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Electric customers suspicious of 35-day month

A utility company says there's no financial motive behind its 35-day billing cycles but not everyone's convinced.

Published September 28, 2005

I didn't grasp Wanda Fiscus' complaint at first. She didn't like the fact that her latest electric bill from Progress Energy Florida was based on a 35-day "month."

Wanda and her husband, Jack, had been optimistic when they bought a more efficient water heater for their condo in Safety Harbor. They figured it would put a dent in the power bill.

Instead, they got socked with an even bigger one.

I went through the major explanations for the big bills that everybody is getting this summer. Rates are up. Fuel costs are up. There's a hurricane adjustment. And it's hot. People are using more power than they realize.

All true, Wanda agreed. But: What about this 35-day billing cycle?

"That all evens out, doesn't it?" I asked her. "Won't your next bill just be for a few days less?"

Wanda said it still makes a difference. Progress Energy Florida has a two-tiered rate. My own bill shows a rate of 4.813 cents for the first 1,000 kilowatt-hours. Above that, the rate is 5.813 cents, about 21 percent higher. (This doesn't include fuel charges.)

By clumping 35 days into the same "monthly" bill, more electricity gets billed at the higher rate. If the power used during that extra five days had been rolled over into a fresh month, it would have been billed at the lower rate.

I asked: But doesn't that even out, too? Sooner or later there has to be a short "month" to catch up.

She replied: But what if the "long" months tend to be those with peak electric usage, and the "short" months come during milder seasons? Wanda and Jack had looked at their past few bills, and it kind of looked that way to them.

This made me curious, so I looked up my own history. My longest cycles of the past year have been December, January and September, each 33 days long. Maybe it is coincidence they covered the hotter and cooler months.

February's bill covered 29 days, and March's only 28. Then it started picking up again with 31 days in April and May, and 30 days in June and July. One exception to the trend was August, with only 28 days.

C.J. Drake, a spokesman for Progress Energy Florida, explained that there always is going to be some variation in the schedule. Holidays, bad weather and other circumstances interfere with meter-reading. The company tries to stay between 28 and 34 days, he said, but over a year's time it averages to 30 days.

When I bounced Wanda's concern off him, Drake's first reaction, like mine, was to reckon that everything evens out. But when we went through the time-of-year theory, he thought about it and said, he could see how somebody might bring it up.

"I am sure," Drake said, "that there is no concerted effort or intent by anyone at Progress Energy to do that to get more money." He said Progress is not benefitting financially.

The Public Service Commission has rules for meter reading. Rule 25-6.099 says in part: "Unless special circumstances warrant, meters shall be read at monthly intervals on the approximate corresponding day of each meter-reading period."

Kevin Bloom is the PSC's director of public information. He said that the commission has indeed been getting complaints about varying billing cycles. The utility must respond to each one. Any customer with a complaint, or even just a question, can call 1-800-342-3552.

I checked with Tampa Electric Co. That company's spokesman, Ross Bannister, said Tampa Electric does not use a two-tiered rate. That means even if billing cycles vary, it still evens out over time.

Now, in bringing this up, in no way am I criticizing Progress Energy's employees out on the street, serving the public. Brief variations for holidays and weather certainly are defensible. And if Progress says there is no deliberate strategy to jigger the schedule, then who can say otherwise?

Yet Wanda and Jack Fiscus still have a point. Under this system, the electric company has both a potential benefit from lumping more kilowatt-hours into irregular "months," and control of the means for doing so. Perhaps our friends at the PSC should revisit the rule.

[Last modified September 28, 2005, 19:10:03]

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