns in response to complaints. The Ontario Energy Board (OEB) fined Enbridge $250,000 the following year for failing to meet certain standards, including meter reading.
Despite the penalty and review, complaints to the OEB related to meter reading have more than doubled: from 42 in 2021, to 87 in 2023.
Enbridge said it is making strides to improve compliance, though it also recently tried to get the OEB to lower the standards it has to meet. Meanwhile, advocates are calling for more action from the company, warning there’s a system in place now that puts customers at risk of potential bill shock.
Inaccurate bills can throw finances ‘out of whack’
Guirguis has lived in his house for nearly 16 years and says he’s never given his Enbridge bills much thought, though in retrospect he wishes he had.
“When it comes to utilities, as long as it looks kind of status quo, like the same as it’s always been, we just pay our bills and move on,” he said.
You feel like you’re at fault somehow, like you’ve done something wrong.— Ingrid Raudsepp, Enbridge customer
Last year, he and his wife added a pool in their backyard, along with a locked gate to the yard as required by local bylaws. Throughout the summer and fall, he says his Enbridge bills were consistent with previous years — averaging about $60 to $80 dollars a month.
He says it wasn’t until December that Enbridge alerted him that his new gate had prevented the company from accessing his gas meter. Following that notice, he submitted his own reading online, and his catch-up bill came later that month.
The couple acknowledges the heater for their new pool increased their gas use, but said if they had known sooner just how much their consumption had changed, they would have made adjustments.
“I get it, I owed the money, I used the service,” said Guirguis, who is now repaying the bills on a year-long payment plan.
“It’s frustrating that they have to wait for two missed attempts from their reps, which could be up to eight months in my case, before it triggers [an alert].”
Others have faced even larger financial surprises from Enbridge. Ingrid Raudsepp is still recovering from the stress of receiving a $7,000-plus catch-up bill in December of 2022.
“The whole thing made things a lot more difficult, not just financially, but also emotionally and mentally. You feel like you’re at fault somehow, like you’ve done something wrong, like you’re the bad guy,” said Raudsepp, who lives in Mississauga, Ont.
Abhilash Kantemneni is a research manager with Efficiency Canada where he leads research related to low-income households. He said it’s common for people to trust their bills without closely scrutinizing them. Kantemneni said over the past year he’s heard growing concerns about catch-up bills, which he said is particularly concerning for the many households that are already cutting back in order to pay their essential bills.
“It throws the household’s entire budgeting and finances out of whack,” he said.
Enbridge not meeting regulator’s standards
The OEB says Enbridge can rely on estimates for some bills, but is supposed to read meters at least every two months. Further, no more than 0.5 per cent of customers should go four or more consecutive months without a reading.
Enbridge has not come close to that target since 2019, when it merged with Union Gas. In 2021, the company reported that about five per cent of customers had gone four months or longer without a reading.
In 2022 Enbridge came just shy of getting that number down to four per cent — an interim target the OEB agreed to following its review. The 2023 numbers aren’t out yet.
Enbridge asked in 2022 to permanently lower the standard to allow two per cent of customers to go four months or longer without a reading, but the OEB denied that request last month.
John Lawford is the executive director and general counsel with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. The organization represented seniors’ and tenants’ advocacy groups, arguing against the request to lower the meter reading target and other customer service standards.
“There’s nothing unobtainable about those quality metrics,” he said.
Customers encouraged to submit their own readings
Enbridge declined CBC’s request for an interview, but said in a statement that it “recognizes the importance of conducting regular meter reads and continued to make strides to improve our performance through 2023.”
The company also noted it has public outreach campaigns that encourage people to submit their own meter readings online.
Lawford, however, said giving customers the option to submit their own readings is not a replacement for Enbridge meeting a “baseline obligation.”
“We try to make it easy and standard so that consumers just pay their bill and get on with having the service. Especially an essential service like heat,” Lawford said.
The OEB also declined CBC’s request for an interview. In a statement it said it expects Enbridge to provide a plan for how it will achieve the service standards.
“We will give Enbridge an opportunity to share its plan before any new compliance-related steps are taken but we continue to expect that Enbridge will address all consumer complaints.”
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