Are Military Families Being Scammed by their on-base Energy Company?
Imagine this: you live in military base housing, where your service member’s paycheck is supposed to cover rent and “normal utility usage.” Then you receive an electric bill for $400. You have no idea why, so you contact the energy company. They say you must deal with your base housing management office. The Housing office tells you that everything at the house seems normal. So you cut back and conserve energy. The next month, your bill is even higher! You now owe almost $900, or an entire paycheck for many military families. When you complain, the Housing office says you must pay your bill, or be evicted within 3 days.
Sound like a nightmare? Unfortunately, for military families across the country, this is a reality.
What is the Resident Energy Conservation Program?
In 2012, the DoD instituted the Resident Energy Conservation Program (RECP). The idea was to encourage military families to reduce their overall energy consumption. People pay more attention to their electricity use when it is metered and charged. Residents of base housing need to stay within the “grace zone” of similar sized homes in their neighborhood. The 10% grace zone is supposed to accommodate for different family sizes, non-energy efficient appliances, and unsealed doors or windows in older homes. If houses use 10% less than the average, they receive a credit. Any house more than 10% above average must pay out of pocket.
But the Resident Energy Conservation Program is not working.
Families at military bases across the country are reporting absurdly high electricity bills. Most of the families are small: just 2 adults who spend all day outside the home, maybe 1 child. They live on base, in a small house that does not have air conditioning. A few times each week, they wash laundry and run the dishwasher. It is not possible for these families to be using $400 worth of electricity per month. So whose bills are they paying?
If you think $200+ isn’t a high energy bill, remember that these are military families living on base. Rent and utilities are automatically deducted from BAH, part of the military paycheck. The buffer zone means that the house has already used at least $100-150 in energy before the family is billed. So all billing amounts reported are on top of what a ‘normal’ house should use. Before 2012, military families living on base paid nothing for utilities. The military paycheck hasn’t changed much since 2012, just the way families are being billed.
I started an informal survey of families on my base, to see how widespread this problem is. The results shocked me. Within 1 afternoon, over 55 families reported what appears to be billing fraud. Most were at Camp Pendeleton, California, but there were also accounts of over-billing in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, 29 Palms, and military bases in Hawaii. And those are just the ones currently speaking up. (Update: There are now 100 more in the comments!) Here are some of the problems.
Extreme Attempts at Energy Conservation
Military families are going to extreme lengths to reduce their energy usage. One family told me that they showered at the gym off base and turned off the breaker for their home during the day. Nevertheless, their bills were consistently around $400-$500 per month! Another family confessed to doing laundry at a Laundromat off-base, so they wouldn’t use the washer and dryer in their home. Other residents line-dry their clothes, or do laundry at a friend’s house. At our base in Southern California, most homes are not equipped with air conditioning. And the heat is only turned on a few months of the year. Even with a large family, none of these houses should be using much energy. If you need energy-saving plugs for your home, use the affiliate link below to purchase energy-reducing plugs and light bulbs.
House Meters not Wired Correctly
One huge concern of the RECP is that base housing built in the 1960’s was not wired for individual electrical metering and billing.
- At least 2 families on our base discovered their house was wired to a public street lamp, which they were paying hundreds each month to run!
- Some people were paying their neighbor’s bill because the meters were crossed or mislabeled.
- Many base housing areas are condos or duplexes, which are not wired individually. An electrician who worked on our base to separate houses explained that the wires are not labeled, so he essentially guessed which house to assign them to.
- One resident received electric bills with blank usage data, which still listed an amount owed. When she started monitoring her own meter, she discovered that “my usage with my breaker box turned off was still higher than my attached neighbor’s when theirs was turned on.”
The Neighborhood Average is not Accurate
When RECP started in 2012, the ‘normal usage average’ was supposed to be compared to off-base neighborhoods. Instead, military families are now compared to other ‘like sized homes’ in their own neighborhood. As families have voluntarily conserved energy, the average has gone down, just as the program intended. The problem is that the average is still moving downward. Families with consistent monthly usage will see their bill continually increase. For homes in my category (5 bedrooms), the ‘monthly average’ has decreased from 850 kilowatt hours to 580 in the past year! That’s a 32% decrease, way more than the 20% goal of the DOD. The kWh that defined the “grace zone” last year would now cost $100/month!
The comparison to ‘like sized homes’ makes no accommodation for the family size in each home. Some 4-bedroom houses have 6 people living in them, others have only 3 people. Additional people mean extra showers, laundry, and dishes, as well as more electronic devices. The 10% grace zone buffer claims to accommodate for these differences, as well as different types of insulation and different types of appliances. But that clearly doesn’t add up. A 10% difference from 5 people is… 4.5 people.
Empty units are not supposed to be used in monthly average calculations. However, many people in duplexes find that when neighbors move out, their bill goes way down. When new neighbors move in, the bill usage doubles. Multiplex units may still be wired together. Conversely, when there are numerous empty houses on their street, some residents see their bills double, because the average appears to be affected.
Bills are INCREASING when families aren’t home
Numerous families are reporting billing inconsistencies that occurred while they were out of the house. During deployment or leave blocks, families may leave a house vacant for a month. Many families told me that they saw their supposed energy use increase while they were away, even though they were careful to unplug everything before leaving.
- “Our bill was once over $500 when we were on leave (not in the house) for the whole month.”
- “We left town for Christmas last year, and our reported usage DOUBLED.”
- “We went out of town for the month and received a bill for $120.”
- “We were out of state for a month. When we came home, the bill was $200.”
- “I was gone a month last year. Came home to a $400 bill.”
- “I’m completely out of town for the month of December, and the bill shows my usage going up right now.”
- “We had plane tickets receipts to prove that we weren’t there, but our usage went up and nothing was done.”
- “When I went to work last year, no one was home all day, but our usage went up.”
- “Our bill was over $200 when my husband was gone in the field for most of the month. It was just me at home.”
- “Housing found that electrical usage in our home spiked from Midnight- 7 AM, when we were sleeping.”
Military Families are Trapped
Officially, there are two ways to handle a high bill problem: contact the energy company to survey your meter, and contact Housing to survey your home usage. Unfortunately, at least half of the families I interviewed who requested a survey never heard back from the energy company or Housing office. On our base, the Energy Management Company is YES Energy. The Housing companies are Lincoln Military Housing and Hunt. These companies manage energy and housing on military bases across the country.
- 1 wife reported calling the office every day for 2 weeks, but never having a home visit. She wasn’t alone:
- “Housing did nothing. We called and they said they would send someone out the next day. It has been 16 days, and nothing has happened.”
- “We called twice to have it looked into. Both times no one showed up.”
- “I’ve tried to get YES Energy out here, but they never show.”
- “Lincoln didn’t do anything until our bill was over $600. Then they said it was accurate and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
- “Housing promised to investigate, then did not show up.”
- “We have talked to YES Energy and Housing. They both gave us the runaround. Nothing has changed at my house.”
- “I called and filled out a survey… Still haven’t heard anything.”
- “My husband has talked to the Head of Housing multiple times and filed a complaint with the inspector general of NCIS. Nothing has come of it.”
- “We’ve been fighting them for months. No progress. We are moving.”
Most families who were lucky enough to receive a follow-up visit said that the review didn’t change anything. In a few cases, the electric company determined the home was wired to a street lamp or another house. One unfortunate family was told by Housing that their home meter seemed to be ‘unusual’, and the findings would be reported to YES Energy. Attempts to follow up with YES or the Housing Office have been unsuccessful, as they have been told for the past month that the relevant people are “not at their desk” and “will follow up with them.” Meanwhile, their bills for the past 3 months now total $700, and they face eviction from a house with potentially faulty meter numbers.
In most cases, Housing was not helpful, and told families their high bill was caused by trivial items, like night lights, Scentsy warmers, or fans. Several residents who requested an energy-efficient refrigerator or dishwasher were denied. Some residents were told that based on comparable homes, they would literally have to keep all lights off, or they would be billed. One resident was told if they replaced their electric dryer with a gas dryer, their bills would be less than $300. “Since we have gotten a gas dryer, the bills haven’t gone down.”
Eviction Threats from Housing
The Housing office is not helping residents to resolve their billing issues. Instead, they are blaming the energy company and making military families victims. Ten families told me they received eviction notices from the Housing Office because of their energy bill. Eviction from military base housing is serious, because it means the family is unable to live on base again. Most families living on base are here because they can’t afford to live on the local economy around San Diego.
In all ten cases, the Housing Office only gave residents 3 DAYS to pay the bill or be evicted. One family received 2 monthly bills for $500. They did not have $1,000, so the Housing office told them to get a loan. I was surprised that in almost every case, the military family paid the bill. 3 days is not enough time to pursue legal options. However, in the state of California, it is illegal to give less than 30 days notice of eviction from a residential property.
Service Members are Afraid to Speak Up
Military families facing these high energy bills and eviction threats feel like they have nowhere to turn. I asked several families if they had spoken with the service member’s chain of command. Surprisingly, most said no. In fact, the Housing Office was threatening families that they would contact the chain of command if the bills were not paid. Service members living in government housing have a very fine line between professional and personal matters. Apparently, many military families feel that describing their situation to their command would make them appear professionally incompetent.
However, when I mentioned the situation to our chain of command, they immediately saw the problem of corporations preying on military members. The unit commander is on the side of his service members. He suggested that suffering families take legal action by filing ICE reports and going to the Base Commander. One family who finally did contact their military chain of command was relieved when the service member’s officers accompanied him to the Housing Office and through the home inspection. Getting the chain of command involved was a successful way to delay his eviction notice.
The Numbers Don’t Make Sense
Residents would not mind paying for energy they actually use. The frustration occurs when the numbers can’t be explained. Military families are being strong-armed into paying high bills. Then, the issue resolves, and it is another family’s turn. Some situations described as ‘magical’ look like potential billing fraud:
- “When we first moved in, the mock billing showed we didn’t owe anything. The first month it switched to real billing, we suddenly owed more than $200 per month.”
- “Our bill was $600 and we were threatened with eviction. Once we paid it, it magically went down and hasn’t been as high since.”
- “My bills were $300 a month. After we paid they went down to $15. And we started using 2 more fans since then.”
- “Our bills were over $200 a month. When they reached $600 we had to pay. Lo and behold, they magically went down after that.”
- “We had to pay $534, but after we talked to Housing, our next bill was only $36.”
- “We pay every month, even though we try to conserve. But our neighbor in the same size house has more children, runs the TV all day, leaves lights on, and always receives a refund check. That doesn’t make sense!”
- “On base, we were charged over $200 per month, which we couldn’t afford. We moved off base and now pay less than $100 per month, using our lights and appliances more often!”
- “We were paying over $150/month being very conservative. Finally I gave up and started leaving lights on and doing laundry all the time. Now we only pay $56. It makes no sense.”
- “The more I leave things running, the lower our bill is. It’s rigged.”
- “Our bills were always over $200. After contacting Housing, filling out a survey, and never getting an answer, we stopped caring. We leave the lights on when we’re gone, and the TV on all day. Now our bills are down to $50. What I’ve learned is that the more energy you use, the less your bill is.”
The RECP has become a disaster for military families. Instead of being motivated to voluntarily conserve energy, families are now learning that the more you use, the less you pay. Something is wrong, and military families need legal assistance to defend themselves. The families are tired of being ignored and not getting answers.
It is unacceptable that military families in base housing are caught as helpless victims between the Housing Office and the energy management company. If old wiring and faulty meters are causing energy problems for the base, military families should not have to foot the bill. Instead, the government should investigate their contracts with YES energy, Lincoln Military Housing, and Hunt to see where and how costs can be reduced.
Our concerns made the local news!
Thanks to your comments and actions, this story was reported on several news channels in December. You can see me on an interview with our local news channel here. Let’s keep raising our voices. Talk to your chain of command. Talk to your base leadership. Unite with other families in your neighborhood to monitor meters and get an accurate baseline for what is ‘normal usage.’ The more information you have, the more change you can bring. You can also contact your local representatives and Congressional leadership. To see more actionable ways to solve this problem, see my follow-up article here. You can also sign the petition to end the RECP.