More on electric meter reading

We wrote about a new PUC rule today that went into effect recently that had two goals: improving access to electric meters and limiting use of estimates rather than actual readings. Judging from early reader response this is something that many readers are interested in.

A CenterPoint meter reader can use this handheld device to read electric meters from the street if they have special devices installed on them. The company is charging $69 for the installation.

To address a few questions/complaints/rants from readers:
* What?! They’re allowed to estimate our electric use? I thought they had to read it every month?
Companies like CenterPoint have long been allowed to use estimates, but only for a few months a time. The new rule came about in part because customers weren’t being told why their bill was estimated (i.e. could the reader not get in the yard or did they simply not have enough staff to hit all the meters that month?). Also some companies were letting the estimates go for longer than three months, which could lead to a huge monthly bill when a reading was taken and it turned out the estimates were far off.
* Why can’t electric customers use the self-recorded mail-in meter reading post cards anymore?
CenterPoint says they stopped that program (or rather the Texas Public Utility Commission let them stop it) because the percentage of customers on the program who would actually return them was low, about 15 to 20 percent. Even if you did turn in the cards regularly they were still required to have a meter reader come out every few months to read it anyhow.
* Why can the mail-in cards still be used for natural gas meters?
Gas meters are regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission and local governments while electric meter issues are covered by the Texas Public Utility Commission. The Railroad Commission requires gas distribution companies to still offer the post cards. Companies still have to come read the gas meter every six months, however, even if you are on a card system.
* Why should customers have to pay $69 for an electronic meter reading device, essentially paying for CenterPoint to upgrade the system?
Whether CenterPoint uses a remotely read meter or a human being, customers will end up paying for it . The transmission and distribution companies are still regulated by the state and are allowed to essentially charge fees (incorporated into your power bill either as a separate line item or bundled with other fees depending on who you buy electricity from) that cover all their costs.
* They never had a problem reading my meter for the past 10 years. I’ve seen them use binoculars to read the meter from outside the fence. Why is this a problem now?
The impression I get is CenterPoint wants to make the process as easy as possible for meter readers, so if they can get you to agree to leaving the fence unlocked or put on the remote device all the better. Incidentally, meter readers are permitted to jump over locked fences to get to the meters, but CenterPoint says they’d rather they don’t do anything risky that could get them hurt or damage customer property.
CenterPoint is starting to roll out a new generation of electric meters, referred to by many as “smart meters” that will let them do away with the door-to-door meter readers since all the data will be collected at a central office automatically. Our biz columnist Loren Steffy wrote about this here.
In addition to letting CenterPoint better monitor the grid (i.e. find out exactly where outages are more quickly) these meters are supposed to let electric companies offer customers a wider variety of power plans. This should include time-of-use rates that will charge you less when you use power off-peak (essentially anytime other than 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. or so), which is what large industrial customers now get to do.
These new meters will end up as additional charges on customer bills, something like $2.50 per month. The charge will show up on bills over the expected lifetime of the device, which is about 12 years, CenterPoint says, meaning we’ll pay about $360 when all is said and done.
We’ll be writing about the roll out of the meters in the near future and the difference between the technology CenterPoint is using versus other regions in Texas and elsewhere.