For the last week or so, a work crew has been tearing up the road outside my house. It turns out that this was Central Hudson Gas and Electric, installing a new natural gas line. This project showed me that CHG&E’s management has no clue when it comes to treating customers right.

Rudely awakened, dropped by voicemail, made to wait at CHG&E’s contractor’s whim for most of a day, a garden trampled and dug up, a ruined lawn, all because of what seems to be an institutional lack of common courtesy and decency aforethought.

First off, I have to say that individual CHG&E front-line employees I’ve dealt with have almost all been very helpful, courteous, and a benefit to the company. However, it’s obvious to me that CH’s management has some serious customer scorn going on.

To put the following tale into context: In January 2011, in the middle of a week of deep freeze, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 natural gas customers in Kingston lost service because a gas regulator froze up from cold and precipitation. I was one of those customers. The weather wasn’t particularly cold or particularly wet for the area; I can only assume the regulator was not well-maintained. It took a few days for CH to restore gas service. During that time, like many other Kingston residents, I was without heat, hot water, or the ability to use the stovetop to cook. CH’s employees busted ass to restore service, but the important thing is that they shouldn’t have had to.

So, the current work.  I understand that CH needs to replace gas lines, and after January I’m all for modernizing the system. However, when someone comes and paints up your sidewalk with dig-safe markings, and then commences to dig a foot-wide trench across the mouth of your driveway, it would be nice if the perpetrator gave you some advance warning.

On Saturday, more than a week after the work started, I get a letter dated the previous Wednesday from CH. A “Gas Operating Engineer” from the company deigns to tell me that the gas main, and the service lines to the homes, are being replaced by a contractor. Because my old house has an indoor gas meter, they will need to get into the house to turn off the gas and pull the new pipe.

“A representative will contact you during this process in an effort to schedule your service replacement that will allow us to minimize our construction time and its impact on you”, says the letter. “All areas impacted by construction will be restored to their prior condition.”

Okay, so I guess we have to move some stuff around in the basement to free up access to the gas meter, which is buried in a corner. We make plans to start cleaning up, but because we haven’t been contacted about scheduling yet and we already had weekend plans, we didn’t make tons of progress toward that goal on Saturday or Sunday.

Fast-forward to Monday morning. 7:10 a.m. The doorbell rings. It’s the contractor.  They’re ready to replace our gas main, can they come in and look around in half an hour or so?

This, apparently, is Central Hudson’s idea of “scheduling.”

The contractor doesn’t like it when I say “no.”  He doesn’t want to take “no, not today” for an answer, not even when I point out that (a) we have had no notice of when they were going to do this, (b) we aren’t prepared, and (c) having just been rudely awakened we have not yet showered and prepared for work. He finally allows as how maybe they could start at 9 a.m. after we shower?

Notice how this ignores the question of who will remain around to give them access to the house. Lucky thing for them that I had the day off—especially considering that at 7:25 a.m. they’ve already got a four-foot-deep hole in the sidewalk and the street.

I try calling the engineer who sent the letter. I get voicemail. I try calling CH’s customer-outreach specialist per their website, and get voicemail. Okay, I try the main customer-service number.  I’m told that the office doesn’t open until 8 a.m., so the people who could address the issue aren’t available.

At 8:05 a.m., I’m still getting voicemail. I try calling the office of the senior vice president of customer services, Charles Freni; the voicemail system tells me in a strange robotic voice that the function is not valid and hangs up on me.

By 8:20, I call the CEO’s office. I’m just talking to the secretary when Alana Mikhalevsky, the Operating Supervisor for Community Relations & Consumer Outreach, calls me back. I explain the situation to her, and she agrees that the situation has been horribly botched. She tells me she’ll make some calls, get in touch with the right people, and get back to me.

That’s the last I hear from Alana today.

The clock hits 9 a.m. and keeps on going; no one working outside bothers to come talk to me. By 10:15 a.m., I see the foreman and a presumptive CH employee looking at paperwork on my front steps. I go out to talk with them. No one apologizes. They ask if they can come in now. I let them in, and they tell me that it shouldn’t take long, the gas should be back on by around noon.

They don’t turn the gas off until noon.

Around two o’clock, they tell me they’re having problems. It seems that the gas main has a right-angle bend in it under my lawn, which means they can’t simply pull the new plastic pipe through the old iron pipe. This doesn’t particularly surprise me, given the topography of the lawn: the service enters the basement about three feet below ground level, and the yard slopes downhill about two and a half feet before reaching a two-foot retaining wall in front of the sidewalk.

This means they now have to dig up my yard and front garden.

I have the pictures of them digging out the gravel from behind the wall that forms its drainage, and the dirt from the yard, and commingling them into one pile. Of them stepping all over the plants. Of them piling tools on the other plants.

It takes them some time to unearth the elbow and replace it. Meanwhile, the apparent CH guy leaves. The workers are now on overtime and frustrated by the 90°F-plus temperatures. The older guys have some care, but the younger workers don’t seem to have much respect for what they’re doing to someone’s property and hard work.

Meanwhile, the stepdaughter and her friend (who lives with us) come back from a walk, and tell me that the contractor’s flagman has been wolf-whistling at them whenever they go by.  Classy. (They later tell me that while they were later walking to my girlfriend’s workplace, the work crew’s truck drove past them and the lot of them did it again, apparently including the foreman.)

Eventually, they get the gas line hooked up, and they put the dirt and gravel back into the hole (not in any particular order, that I could see), and when they come up short, the worker starts taking shovelfuls of dirt out of my other garden to make up the difference. When they’re done, I have some very traumatized plants, garden edging that used to be straight and is now a wavy approximation, a bare patch of lawn, gravel all over the lawn, and no gas service because they aren’t qualified to turn it back on and the CH guy has fled.

Around an hour later, a CH serviceman shows up to unlock the gas shutoff, turn it on, and watch my stovetop light up again.

This isn’t what I expected, and if I had a true choice for energy service, I’d be choosing someone else.

What should have happened?

  • CH should have sent out notifications well before they started ripping up the road, and they should have started making arrangements for access at that point.
  • The contractor should have verified with CH that the homeowners had been contacted and had replied before ringing doorbells at 7 a.m.
  • The contractor shouldn’t have started digging up sidewalks before confirming access to the house.
  • If the contractor is going to start work at 7 a.m., the customer-service line should be prepared to take calls about the contractor’s work at that time. A supervisor should have pager or cellphone contact information for the engineer in charge of the project.
  • CH’s voicemail system should not default to unceremoniously dropping calls to executive offices outside of business hours.
  • When sending notifications about work, the letter should include usable contact information, not the company’s main line where you can be put through to the voicemail of the engineer who is out in the field someplace.
  • Alana should have followed up with me at least once during the day to make sure that things were progressing okay.
  • After I spoke with Alana, CH should have made sure that one of their engineers was on site, if not their manager, and they should have come immediately to my door and offered an apology in person.
  • Since I had already been greatly inconvenienced, and had put my life on hold to allow CH to do the work on their unannounced schedule, CH should have made sure that they had employees on site to take care of any problems or necessary work as quickly as possible (such as turning the gas back on).
  • The contractor should have come to me before digging up my garden, giving me the opportunity to save plants, note any problems with my irrigation system, etc.
  • The contractor should have taken care to preserve the construction of the wall, including the gravel fill, and should have used a tarp to prevent the gravel from spreading into my lawn.  At a minimum, they should have raked up the gravel.
  • It goes without saying that they shouldn’t have dug up my other garden.
  • I would have expected them to at least tell me that someone would be by to finish putting things right with my lawn, such as reseeding it.
  • It would have been nice if they’d asked for a broom to sweep up all the dirt they tracked into my house with the multitude of comings and goings. Okay, it was just the cellar stairs, but it would have been excellent customer service.
  • There’s no excuse for contractors wolf-whistling at passing women, especially those that might be underage. They’re lucky I didn’t see it happen myself, or I would have called the cops.
I find it difficult to forgive Central Hudson on this one. They’re responsible for their contractor. This behavior is abuse of monopoly power: to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, “We don’t care. We’re the gas company. We don’t have to.”
I lay this at the feet of CH’s management. They could choose to have more of their own employees doing this work, instead of out-of-area contractors. (I’ve even heard CH front-line employees make this lament.) They could invest more in maintenance of things like the gas regulator that froze in January. They could demand that their engineers work proactively with customers, and most of all they could mobilize meaningful responses to customer outrages when they occur.  But… they don’t.
This is why I believe we need more government regulation of companies, not less.

4 Responses to Central Hudson’s corporate customer cluelessness

  1. Tanya says:

    Totally agree. Central Hudson is the worst. Case in point:

    Sunday, 5pm: calls Central Hudson emergency line to report outage = busy signal.
    Sunday, 9pm: calls Central Hudson emergency line to report outage = busy signal.
    Monday, 7am: calls Central Hudson emergency line to report outage = busy signal.
    Monday 5pm: calls Central Hudson emergency line to report outage = automated message. can’t get through.
    Monday 7pm: calls Central Hudson emergency line to report outage = woman tells me I won’t have power until the end of the week and tells me to go get a backup generator.
    Monday 9pm: calls Central Hudson emergency line to speak to supervisor = man tells me they only have a 60 person crew for 6 counties.
    Tuesday 8am: calls Central Hudson emergency line = man tells me that it’s not like they will charge me for the days that I was out of electricity.

    How many weeks/months of notice did this utility company get to warn about the Hurricane? This was not a last minute shock hurricane–they had ample time to get their shit together and come up with a viable emergency plan to get their customers back with electricity.

    • Tanya,

      I think you’re being more than a bit unreasonable. Irene was a massive storm, and it caused damage to the entire Eastern U.S. seaboard to an extent that hasn’t been seen in over a century. Normally, after a big storm like a blizzard, the affected utility can call on mutual-assistance pacts with other power companies in nearby states to get extra work crews. With Irene, those utilities were hit just as hard, if not harder, and had no one to spare. Heck, Connecticut Light & Power is waiting on crews from British Columbia to drive across the continent with their equipment to help restore power.

      Unfortunately, it makes rational sense for the utility to start first with the life-critical outages, and then the outages that will restore power to the most people. That means days without power for some people.

      No one got “weeks or months” of warning about the hurricane. The National Hurricane Center noted the formation of Irene as a tropical storm on Saturday, August 20. It is extremely difficult to predict the path of a hurricane with any accuracy more than three days in advance, but NOAA did an exceptionally good job with Irene: the forecast was 20% more accurate than their five-year hurricane tracking average. They didn’t start seeing a path that would take Irene near our area until Tuesday, August 23. Hurricane warnings were issued then.

      You had days of warning that the hurricane was coming, and days of warning that it would be historic. Did you buy a generator? Do you have emergency lights and fuel or batteries for them for a week? Do you have a means of cooking food without electricity? One gallon of water per person per day, for several days? Water to flush toilets with if water supplies fail? Raingear? A “go-bag”? These were all things that the government suggested in their thirty-five advisories on Irene. Central Hudson warned its customers three and one days before the storm to prepare for prolonged outages. I did these things, and I rode out the storm just fine.

      We live in the Northeast. We get ice storms routinely that take out power for days at a time. Preparing for an outage should be old hat, and when we’re warned that it will be worse than an ice storm, we shouldn’t expect our utility companies to magically restore power.

      I would criticize Central Hudson for failing to give restoration forecasts on their website during their efforts, and for not securing sufficient supplies of dry ice to handle a disaster of this scale in the days before the storm when the potential impact was clear. But I can’t criticize them for losing power after Irene, or for prioritizing the work to do the most good for the most people in the shortest time. I was pleasantly surprised when my power came back on about nine hours after it went out, but I live in Kingston proper and my outage was part of a large area, so it obviously received priority. However, I went into it expecting power to be out for days.

      As for the busy signal: there were 180,000 people without power in Central Hudson’s service area, many of whom were calling in. No one can reasonably expect Central Hudson to staff to handle that call load seamlessly. In my case, when the power went out, I immediately filed an outage report via my iPad through their website, and it went right through. (My home network is connected to Uninterruptible Power Supply units, so I had 30 minutes of battery backup before I lost the Internet.)

  2. A day or so after I made this post, the engineer in charge of the project called me back; he had been out of the office. He was genuinely shocked by the behavior of the contractor, as was Alana when she eventually called back. They both offered sincere apologies. The engineer pulled the contractor from the project, apologized for the lack of communication, and came by to see the damage. He’s having a landscaper restore the area to its proper state. He also sent a nice letter of apology that included a substantial gift card to Adams Fairacre Farms, a local high-end grocery store.

    While I would have preferred not to have the experience, it does seem like Central Hudson is sincerely sorry about it, and that they’re taking steps to prevent it from occurring again.

  3. Kevin B says:

    Last year a very old gas meter lifted off of a 1 1/2″ gas main. The meter is outside my 5 y.o. son’s bedroom. At 3 am he comes in and wakes us up saying there is a scary noise outside his window. I go to his window and hear a violent air rushing sound and knew exactly what it was. I panic and wake up my daughter and wife. We all put jackets and shoes on (3:30 am on a January evening in 2011), go outside with a cell phone and call 911. Fire and police show up 20 min. later. The gas is still cranking out like one of the Iraq gas field videos you saw during the war. I was waiting for a static charge to hit that and take out my house. Luckily it never happened. Fire calls C-H. C-H takes ONE AND ONE HALF HOURS TO ARRIVE!!!! The guy says he got beeped in bed and lived near New Paltz. Are you kidding me? I’m in the Town of Woodbury almost 40 minutes away! There are no emergency crews on duty at that time?? At any rate they finally shut down the gas and we go back into our rapidly freezing house. TWO DAYS later, they send a crew to replace the meter. After the crew leaves I go out to check on it. I smell natural gas like crazy. I call C-H and two hours later someone arrives and says that the previous crew installed the meter wrong. He had it fixed in 1 hour. I felt that their neglect (the meter was over 50 years old and totally rusted) which could have cost our family their lives would have AT LEAST prompted an apology letter, discount voucher, something. I pay around $6,000 in gas per year (big old leaky house). I wrote two letters to the CEO and never received a response. It’s just as you and Lily Tomlin say, “They’re the Gas Company, they don’t have to care.” I know this response is over a year old, I’m just venting about this horrible company. I have Orange & Rockland for electricity and they have always been courteous and professional. I think there’s a rotten corporate culture at Central Hudson.

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