B.C. man gets apology for $2,000 hydro bill

It took several months of emails and a call from Go Public, but a Vancouver man has received an apology from BC Hydro for a mistaken $2,000 bill for electricity to a bare-bones shed.

Hydro company backs down after telling shed owner to pay up

It took several months of emails and a call from Go Public, but a Vancouver man has received an apology from BC Hydro for a mistaken $2,000 bill for electricity to a bare-bones shed. 

"I know I didn't use that power," said Colin Thomas. "They just kept coming back and saying I have to pay for it."

Thomas owns a piece of property on Gambier Island, a small community northwest of Vancouver. He bought it several years ago but didn't build anything there. When he goes over on summer weekends, he sleeps in the 8x10 shed, which has a hot plate, a kettle and a small fridge.

For several years, Thomas said, the hydro bill was approximately $15 a month.

"The power is usually off," Thomas said. "The only thing that is running is the fridge and the well pump — which is not operating when I am not drawing water."

For some reason, BC Hydro didn't send him any bills for three years. In December, he got his first shock, a hydro bill for $1,152.21, which he paid. The next bill he paid, in February, was $76.67.

Months long battle

The biggest bill — for $1,990.71 — arrived in April. Thomas said he figured enough was enough and he called BC Hydro to complain. Over the next six months, he said, he called and emailed several more times, but did not get a resolution.

"They kept trying to pry $2,000 out of me for power I didn't use, and I really and sincerely tried to figure it out," said Thomas.

Hydro for Colin Thomas's 8 X 10 shed on Gambier Island usually costs $15 per month. ((CBC))
Thomas said he checked his appliances and his meter, which were working fine. He hired an electrician, who concluded that the problem must be a billing error.

BC Hydro did not send anyone out to investigate.

Records show that at first, the company told Thomas someone had likely stolen his power by tampering with his meter. Several weeks later, customer service told him the meter had been replaced, which partially explained the surge in his readings.

"The new meter simply had a lower starting point than where the old one left off," a customer service representative wrote to Thomas in mid-September.

"The most common reason for a meter replacement is because the meter has slowed down or stopped which would also explain the rise in your daily average after the new meter was installed. It's not that your consumption went up, but rather that we were more accurately measuring what you were actually using."

After Thomas got a letter from BC Hydro threatening to cut off his power and send the account to collection, he told his story to CBC News.

"I felt cornered," Thomas said. "They got me in a place where I have nowhere to go because customer service wasn't working."

B.C. Hydro apologizes

Two days after CBC News contacted BC Hydro, Thomas said, he got a call from the company, apologizing and telling him it was all a big mistake

Thomas keeps a hot plate and other small appliances in the shed, but they are seldom used. ((CBC))
"We will be making that right," said Fiona Taylor of BC Hydro. "He will be issued a new bill. He's entitled to a credit and he'll be getting interest on that bill."

Taylor confirmed what Thomas had been told — that a meter replacement was not the cause of the problem. Instead, meter readers had been reading his neighbour's meter and applying those figures to Thomas's bill. 

"The meter numbers got mixed up, so they captured the information but they captured it off the neighbours' house," Taylor said.

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She explained that technicians reference customer's accounts on their hand-held devices, by keying in the last four digits on the meter. Thomas's meter apparently has the same last four digits as his neighbour's.

"The end result is we are actually fixing it for both customers," said Taylor. "At this point, both customers have been contacted and they've been made whole right and we've apologized to them both."

When asked why BC Hydro didn't figure out the problem over the six -month period Thomas was calling, the company blamed a "breakdown of communication" in the call centre.

"As soon as our customer care leadership was made aware of it they responded and investigated it thoroughly. We were made aware of it two days ago and it's already been resolved," said Taylor

Customer gets refund

BC Hydro said Thomas is actually owed money back, for some of what he paid toward the first two bills earlier this year.

Fiona Taylor, B.C. Hydro's acting manager of smart metering, said the company will be giving Thomas a refund. ((CBC) )
Thomas said he welcomes the refund of $895.17 and is happy his battle is over. However, he's still not impressed with BC Hydro's customer service.

"It's outrageous that they knew something was wrong and made no effort [until now] to do anything about it," said Thomas.

"They left it all up to me, and then they stonewalled and stonewalled, even refusing to answer my emails at one point."

BC Hydro insisted Thomas's situation is quite rare. It received 1.3 million customer calls last year, but it said only 76,466 of all inquires were about billing.

Of those, BC Hydro said only 80 resulted in investigations. Thomas's complaint, the company said, should have been "escalated" to an investigation but wasn't.

"In the end result, we are all human, and very capable, well-meaning people that he talked to thought they had solved the problem," Taylor said.

Smart meter may have helped

Taylor is BC Hydro's acting manager for smart metering, the digital system BC Hydro plans to implement in 2012. In this case, she said, a smart meter — which can be monitored in real time — could have made a big difference.

BC Hydro did not check the meter on Thomas's shed after he complained about his bill. ((CBC))
"If we would have had smart metering in place with the situation with Mr. Thomas we probably could have dealt with it a lot sooner," she said. "He'd have real time information on his own consumption, so he would be able to spot an anomaly as it was happening."

"What needs to be fixed is the attitude, more than the system," Thomas said.

"I'd like to have a smart meter. I would like to be able to monitor my usage over there, especially after this. I want to make sure the same thing doesn't repeat itself."







Kathy Tomlinson

Host & Reporter

Kathy Tomlinson worked as an investigative reporter at CBC for more than a decade.