A Joyous Week in the World of Energy Deregulation

Two years ago, after much agonizing, my wife and I decided to replace our very old oil furnace with a natural gas fired boiler. We didnâ''t like the idea of making ourselves so utterly dependent on our gas company, but the local one had a good reputation, and gas promised to be cleaner and lower-carbon, if not actually cheaper. So we made the switch. Before we even had turned the new furnace on and well before the ink was dry on the contract we learned that our company had been taken over by a foreign company whose main responsibility is ownership and management of a far-away countryâ''s electricity grid. We were not pleased.

The first shock came at the end of our first winter season with the new furnace, with the arrival of a bill from the new company saying that we owed them several thousand dollars, to be paid immediately. We had reached a balanced billing arrangement with the companyâ''s predecessor and had been making monthly payments for nearly a year. The new company provided no explanation for the unexpected cost overrun and now, six months and two indignant letters later, it still has provided no explanation. Just a series of peremptory mailings telling us to pay up or face the consequences.

The second shock came this week when we noticed a peculiar smell in the house. Upon calling our company, which let it be said did send somebody over promptly, we learned from the technician that our chimney was defective, requiring him by law to turn off our entire gas supplyâ''leaving us not only without heat, but without hot water and a working stove as well. When we called the company to point out that our contract with its predecessor had required them to take care of any chimney problems when they installed the furnace, we found ourselves dealing with a different branch of the companyâ''its services division, now separated from its gas distribution division, so as to assure competition in services, presumably. The services division accepted responsibility for the situation and promised to send somebody over the next morning, leaving us without heat for one of the first cold winter nights.

When the second technician arrived the next morning he found no serious problem with the chimney after all. Being from a different division, however, he lacked authority to turn our gas back on. A couple of tempestuous phone calls with his boss followed, in which the two of us read relevant parts of the installation contract to each other over the phone, in an unharmonious two-part crescendo. Now disclaiming any legal responsibility, the man nonetheless agreed to send an independent chimney specialist over to assess the situation.

When that company arrived later in the day, it found the chimney badly needed a cleaning, but also saw no reason why the gas had to be turned off in the first place. But of course it also lacked authority to turn the gas back on. After one more cold day in the house and the purchase of an electrical space heater, men from the distribution company finally showed up in the late evening. They were reluctant to turn the gas back on, because whatever the problem was that the first technician had identified, it apparently had not been addressed. After considerable wheedling by my wifeâ''thankfully without exchange of money or other favorsâ''the men finally agreed to turn the gas back on.

A $3,200 improvement of the chimney soon followed, something the original gas company was supposed to have taken care of when it first installed the new boiler. But thatâ''s another story.

You donâ''t need to hear that story to share my nostalgia for the days when, if you had a problem with your furnace, one person from one company showed up, told you what the problem was, and fixed it.

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