Why your gas company still charges you even when you’re not using any gas

1280x960_60602B00-IRCEYWhen we hand over money we’re accustomed to getting something tangible in return.

You give the barista at Starbucks $4.75, you get your venti white chocolate mocha. You order a small peanut butter cup blizzard at Dairy Queen, pay $3.69, and you’re on your way with a cool treat.

When it comes to your gas bill in Maine, it’s not quite so cool — nor transactional.IMG_0467

Take a close look at your bill and you’ll likely notice a monthly customer charge.

After an increase on May 1, 2016, Unitil now charges its approximately 27,000 customers in the Greater Portland, Lewiston/Auburn and Kittery area a monthly customer charge of $24.47.

IMG_0468Here’s where it gets tricky. Many Maine homes only use natural gas for heat during the winter months.

That doesn’t matter.

While you will save money on gas consumption, you’re still on the hook for the monthly customer charge.

That’s right. Even if you don’t use any gas during the summer, the gas company will still charge you the same monthly customer charge.

“Collection of the monthly customer charge, even when no gas is being used, is simply a way of ensuring that each customer pays his/her fair share of distribution costs,” said Unitil Vice President of Communications Carol Valianti in an email response. She said the charge helps pay for things like the pipe in the street, services that interconnect that pipe to your house, meters, pressure stations, and trucks.

She likened the customer charge to a lease payment. Even if the car just sits in the garage, you’re still responsible to make the payment, she said.

So at this point you have two options: keep paying what Unitil calls your “fair share” — even during the summer months — or if you think the customer charge isn’t fair, you can have your service disconnected until you need heat again.

A heads-up, however, if you do decide to suspend service during the summer, know your billing cycle.

Unitil does not pro-rate the monthly customer charge.

After discontinuing gas service for the summer, one customer sent me a bill indicating he was charged the full fee of $24.47 for just three days of service (5/23/16-5/26/16).BILL

Unfortunately for customers, the company’s tariff with the Maine Public Utilities Commission allows the company to charge the full customer charge regardless of the number of days in the service period.

According to that regulating document, the “minimum bill = customer charge per month.”

Unitil will charge you a $12.50 fee to turn your service back on when it’s time to start heating your home again.

So do the math, figure out what works for you, and happy summer! Here’s to more dairy desserts before home heating season.

Monthly customer charge for residential customers for each of Maine’s natural gas companies:

  • Maine Natural Gas: $35.00
  • Unitil: $24.47
  • Summit Natural Gas: $20.57
  • Bangor Natural Gas: $14.29
Jon Chrisos

About Jon Chrisos

Award-winning journalist Jon Chrisos is the investigative and consumer reporter at CBS 13 in Portland. He also anchors weeknights at 5:30. Chrisos is “On Your Side” investigating the stories that make a difference in your life. He’s passionate about helping those who’ve been wronged, exposing government waste, asking tough questions, and uncovering the truth.