'I don't wish it on my worst enemy': Calgarians detail life with an electricity load limiter
Limiters cap amount of electricity households can use, making many appliances unusable
Josie Gagne was stumbling in the dark, sobbing while on the phone with an Enmax customer assistant, as she tried to locate the tiny orange button under the utility meter that would restore heat inside.
It was the shock that got her.
The young single mother with two kids under two returned home one winter day last year to find a note on her door from Enmax. She'd fallen behind on bills; the home was now on a limiter, capping her electricity.
The furnace was off and at that point, she had no idea what a limiter even was.
"I'm freaking out. I'm crying, thinking 'What am I going to do?'" she said.
"It's the middle of winter, it's still cold outside. How am I going to feed my children when my oven doesn't work?"
Rising utility bills have community advocates worried the number of Calgarians facing this scenario will increase, and many don't know what a load limiter is.
It's often the first step before disconnection.
Several Calgary residents flagged the issue while sharing their utility bill experiences with CBC Calgary through text messaging, and on Calgary Kindness, a mutual aid Facebook group.
They've shared their personal stories with CBC journalists so others know what to expect.
Contributors said they were scared their fridge would lose power and their groceries would rot. They relied on air fryers, barbecues or a hot plate to make it through.
The extra fees — $52 for the notice, $52 to remove the limiter — only made it worse.
Plus, the black mark on their files means they often can't get a contract with more favourable fixed rates.
When the device is installed, a stove or anything else requiring 240 volts of electricity won't work.
Load limiters allow for continued operation of a furnace, a few lights and small appliances (but only one at a time). If too much electricity is used at once, the limiter will trip — turning off the power all together, until the meter is reset physically by the client or remotely by the distribution company.
Gagne was eventually able to access one-time help through Alberta Works that eventually led to her power being fully restored, but the time spent on the limiter still haunts her. Meal times became especially difficult.
"You're kind of limited to noodles, to maybe a hot dog, your toaster will work, your microwave will work. But there's only so much you can do," she said.
"It's upsetting and I'm getting just a little bit teary-eyed just thinking about it, because these are my children and you put your kids first regardless of anything. As a parent, when you can't provide that for your kids, it's a hard reality."
Being on maternity leave, Gagne said she's once again fallen behind on her utility bills — and she's worried a limiter will be placed on her home any day.
"Am I looking forward to it? Absolutely not. But is there anything else that I can do? Yeah, of course you can pay your whole bill, but then there is a risk I am not going to be able to pay my rent. Or am I not going to go to the grocery store for the next three weeks?" she said.
"For me, it's important to pay for a roof over top of our heads, for shelter, before paying for a utility bill."
Because she accessed help from Alberta Works last year, she is not eligible for assistance from them again.
Limited use of appliances
Lori Vaandering's family was also placed on a limiter for a few weeks this month. It was removed last week after the family also received one-time financial assistance through Alberta Works.
"Quite a few months had piled up.… We were getting bills that said 'you need to pay,' and then they came [and put the limiter on]," she said.
"I don't wish it on my worst enemy and I hope that it never happens again because it's very frustrating."
Like Gagne, Vaandering's family couldn't use their dishwasher, dryer, oven or stove.
"We used an electric kettle, toaster, toaster oven and microwave — but only one at a time. It wasn't always ideal because I felt like the kids weren't being fed properly," she said.
"Our clothes piled up because we'd have to go to a friend's house and do our laundry. But we don't have a vehicle so we had to take a taxi or transit everywhere. Everything is expensive right now."
Salwa El-Maghwry is the program manager with Rise Calgary (formerly Sunrise), an organization that helps Calgarians facing eviction and homelessness access services and pay bills.
She said limiters and disconnection is a topic of conversation with clients every day.
"We've had clients that require a lift to get upstairs to go to bed, but they're are on a load limiter [so it won't run]. I think that these things definitely need to be addressed," she said.
In many of these cases she said putting customers on a limiter does scare them into paying the bill.
"But then what happens is they will pay that bill immediately with money that they had saved up for the rent, or money they had saved up for something that was still a basic necessity," she said.
"It still puts them in a situation where the next month they're kind of doing the same thing. So then they get back on behind on rent, and then they get an eviction. It just it's a perpetual cycle, unfortunately."
CBC News asked Enmax how many customers are placed on limiters or who experienced disconnection last year. The company did not provide that information.
Alberta regulations say electricity cannot be completely disconnected between Oct. 15 and April 15.
"The Utilities Consumer Advocate works with any customers who do experience shut offs in the spring and summer to ensure that they do not go into the winter season without electricity or natural gas services," said the minister of natural gas and electricity's press secretary, Taylor Hides, in a statement.
She says from 2017 to 2018, there were 3,486 disconnections that lasted long enough to be reported to the Advocate, likely for months.
An unknown number were disconnected, then reconnected within weeks or days. Last year, the number reported to the Advocate was 1,485.
The data for this year is not yet available.
Geoff Scotton, spokesman for the Alberta Utilities Commission, said there is no legal requirement for the utility companies to report the number of customers who face disconnection or limiters.
Economists warned customers to lock in their rate last fall, if possible, when they saw electrical companies started to bulk buy power at far higher rates.
As predicted, the floating rate rose to nearly double the best available fixed rate over the winter.
Fixed or floating?<br><br>I'm still getting a lot of questions from Albertans as to which plan they should choose. In this thread i'll keep posting a comparison of currently expected RRO (floating) rates and best available fixed rates.<br><br>For now, the answer remains: stay fixed. <a href="https://t.co/qZq7PHWjER">pic.twitter.com/qZq7PHWjER</a>—@bcshaffer
Customers should still lock in to save money now, if they are able to, says University of Calgary economist Blake Shaffer.
Looking at those bulk buys for six months into the future, he says the rate will likely surge again in August, although not quite as high. It's not expected to drop close to the current best fixed rate of 7 cents/kWh for at least a year.
Some contracts allow customers to switch between the floating and fixed rate once a month.
"If you missed a bill, sometimes you won't be eligible to get on these fixed rates. Some of these require a $100 deposit, which, especially nowadays, isn't something that everyone can quickly and easily come up with," said Shaffer.
"I think that when we talk about all of the things we can do to help Albertans right now, to me, the focus has to be on those most at risk of not being able to pay their bills or even being at risk of being cut off. That's where the attention should be and there are barriers for many folks to get on these fixed rates."
Series produced by Elise Stolte