Snowfall hinders meter reading

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Routt County residents who think their electric bills are more expensive than they should be should check the ease of access to their meters.

Officials from Yampa Valley Electric Association have received complaints this winter from people who have received bills based on estimates of electricity usage, YVEA spokesman Jim Chappell said Wednesday.

Those bills often are estimated because meter readers and YVEA employees couldn't access the meters, Chappell said.

This year has been especially difficult because of the snow, Chappell said.

YVEA's meter readers don't have time to dig out electric meters and shovel paths, Chappell said. Five meter readers attempt to read a combined 25,000 meters each month. Eighty percent of the company's meter reading is contracted out, and YVEA employees do the remaining 20 percent.

Atmos Energy, a gas company, experienced the same problem when trying to read gas meters during long Routt County winters. Employees eventually got tired of braving the snow, and in 2005, they completed the installation of automatic-read meters, Atmos spokeswoman Karen Wilkess aid.

"Steamboat Springs was unique. It was the very first area where we put an automatic meter-reading system in place," she said.

The company also has installed automatic meters in Crested Butte, Gunnison and Buena Vista.

"With all of the snow that Steamboat Springs receives, it's just difficult and hard for the meter reader to go yard to yard and meter to meter," Wilkes said.

Even with the automatic readers, gas customers should monitor the snow that builds up around their gas meters, Wilkes said. Snow and ice piled on meters can tear them away from walls and create safety hazards.

YVEA customers have additional responsibilities. When they sign up for service, they receive a booklet that includes rules and regulations. One of those rules is that customers must keep access to their meters unobstructed, Chappell said.

This winter, some customers have not been doing that, he said. Residents shovel snow off roofs, which can bury meters. Snow also slides off metal roofs, limiting access to meters. Property managers do not always provide clear access to multi-unit buildings, Chappell said.

If meter readers can't access a meter, they estimate what the resident's or business's bill should cost.

"We will continue to estimate it until we do get access to the meter," Chappell said.

A computer calculates the estimates, which are based on readings from four previous months. For example, to estimate a March 2006 bill, the computer will use the readings from February 2006, February 2005, March 2005 and April 2005, Chappell said. The computer then will average the readings to calculate an estimate.

Estimated bills are marked, Chappell said.

"If you look at the bill, it clearly says 'estimated bill,'" he said. Almost every customer who received an estimated bill also has received a letter explaining it.

Atmos Energy officials estimate bills when meters are not working properly, Wilkes said. Like Chappell, Wilkes said statements with estimated bills are clearly labeled.

If a YVEA customer complains about a bill, officials will review the complaint, Chappell said.

"If they give us access (to the meter), we can go back and recalculate a bill," Chappell said. He said the company is willing to give refunds.

Keeping meters clear and accessible, Chappell said, is worth it.

"It's beneficial to us, and it's beneficial to them to have accurate monthly billings," he said.

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