Power companies have restored electricity to nearly all of the 700,000 customers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey knocked out last week. But in Chester County, some Peco customers say they were gaslighted by company representatives who insisted that their power was on, even when their homes were dark.
“People were calling like three and four times a day and still being told they didn’t have an outage,” said Dina Hitchcock, who lives on Hallman Mill Road in semi-rural East Vincent Township and was forced to mount a Facebook campaign to convince the Philadelphia electric company that, yes, they had no power.
Susan McLaren, who lives on West Hoffecker Road in East Vincent, called Peco again and again, speaking with customer service reps named Jasmine, Miss Jones, and Emilio. They insisted she had electricity. “We do not have power,” she replied.
Tom Everly lives down the road from McLaren. He called Peco on behalf of an 87-year-old neighbor, who a Peco representative had suggested should hire an electrician to demonstrate that the glitch was in her house, not with the grid.
Peco restored power by Thursday and Friday to most of the customers who lost it after Tropical Storm Isaias blew through. But Hitchcock was so upset by the misinformation coming from the utility’s monitoring system, and the impertinence of some Peco customer service reps, that she urged her neighbors to file complaints with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.
“We live in the country,” she said. “We all understand that other places are going to get their power fixed before us. We’re very patient. But when you’re told over and over that you do not have an outage, it just pours salt into your wounds.”
Some customers speculated that Peco’s $650 million smart meter system, designed to allow the utility to remotely detect whether a customer’s service is off, had malfunctioned. One theory was that the smart meter was misreading home emergency generators as a signal that the power was on.
Peco on Monday said there was nothing wrong with its smart meters. It attributed some of the discontent to customers with “nested outages,” a perennial problem after large storms when service to some remote customers remains off after it has been restored to surrounding neighbors. The persistent outages require a follow-up visit.
But nested outages do not explain customers who were incorrectly told their power was on. Peco acknowledged that some data were entered manually into its system that caused its call-takers to misread information about a customer’s service status.
“In a small number of isolated cases, human error may cause customers to receive conflicting information about their outage when information is entered manually into our system,” Mayra Bergman, Peco’s vice president of communications, said in a statement Monday. “We are working on corrective actions needed to minimize these incidents.”
The exasperation for customers who had to second-guess the power company only added to the stress of coping with the storm recovery.
“I must have checked on our outage a dozen times, only to read that their records indicated that our power was on,” said Nancy Norris, who lives on Hollow Road in West Vincent Township. Each time, she would again report the outage in an online form, only to receive another email from Peco acknowledging the report.
“I had the feeling that each time I reported we had no power, my report put us at the bottom of the barrel,” she said. “I finally called and talked to a rep that assured me that they knew we didn’t have power, but that this was a software problem.”
Norris said her family bought a backup generator, as have many of their neighbors as tolerance has diminished for prolonged electrical outages. She also believes that service has gotten worse over the years.
The discontent on social media over Peco’s performance prompted some pushback from the company’s defenders, who in rebuttal posts interpreted the complaints as a critique of the utility’s hard-pressed repair crews. They suggested that unhappy neighbors should devote their energy to pressuring township officials to repair lousy roads, rather than Peco.
Pam Niemits, a Pughtown Road resident in East Vincent who lost power, blamed a Peco “computer problem” for the false reports that her service was restored. But she praised the utility’s restoration efforts and took a zen approach to the company’s miscommunication.
“Yes, it’s a shame there was a computer problem, but we’ve all had computer problems at one time or another,” she said in an email. “Being without electric for a time was an inconvenience, but considering all the problems in our world today, it was not that big of a deal.”