HSUD explains billing problem
The cause of some customer’s recent utility bills coming in doubled or tripled has been found.
Bill Stone, general manager of the Holly Springs Utility Department, said the automated meters are working fine. The problem was caused by the system that collected the meter readings in some locations, he said. Two of the gateways on a water tower in Holly Springs and Ashland were damaged by recent storms going back as far as the month of June.
Because data was not being transmitted to the computer systems, a number of customers had their bills estimated by the system, he said. But the true amount of electricity on some bills were underestimated from data metered in June and July. When the true-up date came in August, the readings were high in those areas where the system failure took place, Stone said.
The areas affected the most were north and northwest of the City of Holly Springs and in Benton County.
Most of the estimated bills were estimated for the July readings, but there were some routes that were estimated for June and July, he said.
Some meters were read manually, mainly in the more densely populated areas where HSUD could cover an area in the time allotted for the next billing.
But, more manual readings could not be made because critical personnel were already working on time-sensitive projects. These time-sensitive projects included a deadline for the relocation of the power lines at the Salem Bridge site and also employees were busy doing repair and recovery work from recent storms.
Network infrastructure was damaged by storms. While the metering took place as usual, there was no path to get reading data back to the billing system, Stone said.
Mayor Kelvin Buck also said all utilities at times estimate readings by necessity and it is not unusual that HSUD would estimate the usage on meters that could not report to HSUD.
Not all estimations of usage were high, Stone said.
“Some were very accurate,” he said.
Those estimated readings for June and July that were lower than actual usage received a high “catch-up” bill in August.
HSUD is offering payment arrangements to those customers who request them. The bill will be spread out over two or three months as they should have been, he said.
Stone said the system is recovering and more and more readings are being received remotely every day.
“The GE team is working with our staff to get the system back to the point that it was prior to the equipment failures,” Stone said.
The system uses three gateways located on three water towers. Two of the three gateways were down and one gateway in Holly Springs stayed up the whole time. And all three gateways are functional now. But all communication pathways have not been restored yet.
“There is still some field equipment (extender bridges up on high poles) that are not communicating right now,” Stone said.
“Our staff is in daily communications with the GE team to not only bring the system back to its pre-May 25 operational status, but to get it as close to 100 percent as possible.”
Stone said he thinks readings will be adequate for the next billing control cycle.
Some of the towers that the gateways are mounted on were not adequately grounded.
“To put it simply, lightning hit them and when they were struck they were disabled,” he said. “We had one that was destroyed and had to be replaced.”
The towers are HSUD’s responsibility and the grounding on those has been upgraded. GE is responsible for repairing or replacing the network equipment itself.
The problem with under-billing was noticed first by some of the HSUD staff, Stone said.
“While we knew the July (and some June) bills appeared to be too low, we didn’t realize how many and how much the estimations were off until the August bills,” he said.
In retrospect, Stone said, “HSUD should have been more proactive in notifying customers, but we felt since each customer would be affected differently (and some not at all) that it would be better to address the problem on an individual basis.
“We, along with GE, are doing everything we can to make sure the system is back operating like it should,” he said. “In the future, we will be more proactive in letting customers know what has happened before it shows up in their mailbox.”
“Nobody was billed for anything they didn’t use. It is just that some of what they used was billed in the wrong month. We are working with customers to spread out the underestimated portion of their bills over two to three months, as it should have been.”