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How to Complain to the Power Company

Via Internet message board:Not the original poster, but giving my old house in central MD as a data point: my 20A Furman unit would sometimes show line voltages above 130. My two APCs would regularly have the “trim” light on and occasionally some red overvoltage lights. In the last year I was there the Furman would trip its protection breaker about once every week or two, so I’d come home to find my rack powered off (including the DVR, which made it extra annoying).The Innovolt protector I got back in August logged over a dozen current spike events.

Almost every X10 device installed in that house failed after a couple years, and the more expensive Leviton ones died the fastest. I had some Insteon in there for a year or two and lost one dimmer so far. I got this behavior even on my freshly-run 20A circuits. The power in that community was just dreadful and was at the far end of some old, convoluted lines that were subject to wind and tree problems. Every time it went out (up to several times per month in storm season) the Insteon would freak out for about 20 minutes, the halogen under-counter lighting in the kitchen might start flickering, and if the furnace happened to be running at the time it would trip an internal breaker that required removing several panels and feeling around blindly inside to reset it.The analog phone lines were even worse. My 56K modem never once managed any better than 28.8.

Earlier this year I moved about 10 minutes away and the power situation seems to be much better so far. I think I’ve had one outage in four months and as I write this my kill-a-watts are showing a reasonable 122.6V.

Reply:

I am sorry to hear about your issue. Are you renting or buying? If you are renting, move. You will spend a fortune on electronics. If you are buying, call the electric company every time you have issues. I mean every time. Take pictures, take notes, and start a log of everything that goes wrong with the power. Complain, complain, complain. This, I have learned, is a good way to get things fixed. You are paying for a service they are providing. If that service is causing you financial ruins, you have rights. I have the H10 and I have everything plugged into it. I love it. I have stable power where I live, but I don’t want to take chances. When I say complain: I’m saying to be a pain in the power company’s ass.

Via YouTube:

Audience Definition

My audience is usually IT people who work for electric cooperatives.  The audience for this post is being expanded and intended to all consumers of electric service from an electric cooperative or company.  If you do not use electric service but are a technical employee for a coop that fields consumer complaints, this also pertains to you.  Please comment below if you work in the industry and have anything to add.  I’m writing this to “get the word out” to us consumers on how to communicate with their utility to address service issues.

What is an Electric Cooperative?

Your electric cooperative is a non-profit organization.  Our existence is based on serving you with power because no for-profit business believes you are worth serving.  The USDA gives cooperatives low-interest funding to the members of cooperatives to build infrastructure and to provide you with power.  You might not know it, but you are an owner of the system.  By electing and talking with your board member, your stake in the company is being represented.
It is common for your electric cooperative to have an average of less than one person per mile of line.  Last I checked, electric cooperatives own a considerable percentage of the miles of power line in the nation yet they serve a very small portion of the national population. In a rural area, it takes an awful lot to distribute the power and keep your lights on.  With IOUs (investor owned utilities), investors will go only where big cities and big profits are.  With one mile of power line, an IOU in a city can serve thousands of people. They maintain less and serve more.  Keep this in mind when making comparisons to the quality of power you experienced when you lived in a city.  If you are going to compare a city’s grid to a rural area as the basis of your complaint… well, your mileage will vary.

Complaints

Over the years, I have fielded a number of consumer complaints regarding power quality.  Working in both cooperative IT and engineering departments, I am usually brought in when a member’s computer equipment is not operating normally or if a piece of power protection equipment is being questioned for an insurance claim.  These devices have ranged from APC UPS to a simple surge arrester.  I have also been called in to investigate other abnormalities that were outside of the scope of IT: an improperly-grounded swimming pool that would cause a person to be shocked when the water was touched and when lights were flickering only on one side of the customer’s house.

The end result of investigating these abnormal cases was usually a hefty repair bill being sent to the member by their electrician.  Unfortunately, we took the majority of the blame, red-faced screaming, and continued acts of belligerence from the customer when it came to power quality issues behind the point of delivery (POD) or their load center (breaker box).  It upsets me because the POD is legally where our responsibility ends and the homeowner’s responsibility begins – there’s nothing we can do about bad house wiring, open neutral, or a loose ground on the customer premise side.

How to complain

I searched the Internet looking for “how to complain to the electric company” and to my dismay read the top hits on Google had common thread-of-thought and method to simply “be a pain in the ass”.

I’ll just tell you now that being a nuisance will get you only so far having your service problem addressed.  As a consumer subscribing to electric service, I can understand that a service issue is frustrating and as an employee in the industry, I really want to fix it.  But realize that sometimes there’s nothing I can do to fix certain problems because, well, the problem is not mine to fix.  Directing anger at me in these cases would be like yelling at the fuel pump attendant because your vehicle wont start:

“Go see a mechanic; the poor guy at the service station only pumped the darn fuel.”

I’m not inferring that in all cases the problem lies behind the meter and is the consumer’s responsibility.  Being a consumer of electricity myself, I have personally filed three complaints with electric utilities resulting in them fixing/reconfiguring their equipment: two regarding low voltage and one regarding an abnormal number of outages.

In these cases, my number-one goal was to raise awareness by collecting empirical data as the basis of my service complaint.  After collecting the data, I dropped it off with the electric utility’s engineers to analyze it and correlate it with other problems they confirmed to have on record.

Let’s get started collecting the data – but in order to collect this data, you must first…

Understand the problem

The way I look at power distribution or “the grid” is like a network of roads.  The more roads there are, the better you are able to route around congestion and wrecks.   In the same way, the more power lines there are, the better we are able to route around heavy loads and destruction.  In a rural environment, there’s usually only one road.  So, there’s probably only one power line serving your community.  If this road or line is impassable, you will experience an outage that we/you can’t simply get around without making repairs.

The electric utility has a responsibility to provide safe transmission of power up to your POD.  Sometimes, there are short blackouts or blinks (we call them “operations”) caused by power protection equipment operating during dangerous times.  When a lightning storm, a tree branch, or tree is blown onto a power line, it is necessary to temporarily interrupt the flow of power.  It takes a couple of seconds of the branch to fall off the line or the lightening to stop hitting the line.  We hope that the issue clears up.  If not, the equipment goes into a “lock-out” mode that normally requires a lineman truck to go out and inspect the line.  In the same way a road is blocked when an unsafe condition exists, these operations are necessary to keep you safe and to prevent damage to the equipment that serves power.

Sometimes, utility equipment fails.  Failures resulting in power outages are the usually the easiest for the power company to address.  Failures not resulting in outages are more difficult to determine. Determining that a piece of equipment has failed or is failing is where your complaint can really help us out.

Side note:  A common misconception about power outages is that you are being billed for the time that your power is out.  I actually had a customer scream, “I want a refund for the time my power was out!” Billing revenue is recorded by the meter.  When no power is going through the meter, you will not be billed for it.

How to quantify the problem

You are having trouble with your power and you need to tell us how bad it is.  First, you need to eliminate your equipment or wiring as the culprit.  Hiring an electrician is generally the best and solid way to get a “clean bill of health” for your home wiring.

Electricians can check your voltage on both lines to neutral on the main lugs of the breaker panel. A variation more than a volt or two is not a good thing and is usually the culprit with older homes and mobile homes. This test should be performed while various loads are being applied and removed from your house. For instance: if your microwave, toaster, washer, dryer, heater, oven, etc changes your panel voltage in opposite directions, like one line moving from 120 to 125, and the other from 120 to 115, this reading would indicate a bad neutral wire. A supply of 125 volts (250 total) is max of what the electrician would be looking for. Any higher than this, you’ll need to contact your power coop. By hiring an electrician, you can confirm that there is no problem with your house wiring before proceeding.

Now, if you are on a tight budget and or don’t want to spend a bunch of money on an electrician, ask your neighbors if they are experiencing the same problems you are. Did any of your neighbors hire an electrician?  Ask them if they had any issues like light bulbs burning out in less than 3 months, flickering/dimming lights or if the Maytag Man has been repairing appliances or motors burning out in your area.  If they are, keep walking down your neighborhood road asking the same questions of your other neighbors.  Get the names and addresses of your neighbors that are experiencing the same issues as you are.  If more than one person experiences the same issue, chances are that there is a problem beyond the meter.

In the case of light bulbs burning out prematurely, ask your neighbors to not throw them away but keep them in a paper bag.  Ask them to note a service date and when each burned out.  I’ve been to a cooperative annual meeting where a member brought all their burnt-out light bulbs to show off how bad things were in his neighborhood.  This got the attention of everyone and was very effective in addressing this person’s problem. In our eyes the problem was quantified.

If you do hire an electrician, document everything they find and all repairs made (if any).  This gives you a good baseline to start recording from.  Keep in mind that if you don’t have a “clean bill of health” from a licensed electrician, your house wiring will always be questioned.

Be sure to document exactly where you choose to install your power recording equipment.  Be consistent where you placed your equipment; e.g. don’t move it around or change the settings during your data harvesting period.  We need to be assured by you that your records are consistent.  Should we see date/time records that appear to be inconsistent, we will not give your report much weight in addressing your problem.

Recording power quality

There are several pieces of consumer power protection equipment you can install behind your meter to not only protect your equipment but record when protection was required.  You probably would like one that records voltage and current in a fixed interval and outage alarms along with their corresponding date/time.

The kill-a-watt is a meter that you can put in-line between an appliance and the plug in your wall. The thing nice about this is that it records power usage of each of your appliances.  You can purchase these at Home Depot or Lowe’s off-the-shelf. If your hybrid was getting 3 MPG you’d want to know before you go to the pump, right?

The most common piece of consumer electronics is an APC UPS (uninterruptible power supply).  The UPS is used to prevent damage to sensitive electronics equipment by switching to a battery when it detects something wrong with the power from the source.  The nice thing about these devices is that they are relatively accurate and give good data.  The bad thing about these devices is that they are normally not configured properly by the user.

The included APC Powerchute® application that comes with a home-based UPS gives some pretty good information.  What we need you to do is:

  • Synch the time on your computer (use time.windows.com)
  • Voltage factors
  • Voltage Level
  • Voltage Sag Factor
  • Total Harmonic Distortion – THD

If you are recording to your hard drive, get the best resolution your disk-space can afford.  I believe 5 minute intervals is good enough but going to 1 minute intervals will give us more to look at

After you configure it, the APC software will create a text log file.  Find out who the engineer is and E-mail this file to your utility along with your complaint.  It should look something like this:

Network Management Card AOS v5.1.3
Smart-UPS & Matrix-UPS APP v5.1.3

		Smart-UPS 1500 RM
Date            Time            Vmin	Vmax	Vout	%Wout	Freq	%Cap	Vbat	TupsF
05/30/2011	15:24:07	124.5	125.2	125.2	57.8	60.00	100.0	27.27	86.1
05/30/2011	15:34:07	124.5	125.2	124.5	55.2	60.25	100.0	27.27	86.1
05/30/2011	15:44:07	124.5	125.2	124.5	55.2	60.25	100.0	27.27	86.1
05/30/2011	15:54:07	123.8	125.2	124.5	55.9	60.00	100.0	27.27	86.1
05/30/2011	16:04:07	124.5	125.2	124.5	54.6	60.00	100.0	27.27	86.1
05/30/2011	16:14:07	124.5	125.2	124.5	55.9	60.00	100.0	27.27	86.1
05/30/2011	16:24:07	124.5	125.2	125.2	57.2	60.00	100.0	27.27	86.1
05/30/2011	16:34:07	125.2	126.0	126.0	57.8	60.25	100.0	27.27	86.1
05/30/2011	16:44:08	125.2	126.0	125.2	57.2	60.00	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	16:54:08	125.2	125.2	125.2	57.8	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	17:04:08	125.2	126.0	126.0	58.5	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	17:14:08	125.2	126.0	126.0	58.5	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	17:24:08	125.2	126.0	126.0	56.5	60.00	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	17:34:08	126.0	126.7	126.0	57.8	60.00	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	17:44:08	126.0	126.7	126.0	56.5	60.00	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	17:54:08	126.0	126.7	126.0	59.8	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	18:04:08	126.0	126.7	126.0	57.8	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	18:14:08	126.0	126.7	126.0	56.5	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	18:24:08	126.0	126.7	126.0	57.8	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.0
05/30/2011	18:34:08	126.0	126.0	126.0	57.8	60.00	100.0	27.27	87.8
05/30/2011	18:44:08	126.0	126.0	126.0	57.8	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.8
05/30/2011	18:54:08	126.0	126.0	126.0	57.8	60.25	100.0	27.27	87.8
05/30/2011	19:04:08	125.2	126.0	126.0	58.5	60.00	100.0	27.27	87.8
05/30/2011	19:14:08	126.0	126.7	126.0	57.8	60.00	100.0	27.27	87.8
05/30/2011	19:24:08	125.2	126.0	126.0	57.8	60.00	100.0	27.27	87.8

What we can do

Being in a rural environment, sometimes there’s not much we can do.  If there is a voltage sag issue and you are at the end of a 15 mile line, you may simply be too far out in the sticks and are lucky to even have the power provided to you.  I remember one case where everyone was complaining in a subdivision only during the weekends (off hours).  During that time, our members called and left messages complaining that we were purposely “dimming the lights” during off-hours just to irritate them. The issue was eventually found to be a man and his son operating couple of heavy-duty arc welders and grinding equipment simultaneously during a weekend horse trailer construction project. There are so many conditions that can cause problems.

Some people are so concerned about power failures that they purchase generators while others more concerned about power quality for sensitive equipment purchase line conditioners and voltage regulators.  When a member gets this involved in addressing their unique power problems, a new appreciation is given to the effort we put in to keeping the lights on for so many people every day!

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