GULFPORT — Ralph Bassett's electric bill typically runs about $120 a month, every month, winter and summer.
Bassett runs his two-story, 1920s wood-frame home as a model of efficiency: LED lightbulbs, dimmer switches, a tankless water heater, a clothesline for drying most of the wash.
So when Bassett's bill spiked in July to $256, he called Duke Energy Florida and got what he thought were unsatisfactory replies.
Duke: It's your air conditioner. It has been hot.
Bassett: I don't have an air conditioner.
Duke: You used more electricity.
Bassett: I did nothing unusual. Perhaps something happened to the meter.
Duke: No, you used more electricity.
Bassett's conclusion: "In other words, the customer is always wrong."
At a time when Duke customers have increasingly become angered by exorbitant costs and questionable billing practices, Bassett's and other cases like his raise fresh questions.
How could an electric bill suddenly register unusually high — for just one month?
Was it the customer? Was it Duke? Or neither?
In complaints filed with the state Public Service Commission, Duke Energy customers often blamed faulty meters for high electric bills. But a Tampa Bay Times review of dozens of improper billing complaints and hundreds of pages filed with the PSC this year found that the cause of high bills was always something else.
When it comes to utility error, the problem is more often a meter that the company incorrectly programmed when it was installed or an installer mixed up the meters between two neighbors.
• In January, Blake Hutton, of Lake Mary, received a Duke Energy bill he believed was wrong. Duke tested his meter and determined it was functioning properly. After filing a complaint with the PSC, investigators determined that Hutton was given someone else's meter. He was refunded $219.80 for past bills.
• In February, Duke incorrectly sent a bill to Doretha Bryant, of Jasper in Hamilton County, that included charges for a "Private Area Lighting" that belonged to her neighbor. Bryant was credited $477.24 and sent a refund check for an additional $139.51.
• Throughout the first quarter of this year, Bradley Rees, of Windermere near Orlando, thought Duke was overcharging him for electricity. Rees was right. A PSC review determined that Rees, like Hutton, was billed for a meter belonging to his neighbor. He was reviewed for an unspecified refund.
"Like many companies, we rely on people and technology to help us do our job," said Sterling Ivey, a Duke spokesman. "On occasion, errors are made and technology doesn't work. When we find an error we will work to correct it immediately."
Sometimes, the cause of the problem is inconclusive, as is the case so far with Ralph Bassett.
Bassett's 1,400-square-foot home sits in the heart of Gulfport. One of the town's largest oak trees towers above Bassett's home, providing afternoon shade. Palm trees and an elm fill most gaps the sun's rays find in the oak tree's canopy.
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If the 69-year-old and his wife, Catherine, 66, need any more comfort, they turn on the home's ceiling fans.
Winter time, though, is a different story for the pair of retired opera singers.
"We use space heaters," Bassett says.
It was those space heaters that Bassett suspected of causing the one other spike in his electric bill in February. He didn't challenge Duke then.
But when the July bill arrived, Bassett thought something was amiss.
In June, Duke sent a bill for $119.08. In July, the utility billed Bassett $256.79. In August it went back down to $129.27. September was $130.34.
Bassett uses Duke's autopay system and might have missed the spike in his payment if he wasn't diligent about reviewing his electric bill.
By the time his September bill arrived, it became that much more curious.
The Tampa Bay Times asked Duke what might explain the troubles Bassett experienced.
"While I can't pinpoint exactly what happened this summer to cause an increase in usage or what exactly may have happened on his side of the meter," Ivey, the Duke spokesman, said, "I can tell you during our conversation with him today he indicated he purchased a new dryer this summer. The new dryer, along with having more than one refrigerator, may certainly be the cause of his increased usage."
Bassett does keep two refrigerators at his home — as he has for years. Not much of an explanation for the spike in usage.
What about the dryer?
It was a new dryer, which should be more efficient than the one he replaced.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that clothes dryers typically consume about 6 percent of a residential home's energy usage. (That's not factoring in use of a clothesline for at least some drying.)
For Bassett, that would amount to about 54 kilowatt hours, not an additional 813 kilowatt hours that showed up on his bill in July.
"The idea of the dryer causing that (increase) is not credible," said Scudder Parker, policy director for the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. "It's not conceivable."
Parker said what his agency would do for Vermont residents in a case like Bassett's is visit his house to determine exactly what caused the unusual spike.
Duke has not gone that far. But the utility did send a meter technician to test his meter.
The result: "Test Good," the technician noted.
The Bassetts are not satisfied.
Ralph Bassett suspects four possibilities: the meter, the equipment reading the meter, the person recording the data or "the fourth variable is they're doing it on purpose because they can get away with it. That is a mystery."
"If this happened to us," said Catherine Bassett, "how many others has it happened to?"
Ralph Bassett said he has given up on Duke providing any help.
"I would say the only thing I could possibly do is file a PSC complaint," he said.
Contact Ivan Penn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge