CLEVELAND — FirstEnergy customers with indoor electric meters may have received an unexpected jolt from their recent monthly bill as the utility company began reconciling estimated usage with actual usage over the span of the pandemic. In some cases, customers received bills that were four or five times higher than the previous month.
At the onset of the pandemic, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) required utilities to suspend any physical meter readings or any other activity that could potentially spread the coronavirus.
Many utilities, including FirstEnergy, suspended any readings of indoor meters, which are common place at many multi-family housing complexes and apartment buildings. Since then, utilities have had to estimate each customer’s usage every month. In many cases, that resulted in customers being undercharged for their electric usage.
“They are not being 'overcharged' for electricity; they are simply receiving a larger bill to make up for usage they were not billed for during the months they received the lower estimated readings,” said FirstEnergy spokesperson Lauren Siburkis via email. “Estimated bills are often calculated using elements from the same period last year. When an estimated reading has been used and an actual meter reading is not obtained, there is usually some adjustment required, either because the previously billed estimate was too high or too low.”
That is precisely what happened to Virginia White of Willoughby. When she received her electric bill earlier this month, it was nearly five times higher than the previous month, jumping from just over $48 to more than $232.
“I thought, ‘this ain’t my bill,” White said. “I saw the amount and I thought 'there’s no way that’s correct.' I went back to my email to look at the actual bill and it said $232.66.”
White said she called FirstEnergy’s customer service and an agent told her that her electric usage has been estimated over the past 14 months. Although customers have the option to set up a payment plan to spread out the cost over several bills, White opted to pay the lump sum.
Begrudgingly, of course.
“Tomorrow is my 20th wedding anniversary. We’re going to be doing nothing but staying at home,” White said. “With over $200 to the electric company, that’s clothes for my kids. I was wanting to go back-to-school shopping.”
Siburkis said customers that receive estimated bills have the option of submitting a meter reading by going into their online account. Additionally, if a customer lives in an apartment building and has been receiving estimated bills over a prolonged period of time, they are encouraged to work with their property manager to locate the meter in order to snap a photo of their actual reading. Those photos can be used to adjust their bill so that any additional cost will be known ahead of time.
“Once we receive and validate the meter reading, we will cancel any estimated bills and rebill the account using the actual meter reading provided. Depending on the date the actual reading is received, the new bill may cover more than 30 days,” Siburkis said.
FirstEnergy also recently submitted an application with PUCO to resume indoor meter readings. PUCO has not yet approved the application but FirstEnergy expects the commission to lift all remaining COVID restrictions in the not so distant future, Siburkis said.
Additionally, FirstEnergy has embarked on a pilot program to replace older indoor meters with automated “smart” meters that can provide an actual reading without a physical inspection.
“This helped us not only replace older meters with the smart meters, but also combat the issue of prolong estimated bills since the smart meters provide automated readings,” Siburkis said.