Memo from the desk of the Borough Manager – September 3, 2020

Tarentum Borough Electric Service Billing and Consumption

We have been receiving an extraordinary amount of calls over the last several days regarding Borough utility bills. There has been an outpouring of frustration on social media as well. These frustrated residents are primarily concerned about the electric consumption charges that they are seeing on their bills.

First and foremost, it is important that we remind our customers that each bill is for service and consumption from two months’ prior. Meaning, the September 1 bill which you just received is actually for service from July 1 to July 31. This applies for each utility bill that you receive in Tarentum Borough.

Secondly, because the September 1 bill is for service from July 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020, it is important that we point out the historical context of July 2020. According to the National Weather Service, the month of July 2020 was one of the hottest months in Pittsburgh history. The mean temperature throughout the month (77.3⁰) is the highest since the 1930s. According to this WPXI story, July 2020 was Pittsburgh’s second hottest month ever behind August 1995. (This may not apply to years’ earlier than 1952.) Nonetheless, the month of July brought about a historical heat wave for our area. 

For that reason, many of the electrical devices used in your home may have been used more regularly, more often, or more consistently.

The easiest example is your air conditioning unit. For many folks, the air conditioner was running heavily in the month of July. Because temperatures were so high, the A/C unit was even running later into the evening and overnight. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, folks are at home more often than usual. But not just those working from home. Business and community closures have given us less options to leave the home.

Being home more often means more use of other electronic household items. Your refrigerator and freezer are both having to contend with the increased heat. Cooling the inside of the unit may require the device to work harder and take up more energy. If you are at home more often, you might be using more entertainment options. Or handling larger loads of laundry. Certainly, every home is unique. But the above scenarios apply to many residents.

Relative to our residents and customer base, it is important for us to clearly explain your consumption costs. We have put together a comprehensive electric service website that details quite a bit of information about your bill, service and rates. (http://tarentumboro.com/electric) Public power is not a new concept. Tarentum Borough is one of 35 Pennsylvania communities who provide this service. Nationally, public power serves 48 million Americans.

We continuously hear frustration about Tarentum electric’s exemption from the PA Public Utility Commission (PUC). However, we strive to follow the guidelines and principles set forth by the PUC. But by being exempted from this regulatory agency, there are many additional benefits that become available to the residents of Tarentum Borough.

First and foremost is the ability for Tarentum Borough to use electric revenues for the betterment of the town. In Tarentum, the electric rates are nearly identical to the rates offered by PUC regulated providers. But the revenues created by the electric company not only improve our electric grid. They also help to improve our parks and recreation, our streets and sidewalks, and the ability to provide better police protection. The same cannot be said for neighboring regulated power companies.

If you want to learn more about our rates, please see the rate comparison portion of our website. If you are not interested in reading more about the power you receive, we are still here to assist you. Our office will gladly answer questions about your consumption or your bill. We are currently in the process of upgrading our Borough software so that we can have an online customer portal. This portal will allow you to access your billing and consumption history, analyze your usage and much more. We expect to be live in mid-2021.

In the meantime, we certainly understand that some residents are frustrated by the bill they receive. While we do not enjoy the phone calls and emails from irate customers, we recognize that it is bound to occur from time to time. But we try our best to provide accurate feedback and eliminate false information.

In recent years, much of that false information has been shared on social media. As a society, we become more familiar each day that the complaints and frustrations voiced online are not always accurate. For that reason, we typically do not respond to those complaints or engage in online debate. But, due to the recent volume of calls and mounting frustration that seems to happen each September in Tarentum, we believe it is important for our office to proactively address any lingering concerns and provide accurate information to our customer base.

As the Borough Manger, I believe it is most important for our staff to be productive and efficient in the work that they do. Our office staff does a wonderful job each September fielding phone calls and complaints about electric service. But with the volume of calls occurring after a historical July heat wave, I hope to post this memo and reduce some of the call volume to our small office. Not only for this particular time period, but also to dispel some of the false information that is continually mentioned on our community social media outlets.

To that end, here are just a few examples of the misconceptions, exaggerations or simply disinformation that we have come across. While there may be some truth to these claims, there is also a great deal of information that is either missing or incorrect. The goal is not to call out our community or embarrass a resident, so the names and identifying information have been redacted. But through each of these examples, we try to explain the disconnect and why the resident may be off base in their assertions.

In this example, the customer does not disclose that the bill is for a nearly two-month period. The customer contacted the Borough and was provided a clear explanation. The consumption is unquestionably larger than prior months', but it is nearly identical as compared to the prior summer. The customer portrays an exorbitant bill amount, but fails to disclose that the dollar amount is for a nearly two-month billing period.
This customer is frustrated by the dollar amount increase from the prior month. However the customer mischaracterizes the increase as possibly caused by electric consumption. A more in-depth look at the bill shows a slight increase in electric consumption but a more dramatic increase in water usage.
In this instance, the customer does experience a larger spike in consumption as compared to prior months. A more in-depth examination shows that the spike occurred during two particular hot weekends in July 2020. If those two time periods are removed, the bill is probably only slightly higher than the typical amount. It is worth noting that the consumption in the winter months also occurred.
In this instance, the electric consumption certainly increased from the prior billing periods. While it is not clear what has caused the increase, there was a similarly large spike in consumption one year prior. Furthermore, the customer also used twice as much water as they typically average. Overall, there is not a direct reason which causes this spike to stand out, but is likely caused by the historically hot July 2020.

Again, if you have concerns about your electrical consumption, or want to learn more, here’s an excerpt from a brief article about spikes in electrical usage.

Heating and Cooling

Your heating or air conditioning systems may be staying on longer than usual because of extreme weather or because of failing components. You can check how much power your climate control system is using with a clamp-on watt meter, placing the clamp around the electrical connection and comparing the power used with the rated power listed on the unit nameplate. If the system is using rated power, ducts may have leaks or the thermostat may be broken, causing the unit to run longer. Check seals around doors and windows for gaps that may have developed, and look for hot or cold drafts that may be causing the problem.

Increased Hot Water Use

After heating and cooling, your next largest load is an electric hot water heater. The unit heats with simple resistances that can’t malfunction to increase the power, but your power spike might be due to increased hot water use. Check hot water taps for dripping, and monitor your washing-machine and dishwasher cycles to make sure they are working properly and they don’t keep the hot water on when it’s not needed. Check the setting on your hot water tank thermostat, and measure your hot water temperature with a thermometer to make sure it matches the setting.

Other Loads May Use More Power

Refrigerators and freezers may draw excess power, or they may have to work longer than necessary due to a leak in the door gasket. Use a watt meter to check the power usage of appliances against the rated power on their nameplates. If all your loads are using only rated power, your spike is caused by a load staying on for an unusually long time. Unplug your loads one at a time or open their circuit breaker for a day, and keep careful track of the reading on your power meter. Peaks in the readings can help you find the load that is staying on and using a lot of power over an extended period. Outdoor lighting may be a cause of high electricity use — bulbs may be staying on because their timers or photocells have failed.

Reasons for a Spike

If your electricity bill becomes unusually high, the meter may be faulty and you should ask your utility to check it. If the meter is accurate, an appliance or other load may be using more power than usual. Start by checking the systems that use the most power to see if they are working properly and if they are switching on and off normally. Keep track of your daily power consumption by reading your meter to see the effect of changes you make during your investigation.

Finally, here is yet another article of some key items to consider when you have high electric usage. We hope that the above information is helpful in some way. Even if this information only provides clarification to just a handful of customers, that alone is helpful to eliminate some of the volume and troubles faced by our wonderful office staff.

Should you wish to contact the Borough Manager, Michael Nestico, please email me at mnestico@tarentumboro.com

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