August 25, 2011

Customer can't believe the size of his Atmos gas bill

A Fort Worth man says he was told that his gas usage had a massive one-month spike.

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Clint Mullins opened his Atmos Energy gas bill and couldn't believe what he saw. Why in the world did his monthly bill jump from $60 in April to $2,200 in May?

The next part of his story is a little too predictable. The Fort Worth man called Atmos. A service rep told him that he had to pay the bill and offered him a payment plan. He called a second rep.

"I pointed out that using a quarter-million cubic feet for one billing period was illogical," he says. "Rep B implied that it was not Atmos' problem how I used the gas, just that I used the gas because her computer screen said I had. And you know, computers are never wrong."

The computer showed that he used 5,000 cubic feet of gas one month, then 227,000 the next month.

He doesn't have a pool, a hot tub or a gas grill. He checked for leaks, but that wasn't it either. Atmos techs told him that his meter was accurate. Mullins didn't know what to do.

Mullins wants to be a good customer, so he paid the entire $2,200 bill, although he included a polite letter of protest. Mullins also contacted The Watchdog.

After that, Atmos arranged for his bill payment to be returned to him while the company investigated. So he got the money back.

Mullins is a scientist, a geologist by trade with a specialty in volcanoes. So unlike some who would quickly faint at the thought of a $2,000 gas bill eruption, this scientist set about to find a plausible theory for why this happened -- and what he could do about it.

He heard from a friend that sometimes construction debris clogs gas lines, which can result in meter misreads. He remembered that his neighbor recently had work done on the gas lines to her house. He came up with this thesis:

"If by chance some debris was introduced into the gas line during the work next door, pressure could move that debris down to our meter. If that debris happens to partially block the meter's orifice, then when we turn on a gas appliance, there would be a greater drop in pressure on the residential side due to the debris creating a smaller orifice size."

That could artificially inflate the calculated gas usage, he says.

It's a mystery that defied an easy solution. And the strangest part? After that one-month spike, Mullins' bill dropped back to its usual amount the next month.

The final part of the story is certainly not predictable. Six years ago, when Atmos converted to a new billing system, its customer service was so weak that it often appeared in The Watchdog column.

But Atmos made customer service a top priority. Since then, complaints about Atmos are almost nonexistent.

On Monday morning, The Watchdog asked Atmos about its plans for Mullins and his meter problem. By Monday afternoon, four Atmos techs showed up at his front door to help decide on the answer.

The upshot is that Atmos is installing a new service line to his house and replacing his in-ground meter with one above ground and closer to his house. The new meter will have an automated reading device that will check his usage every 15 minutes.

Atmos also promises to repair any lawn damage from the construction and even add shrubbery around the new meter as a special touch.

And what does Atmos think of Mullins' theory that debris from the neighboring job is fouling up his meter?

"We agree it's plausible, but probably not provable," Atmos spokeswoman Marilyn Ackmann said.

So nobody knows what happened. But Mullins says he did the right thing by pushing it. "If you don't figure it out, who will?" he said.

Oh, and Mullins' bill for that one bad month? Atmos dropped it to $95.

Coming Sunday: Her $13,000 IRS refund was deposited in another person's bank account.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter @DaveLieber

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