Councilman: utility bills high despite lack of presence

Published 1:24 pm Saturday, March 14, 2015

Councilman Greg McLemore said that something might be rotten in the City of Franklin when it comes to high utility bills. But city officials have some possible explanations, though they could not comment specifically on McLemore’s situation.

The Ward 3 representative said he spent much of January and February on the road for business trips. When McLemore was gone, he said he killed the breakers to his house except for a few necessities, such as the refrigerator. In December, when he also said he wasn’t home full time, the bill was $170. In January and February, it was more in the zone of $250, and he said that’s high for only running a refrigerator.

“There are only two options here,” McLemore said. “Either I’m lying, or something is going on. The argument is usually that everyone’s bills are higher in January and February because of the cold weather — and they were cold months — but that explanation doesn’t fly here because I was not there to use the utilities.”

City Manager Randy Martin said there’s another explanation: Common sense doesn’t always prevail with a heating mechanism. It’s natural to think that you should turn it off when you leave, and then turn it back on when you are home.

“I know I used to run it as low as I could when I was not at home,” Martin said. “But when you do that, you are not saving on energy costs.”

The reason, Martin said, is because if a heating system isn’t running, the temperature in the house is going to get close to the temperature outside. When you turn it back on, some systems have to work more than twice as hard to get from sub-freezing to a comfortable setting.

“Most companies say you are better served to leave it at the lowest comfortable level for you and don’t change it,” Martin said. “The spike is what gets you. And if it does get below freezing in the house, then the pipes may burst, which can be even more expensive.”

It did get cold this winter, particularly in February. The month had the most days with temperatures reaching under 20 degrees for anytime going back in city history. As a whole, it was the third coldest month in Franklin’s history.

On Feb. 20, the Franklin Power and Light Department also set a record, with customers using 21,000 megawatts. Previously, the record was 20,000 megawatts in July 2011.

Concerning utilities, a home occupant pays a base of about $60 — most of that waste — for having the utilities on even if nothing is used. Considering that, McLemore didn’t buy the explanation that he’d used enough power to ramp it up to more than $150 for a couple of weekends at home, and mainly keeping the refrigerator on when he was away. The least energy efficient refrigerator uses 117 kilowatt hours a month, or about $13 by Franklin’s listed rate.

“That made it stand out in my mind,” McLemore said. “It’s like the more I am not home, the higher the bill is getting.”

So, he had people with Franklin’s Electric Department come out to give it a look.

“They were very nice and courteous to me, and I believe they did all they could,” McLemore said. “They just couldn’t find out what was wrong because it happened in the past. It is my word that I wasn’t there using all of this stuff versus a meter reading that said somebody used it.”

The city installed a monitor on McLemore’s meter to watch and see what is happening.

“I have no doubt that it will now work,” he said. “The meter will get back to reading like it is supposed to, and I will be billed for the right usage, which will be very little to none.

“There’s nothing wrong with the box. What’s wrong are the readings being turned in, whether it is generated mechanically or faulty, or by human involvement.”

Martin said having a bill double or worse can be a struggle on a resident, but that there isn’t any tampering happening.

Most of the problem is on the fact that winters are getting colder. The homes and common heaters installed are not up to the task compared to what is installed farther north.

For example Martin’s system, a heat pump: It was constantly running to keep the temperatures up during that cold front. And it also had to activate the emergency mechanism, the equivalent of a baseboard heating. So, he effectively had two heating systems running at once, and it still wasn’t keeping up.

“These issues are directly related to the colder weather,” Martin said. “Most of the equipment we use is just not designed for that cold of weather.”

For a lot of Franklin homes and heating systems, that’s also the case.

“There are also customers still using small portable electric heaters, and they are extraordinarily expensive for limited benefit,” Martin said.

McLemore wasn’t the only resident to complain of high energy bills. One High Street home occupant, Elizabeth Simonds, said that her family’s bill back in December was $672.

“Why are we paying such high rates,” she wondered.

Martin said people with similar or other odd circumstances should call the electric department and set up an audit. Many customers already have.

“If you inquire, we will be happy to come out and try to help,” he said. “Six-hundred dollars from $200 is particularly bad, and we do have families whose bills jumped that high. We encourage people to request an audit.”