EPB helping customers beat the heat

EPB helping customers beat the heat

July 23rd, 2011 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

How can I help?

• Give through EPB's Power Share program, which goes toward helping customers pay their electric or other utility bills. Simply make a note of the gift on your power bill, or call EPB to set up a recurring pledge.

• Donate directly to United Way or other charities.

Source: EPB

Saving energy:

• Keep thermometer between 75 and 78, or as high as is comfortable

• Don't turn air-conditioning off completely, just turn it up to 80 if leaving for an extended period

• Service heat pump regularly

• Check and change filter, typically every month

• Check fireplace dampers

• Use weather-stripping material from any home improvement store to eliminate openings around Windows and doors

• Close drapes to keep out sunlight, use white drapes or blinds

• Consider replacing single-pane windows with double-pane windows with energy-efficient glass

• Plant trees or vines on the east and west sides of a home

• Cook outdoors on hot days

• Lower water heater thermostat to 120 degrees, and take showers, not baths

• Keep refrigerator at 37 degrees and freezer at 5 degrees

• Use microwave rather than stove

• Always run a full load in the dishwasher and laundry

• Replace old appliances with Energy Star complaint models

Source: EPB

Soaring temperatures and power bills are putting the squeeze on customers with fixed incomes and limited means, who risk getting their electricity turned off if they don't pay.

Instead of forcing those consumers to choose between bankruptcy and a 95-degree living room, EPB says it's taking new steps to help customers keep up with payments.

The problem starts when sweltering temperatures cause air conditioning systems across the Chattanooga area to run flat out during peak hours. This prompts TVA to switch on more generators, the cost of which passes onto EPB and its customers, respectively.

"A lot of the situations we run into is when the weather is very extreme, either very, very hot or very, very cold, or when a customer's heat pump malfunctions -- something in the home they don't know about until they receive the bill," said EPB spokeswoman Danna Bailey.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford these higher bills. Neither can they afford to be without power, which could take a deadly turn for the elderly or those with small children.

So rather than disconnect a ratepayer, EPB has signaled a renewed willingness to work with those who have been bowled over by the price of cool air.

"We've loosened our policies," said Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB. "We've tried to work harder with customers."

Jan Lowrey, who deals directly with customers every day as a manager in the credit and collections department, said part of her job is just dealing with the issue that led to the high bill in the first place.

"Typically when I receive a call from a customer due to a high bill complaint, the very first thing I ask them is how long has it been since you had your heat pump serviced," she said. "I counsel them about that, and ways to save energy, before they get the next bill that's $500."

In some cases, customers may have forgotten to lower their thermostats before leaving the house for the weekend or for the day, Lowrey said.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding about, 'I haven't touched my thermostat,' but that's because it went from 80 degrees outside to 98 degrees outside," she said.

When customers do get behind on their payments, they'll sometimes talk to Kathy Burns, senior vice president of customer relations. In fact, she has talked to some of them every month for the last 35 years.

"As long as a customer is making an effort, we'll do everything we can to help," she said. "The last thing we want to do is cut somebody's power off."

A customer who pays $100 on a $200 bill is more likely to see their power shut off than a customer who only can afford to pay $15 on the same bill, but calls to ask for an extension, Burns said.

"If they'll talk to us and let us know that they need additional time, we'll bend over backward to help them out," she said.

This help can include everything from weekly payments to a plan that equalizes bills through the hot and cold months be averaging them together, Burns said.

The utility also will send out a home inspector to audit a home or apartment to help a ratepayer find energy savings. It costs nothing -- a customer need only ask, officials said.

"I don't think we can emphasize enough the importance of two-way communications," Bailey added. "If they need more time, we can give them up to a seven-day extension. We can continue, as long as the customer is working with us, and as long as they're making some sort of payment."