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Thursday, February 4,2010

Xcel doesn't always tell customers when they're being cut loose

By Jefferson Dodge

Still, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) requires that customers be notified before a utility shuts off power to their residence.

In addition, the PUC does not permit electricity or gas service to be disconnected at a time when utility service and support may be unavailable, such as over a weekend or a holiday.

As for notifying customers, according to PUC rules, the provider must deliver or send by first-class mail a written shut-off notice at least 15 days before the disconnection date.

In addition, after that notice is provided, and at least 24 hours prior to the discontinuance of service, the PUC requires companies to attempt to give the customer notice of the disconnection either in person or by telephone.

It would seem that Xcel violated these rules when it did not notify Lindstrom or her neighbor of the pending outage.

But Boland says Xcel does not attempt the 24-hour notification if it has no customer of record on file.

He acknowledges that situations like Lindstrom’s give Xcel executives pause about how to handle such situations, but in most cases, Xcel gets a phone call from a resident when an occupied residence loses power.

“We haven’t had anyone freeze to death,” Boland says.

But he admits that there have been deaths when customers lose power and then try to heat their home with alternate methods. He said the residents of one Minnesota home died many years ago after their heat was discontinued and they pulled their lit charcoal grill into the house to use it as a source of warmth.

Xcel, as required by Colorado PUC rules, will hold off on discontinuing service to a customer for two months if the company receives a doctor’s note — documentation of a medical issue that requires continued power, such as a resident who relies on an electric-powered ventilator.

Boland says the company also does its best to avoid any accidental deaths by being diligent about trying to identify the people responsible for paying the utility bills. For example, Boland says Xcel uses tax records to track down the owner of a property if there is no customer of record for an extended period of time.

* * *

But Lindstrom wonders why Xcel wasn’t able to track down her, her neighbors or her landlady regarding the outstanding electricity bill, which grew to about $619 by Jan. 12. After all, she says, Xcel contacted her in October about the amount she owed for the overdue gas charges, which was also amassing, unbeknownst to Lindstrom, although at a much slower rate, since her stove is the only gas-powered appliance in the house. “They knew to contact my landlady for the gas, but not the electric,” she says.

At that time, Lindstrom again asked Xcel to be sure that all of the meters for the house were being billed to her. For the second time, the company failed to follow through on that request, she says, and the electricity charges for her neighbor’s unit — and heat for the entire house — continued to pile up.

In October, when she asked why Xcel had not contacted her earlier about the nonpayment of the gas bill, they told her it was because it was only a small amount. “But it became a big enough deal for them to come and shut the electricity off,” Lindstrom says.

After his interview with Boulder Weekly about the oversight, Boland spoke with Lindstrom and offered to eliminate her outstanding $619 in back charges, an offer that Lindstrom accepted.

But says that she was willing to pay for the service she received and that she remains frustrated that the company twice failed to add all of the house’s meters to her bill and did not notify her of the outage before it happened.

For his part, Boland says Lindstrom’s case is not an unusual one.

“It’s fairly common,” he says. “It was an unfortunate situation, but there wasn’t a whole lot of usage coming off that particular meter.”

Where to turn:

If you have questions about your Xcel service or billing, call 1-800-895- 4999. If you experience an unexpected power outage, call the company’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-895-1999. To file a claim with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission’s consumer complaint division, call 303-894-2070.

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