Nicor – Profiting through delay

Our February2010 gas bill from Nicor came as a shock. At more than $416 for the period of 12/22/09 to 1/22/10, it was up from our prior monthly bill of $126.

Beyond the shock, the bill presents a puzzle. We were out of town for 10 days in late December and set the thermostat at 50 degrees. So, why should our supposed gas usage have more than doubled from 176 therms in the month ending December 21, 2009 to 370 therms in the month ending January 22, 2010?

The bill itself hints at the explanation. It shows that the reading on January 22, 2010 was an actual reading. In other words, someone from Nicor read the meter. In contrast, the reading on December 22, 2009 was an “estimated” reading. No one read the meter, but Nicor guessed the gas usage.

What happened is that Nicor’s prior estimate and estimates before that were low. The result was that the huge supposed increase in gas usage was attributed entirely to the January 2010 bill, not to prior bills.

So what? There’s a big so what.

In January, Nicor was charging 68 cents per therm, or 36 percent more than the 50 cents per therm it charged in December. In other words, Nicor caught up on its gas reading at a time when it could reap considerably more money for the gas it sold.

A call to Nicor confirmed the windfall to the company, and the problem for our household. On February 12, 2010, Nicor’s operator “Claudine” or Operator 174, patiently explained that our last actual meter reading accepted by Nicor’s computer was on March 1, 2008, and that the whopping increase in supposed gas usage shown in the January 2010 bill reflected catch-up with prior underestimates during the course of the 22-month interim.

Claudine looked again, and noticed that our meter had actually been read on in July of 2009. But she explained that Nicor’s computer system dismissed the reading as making no sense since it indicated such a huge increase in the midst of summer. As a result, instead of being billed for nearly 269 therms in July, we were billed for nearly 49 therms.

That was terrific for reducing our payment in July, when Nicor charged 46 cents per therm. The trouble for us is that Nicor played catch up in the current bill, when it charged 68 cents per therm. That’s 48 percent more than it would have charged for the gas back in July.

Nicor had to wait some time for its money. But a 48 percent boost for waiting six months certainly beats investing in treasuries.

Claudine spotted the dismissed July reading, and said that Nicor will adjust its billing to reflect the higher gas usage in July and other prior months. The adjustment from July alone should amount to about $48, and Claudine suggested it may be higher.

Nicor deserves credit for having such an astute and candid customer service representative.

But questions remain. Why did the company’s computer dismiss the July meter reading for being out of line but accept the January reading which also was hugely out of line. Couldn’t the company’s computer see that the July reading followed many estimated readings?

For that matter, why does Nicor limit its meter readings to Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., when a great many people are not at home?

Why has it not implemented technology that would enable it to read meters without going inside homes?

And why won’t it allow customers to provide their own gas meter reading to the company on any day rather than on just a few specified days, so that it will have more accurate information when it makes estimated usage assessments?

My guess is that all this has something to do with Nicor’s own best interests rather than our best interests.

Surprised by your gas bill this month? Feel free to contact Nicor, or me.