$1,500 electrical bill nearly made Enmax customer 'fall with heart attack'

·7 min read

Hugo Paiz says he's gotten the run around, been laughed at, and spent countless hours worrying about his finances, during his nearly year-long dispute with Enmax over his January, 2020 bill which saw his electricity charges spike from a typical $80 per month to $1,527.28.

Paiz says he, his wife and his daughter tried calling and emailing Enmax repeatedly to try to convince them it made a mistake — only to be continually pressured to pay up.

Then this week Paiz's daughter reached out to CBC News in desperation and within about a day of CBC intervening, the company admitted it made a mistake.

Now, Paiz hopes his story will help others avoid the same anxiety and stress he and his family experienced for months.

"For me, coronavirus, it wasn't that bad the whole year, it was worse what they've been doing to me because you can see the papers, message and letters doing everything they can to make me to pay the bills, which I never use," said Hugo Paiz, 61, from his home in southeast Calgary.

His daughter broke down in tears talking about the toll the ordeal has taken on her parents.

"It's been tough because it's weighed on them, you know. My dad doesn't want to cry, my mother doesn't want to cry, but I can tell they're hurting," said Talia Paiz, Hugo's daughter.

Enmax told CBC News their investigation discovered the meter was being misread and the family had been overcharged.

"This was a case of human error by one of our readers of the meter, and it was due to the age and the weathering visual condition, condition of the front of Mr. Paiz's meter," said Corry Poole, vice-president of customer service at Enmax.

Talia Paiz
Talia Paiz

But Paiz's daughter says while the company's acknowledgement brings relief, it doesn't take away what her mother and father went through trying to resolve the billing error.

"Their words will never, ever fix what was already said to him and the mistreatment they did him," said Talia Paiz.

'No one would listen'

Hugo Paiz lives with his wife and their 18-year-old son in a duplex in Penbrooke Meadows in southeast Calgary.

Originally from Guatemala, he's been renting the same home for 13 years after moving from Toronto. The couple both work — he at a bottling facility, she at a potato chip manufacturing plant, while their son goes to school. They have four other children, including Talia, who live on their own.

Hugo says he remembers opening his Enmax bill last year and going into shock when he read the total — a whopping $2044.95.

"I almost fall with a heart attack the day I see the bill," said Paiz.

He says he immediately went line by line to figure out why his bill was so high when he noticed a charge of more than $1,500 for his electricity. His bill includes gas, electricity, water, wastewater, storm water as well as garbage and recycling fees.

He says he called Enmax representatives to explain that there was no way the three of them could have used that much electricity in one month. He says his family keeps a tight budget and are cognizant of turning lights off.

Colleen Underwood/CBC
Colleen Underwood/CBC

The only extra draw they have on their electricity, he says, is a fish tank.

But instead of any real solutions, he says he got patched from person to person.

Paiz says one representative told him to hire an electrician to locate the problem, and so his landlord did.

CBC News spoke to the landlord and the electrician. The electrician says he inspected the home and didn't find any problems, but says he did notice the meter reading on Paiz's bill didn't match what he was reading — rather it was much higher.

The electrician then wrote a letter on Paiz's behalf to give to Enmax — which was shared with CBC News — but Paiz's daughter says Enmax said it didn't want to see it.

"The first thing I got was laugh, someone started laughing and saying that because it was a third party and everything they weren't going to accept it," said Talia Paiz. "It's just no one would listen."

Enmax calls it a 'learning opportunity'

In the meantime, the company continued to request the money. Paiz ended up paying an extra $160 on his bills for three months for a total of $480. The family was also forced to pay a $425 deposit.

The family says it kept asking Enmax to come to their house and check their meter to see if there was something wrong with it, but nobody did.

However, after being contacted by CBC News, Enmax sent someone to check the meter and discovered the problem. The meter was working fine, but it had weathered and was being misread by the meter reader.

Enmax then swapped the meter for a digital one.

CBC News asked Enmax about the Paiz family's allegations of being mistreated over the phone.

Colleen Underwood/CBC
Colleen Underwood/CBC

With respect to the laughter and the refusal to take the electrician's letter which said it appeared the meter was being misread, Poole, the vice-president of customer service at Enmax, says it's unfortunate the person refused it because any information is helpful in an investigation.

"It was a complex issue. I can see when I review the account that many people were involved in trying to resolve this for the customer, but it certainly took too long and much longer than what we strive for and so we're using this as a learning opportunity here at Enmax," she said.

'Should have been fixed in a week'

Hugo Paiz says the company has now apologized for the way he was treated and told him this problem "should have been resolved in a week" based on an initial email the family sent that contained a photo of their electricity meter after they got the bill.

At the time, the company's email response said the photo only backed up the company's claims, but Poole now says it appears the company representative didn't take a close enough look at the photo to see that the meter had been weathered and had obscured dials.

"Unfortunately, that is one of our learning opportunities there around the visual inspection of ... the photo of the meter when it comes in and what to look for and that's definitely something we've learned from here," said Poole.

The company has also told Paiz it is working on resolving the bill and refunding both the overpayment and the deposit with interest.

Paiz hopes the company does learn from his situation and creates a better system for customers who are disputing an overcharge so they are not forced to either go to the media or to court.

"Start investigating the cases right away, don't let the people suffer years and years, months and months before they start putting any attention," said Paiz.

For those who are having trouble with their utility bill there is another option.

People can contact the Utilities Consumer Advocate.

It issued the following statement in regards to this story:

If Albertans have exhausted all known avenues to resolve a dispute with their electricity or natural gas provider, the mediation officers from Utilities Consumer Advocate (UCA) are available to contact the utility provider to advocate on the consumer's behalf. Mediation officers are knowledgeable about utility regulations, including terms and conditions, and can help steer the focus of a dispute toward problem solving.

Mediation outcomes vary depending on the nature of the complaint, but can result in identifying and correcting previously unknown issues, establishing payment arrangements, or reducing incorrect billing.

UCA Mediation services are available to small business, farm and residential utility consumers. Interpretation services are also available.

Albertans with questions or concerns about their utility bill can contact the UCA at 310-4822 or visit ucahelps.alberta.ca for more information about the resources and services they provide.