On the evening of Jan. 12, the heat in Taylor Lindstrom’s Boulder home went out without warning.
She called Xcel Energy, and was told that, indeed, Xcel had turned off the electricity because the bill had not been paid.
Lindstrom, who thought she had been paying her Xcel bills, asked why she had not been notified of any overdue amount — or the pending disconnection, for that matter.
She was told by three separate Xcel representatives that she had, in fact, been notified.
In 2008. Possibly before she lived there.
* * *
On the phone with an Xcel representative that evening, Lindstrom lobbied to have her power reinstated, and Xcel reluctantly agreed. “I had to call several times and have several fights about whether it was my fault, just to get them out here,” she recalls.
But power wasn’t restored until 2 p.m. the next day. “I got all of the blankets in the house and bundled up in my winter gear,” she says of how she stayed warm that night.
It was about 17 degrees outside, which isn’t too bad for someone like Lindstrom, who endured four Chicago winters while attending college.
“It’s the middle of January,” Lindstrom says. “It could have been very cold. I could’ve been an 80-yearold woman.”
The fact that Xcel didn’t notify the residents of the house that electricity was to be shut off is a public safety issue, she says, because someone could go to sleep early, in a warm house, and then freeze to death in the night if the heat goes off.
When she lived in Chicago, she says, every winter there were newspaper articles about someone freezing to death because of heat being turned off, and she said the city’s utilities provider was vigilant about sending many advance notices of any pending disconnection and visiting homes 24 hours in advance to notify residents in person — or with a note on the door — that power would be cut off.
Lindstrom lives at 1545 Grove St., in a house that is divided into two rental units. The address of the other unit is 1609 16th St. There are separate Xcel meters for gas and electricity for each unit. In 2008, about six months after Lindstrom moved into her half of the house, she asked Xcel to start billing her for the entire house’s utilities, so that she and her neighbors, Bruce Kenyon and Nicole Ellingson, could divide the costs more easily and equitably after a local company stopped managing the property. She says Xcel failed to do that, and just sent her bills for her half of the house. Lindstrom kept paying them, thinking she and her neighbors were paying utilities for the entire property. After all, the heat, lights and stove all worked fine.
But the electric heat for the entire property is provided through her neighbor’s side of the house, and while Xcel records showed that no one was paying for the electricity on that meter, the company left the power on.
And the overdue amount continued to grow, unbeknownst to Lindstrom until that cold night when Xcel decided that, after a year and a half with no payments, it was high time to kill the electricity.
* * *
Denver-based Xcel spokesperson Mark Stutz told Boulder Weekly that it’s not in the company’s best financial interests to shut off a customer’s service. “The last thing we want to do is turn someone’s power off,” he says. “But people have to take some responsibility for it, especially if they have been ignoring notifications.”
Stutz, before escalating the interview to an Xcel executive in Minnesota, also claimed initially that Lindstrom had been given proper notice, although he declined to reveal the timing of that notice, citing the company’s rules against revealing private customer information.
He also said last week that Xcel does not shut off power during cold weather.
* * *
The Minnesota executive, Pat Boland, who is Xcel’s manager for credit policy and compliance, told Boulder Weekly that Xcel has a policy of not turning off power during times when a home is left vacant, or is between residents, because it would require so much manpower to make those periodic onsite visits that it would drive up costs significantly, and those costs would have to be passed on to the customers.
He says that in most cases, properties are only left vacant a short time between owners or renters, and it is much less expensive to simply keep the power flowing than to send a technician to turn gas or electricity off — and then back on — between occupants.
Boland says Xcel constantly grapples with the challenge of tracking down who should be billed for service when there is transfer of property or rental turnover, and the current economic downturn and spike in foreclosures has only exacerbated the problem of late.
He acknowledges that it is much cheaper for Xcel to give free interim power to small residences like Lindstrom’s than it is to large commercial or office buildings, so problems with the latter tend to pop up on Xcel’s radar sooner.
In other words, it’s much more likely that a duplex unit like Lindstrom’s would slip through the cracks and receive months of free electricity or gas than a skyscraper in Denver would. As Boland says, the customers not using very much power “may not hold as high a priority as others. … It may be several months before it catches up with them.”
Still, the Colorado
Public Utilities Commission (PUC) requires that customers be notified
before a utility shuts off power to their residence.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
For his part, Boland says Lindstrom’s case is not an unusual one.
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:
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