Sunday, May 23, 2010

Energy Unwise

Amidst the blizzard of advertising I receive each week for Verizon FIOS, I have also been receiving ads from Pepco for their Energy Wise Rewards program.

If you live in Montgomery County, Maryland, you've probably been getting these letters, too. Part of Pepco's offer is for a free internet-capable thermostat. Yes, free. Free installation and free service, too. Gosh, it's hard to ignore free service. I'm used to anything to do with my heat pump either requiring a $100 minimum service call or me spending oodles of time staring at my current programmable thermostat which tells me everything but why the heating system isn't doing what the thermostat says it is.

Why would Pepco make this offer? Remember that Pepco sold off their generation facilities so now they have to buy electricity. My bet is that Pepco has a sliding scale determining how much they pay for energy. Anything over a certain amount costs Pepco significantly more than it is able to charge its customers (who buy electricity at a fixed rate). So Pepco wants to sell us lots of energy but not too much.

How does Pepco plan to get customers to consume less? Rather than using rebates to encourage voluntary conservation as other jurisdictions are doing, Pepco is offering to be a bit more heavy-handed with rebates. The thermostats Pepco provide have a remote cutoff so Pepco can turn off customer AC or heat pumps remotely during periods of high energy use. This is fine for people who don't work at home during the middle of the day - exactly when Pepco is likely to cut the AC. Pepco assured me that it happens very rarely and there are ways to override the cutoff in the rare event that it is necessary. It all sounded good to me.

Long-time Washingtonians may recall Pepco's Kilowatchers program. Pepco installed radio-controlled cutoffs on major electrical appliances in the home. For reasons unknown to me, Pepco suspended Kilowatchers many years ago. But the essence is reborn in the Energy Wise program. And if you don't want Pepco messing with your thermostat, Pepco will happily put an old-style dumb cutoff on your AC or heat pump. You don't even have to be home. Pepco says that reason alone explains why most people are opting for the dumb cutoff over the internet thermostat.

But I liked the idea of the internet thermostat. Pepco promised better energy statistics, better usability (imagine having the house at the right temp upon getting back from vacation and yet saving money at the same time), and more. The best part was the idea of sitting at my desk and being able to see a week's worth of thermostat settings at a glance. That sounds so much better than what I have to do now - manually push buttons to see 4 settings x 7 days x 2 seasons! Besides the 56 different periods, each period can then require many button presses to adjust the temp and time. So we're talking a couple hundred button clicks! Ack! Admittedly, my thermostat lets me copy days that have a common schedule - but my family's schedule is different almost every day of the week so I cannot use that feature very much.

By comparison, Pepco representatives repeatedly told me that the web interface would show a simple list that would be simple. Simple. Simple. Simple. How hard could it be to screw this up? Even a simple spreadsheet would be easier than all those damn button clicks required by a physical thermostat.

So after contemplating this for awhile (and throwing away many months worth of Pepco mailings), I finally made the call. Sign me up!

Pepco Shows . . . Late

I accepted an appointment for Tuesday morning. I was told that I could have a window from 8am-11am. You can probably guess where this is going.

I took the whole morning off from work. At 10:30am, I started to worry and called Pepco. The representative assured me that the technician merely needed to arrive inside the window and could complete the work outside the window. I sure wasn't told anything like that when I originally set up the appointment. Sure enough, the technician and showed up at 11:00am. Grrr.

The technician brought along a trainee to watch and assist. So I asked if I could watch too. No problem, I was told.

First, the technician installed a wireless networking device on my router. To control the thermostat, Pepco uses a home-area network system called Zigbee. The Zigbee controller is an Ethernet device that is supposed to plug in to the homeowner's router. And although I have a router, it didn't have a spare port. Why didn't Pepco tell me about this in advance? I had assumed the thermostat would be a WiFi device. Alas no. So I temporarily unplugged something else from my router in order to plug in the Zigbee and get the thermostat working. My advice to others: Customers without spare ports should ask Pepco in advance whether they need to buy an Ethernet hub or Pepco will provide one.

I have two heat pumps with separate thermostats so the technician replaced my thermostats with two new ones. I was a little annoyed that he clipped off the wires rather than unscrewed them. There's not a lot of slack left in my thermostat cables. It would only have taken another minute to unscrew them. But I had already pointed out that he was using the wrong kind of screwdriver to remove the old thermostat from the wall. Nor did he have a wire stripper. Why don't these guys come with the right tools? The hell with professionalism. I could not believe this guy was training people. In the interest of expediency, I kept my mouth shut.

When he was done, I asked him to show me Pepco's website to control the thermostats. "We leave homeowners to do that on their own." He made reference to people not being comfortable with Pepco personnel knowing their password. That made no sense - after all, it's Pepco's system. Pepco has complete control over it. It hardly matters that whether Pepco personnel know my password or not - Pepco can still control my thermostat. I pressed him on this and finally he said he just didn't have the time - he had other appointments. Since he showed up late for mine, I could hardly argue with him over that point. Although both thermostats were turned off, I let him go.

At The Computer

I surfed over to the url he had given me to register an account at Forgive me if I drag you through the details but I must. They deserve a thorough airing if only to show website designers what to avoid.

The website starting by asking me for 3 pieces of personal information. Let's call it pseudo-information because it was all from my monthly statement. How stupid - if you open someone's mailbox and take their bill, you have all the personal information needed to masquerade as them! If you're going to get all the information from a bill, it doesn't matter whether you ask for 3 pieces of information or 100.

Next, Pepco required completion of a captcha (distorted bits of text you are required to type in). Captcha's don't identify people - they merely prove it's not a robot filling out the form. But that's pointless given that the form just asked for information that could only have come from one person's statement. Whoever decided on their security measures didn't know the basics. Or was overridden by bad corporate policy.

The next web page asked for really personal information just in case I forgot my password in the future. No doubt you've encountered this before. I was presented with a choice of things like mother's maiden name, name of first pet, and so on. This design is a disaster. By insisting on information that only you know, it immediately becomes information that not only you know. Because now Pepco knows it. And since these same questions are used for password recovery by many financial institutions, access to your money and identity has been granted yet another way to be compromised.

Sadly, I have found that people really do see my personal information. My most convincing encounter with this reality came when I was telecommuting one day and found that my password wasn't working. I phoned the computer support staff at my own place of employment and they proceeded to ask me my personal questions, listen to my answers, and confirm the answers matched those on file. In other words, other people were seeing things that only I should know. Fortunately, I had planned ahead and read back the answers I had given years earlier. The name of my elementary school: a. My first pet's name: ab. My favorite sport: abc. And so on.

You may not like my solution. You may complain that it's impossible to memorize and recall this information if it's completely artificial. Correct. But it's a fair tradeoff for true security (not to mention personal privacy). And even if you answer the questions seriously, recalling the correct answers may be difficult. Consider that one of Pepco's security questions was "What is the earliest phone number you can remember?" The problem with this kind of question is that it is likely to change over time. It is a near certainty that there will come a time when my answer is different. Memory fades after all. In fact, many of the questions were of that type. Favorite fruit? Favorite color? And so on. How many people have the same favorites for the rest of their lives? (The alternative is to ask questions of fact but that has problems, too, as Sarah Palin found out when her yahoo account was compromised thanks to questions easily answered from her Wikipedia page.)

Sorry for that digression but I've never read a thorough explanation of all the problems with this type of password recovery system so I thought I'd put it down for the record. I resisted sharing it with the Pepco representative even though, by this time, I had already phoned Pepco for help. In fact, I called earlier, having failed at the first step - getting the pseudo-personal info from my statement. Evidently, my statement didn't square with their view of it.

The representative was happy to stay on the line as I completed the remainder of the page, the next page, and so on. Finally, I got to the fifth and last page. Whew! But instead of a welcome screen, I got: The system is unable to process your request at this time. Please contact a Pepco representative if you continue to have trouble.

Since I was already on the phone with just such a representative, contacting one was a snap. (The first thing that went easily that day.) She couldn't explained what had gone wrong but decided it was because I was using the wrong browser. ("We don't support Safari or Chrome.") I doubted that was an issue because the pages were just simple forms and, after all, I had successfully completed four of them. The diagnostic smelled to me like an issue on their end.

However, a quick look at the source showed me that their service was Microsoft-based so, yes, compatibility could be an issue. She told me to use Internet Explorer. I told her "I'm on a Mac; there is no IE for MacOS." She then assured me that Firefox was supported. So I went through their signup pages again. Again: There is a problem with the system. Please contact a Pepco representative for assistance.

This may not have been the exact message (I didn't bother to copy it down) but it was definitely different than the previous one. (What's the point of more than one type of uselessly vague error messages?)

At this point, the Pepco representative did something on her end and I was able to log in. Only to be showered with new forms. The system wanted me to fill out a detailed questionnaire regarding my house - size, construction, windows, etc. After getting out of this rat's nest, the representative told me how to get to the page to pay your bill and set up Auto Bill Pay.

Me: But I don't want to pay my bill or set up Auto Bill Pay!
Pepco 1: You don't? Isn't that why you called?
Me: I called so I could get access to my Pepco-provided internet thermostat.
Pepco 1: Oh, you want a different number.
Me: Are you sure? I dialed the number I was given and got to you.
Pepco 1: Yes, I'm sure.
Me: Ok, what's the number.
Pepco 1: 866 353-5798
Me: That's the number I dialed to get you. Please transfer me - don't make me call a number that will bring me right back to you.
Pepco 1: Uh, hold on.

Finally, I was transferred to a different person:

Pepco 2: What can I do for you, sir?
Me: I'd like to know how to access my Pepco-provided internet thermostat.
Pepco 2: I'd be happy to redirect you to a person who can take your request to have a thermostat installed.

It took a while but finally I convinced her that I already had the thermostat installed and just needed the url to the page to control it. She then broke the bad news. "That feature is not available yet."

How Could This Be

I'll skip the lengthy discussion that ensued. Suffice to say, after I was certain that she had to be confused or misinformed, I spoke to her supervisor, Dave Boyer, who explained that the functionality was still being tested by Pepco employees who had the thermostat in their homes.

What? How could this be? Wasn't it tested before being advertised? And hadn't it been advertised for months? (I have an email pointing out that it was advertised to be available in the summer of 2009!) The supervisor had no good explanation.

He didn't understand why I was unhappy, so I explained about the hundreds of button pushes that would be required to program the new thermostat. (Wait, multiply by two because I have two of them!) And I would have to learn how to use the thermostat - a thermostat with a tiny screen and just a few buttons, each overloaded with lots of modes and functions. Ugh. All in all, an experience I really didn't want. And certainly not the one I had been promised.

The supervisor offered to send out a technician to uninstall the new thermostats and reinstall the old ones - no charge. I thanked him for the offer while pointing out that based on my past experience, it would require me to sacrifice another half day off from work to do the reinstall and possibly another half day to re-reinstall the new one. He said that the technician could call me at work so that I could leave in time to meet him at my house - and that this courtesy was always available. But why wasn't I told this before?

I also expressed my displeasure over a number of other things - such as the way the program was advertised. Had I known Pepco was not ready, I would have waited. Pepco shouldn't have advertised at all. At the very least, Pepco should have explained the true state of the customer experience. Before signing up originally, I spoke to a Pepco rep who very clearly extolled how easy it was to use the system. How could this be if it wasn't even available? I asked the supervisor whether he had one of the Pepco thermostats. Answer: No. "Not available in my area."

I told the supervisor that I now faced a decision. Should I make another appointment for a Pepco technician to come reinstall my old thermostat? Or should I wait for Pepco to finish their testing betting that the outdoor temp wouldn't get too cold or too hot in the meantime. I asked the supervisor when the web interface would be available. He thought sometime in June. I asked him to find the person who knew for sure - surely someone must be in charge there - and get a real answer.

After placing me on hold for awhile, the supervisor came back on the phone and admitted that he couldn't get hold of the project manager but that the manager was due to show up in two days and he would get me a clear answer then. (What? No one can get a hold of the project manager for two days?) That was five days ago. I have not received any word from anyone at Pepco since.

At this point, I've filed a complaint with the Maryland Public Service Commission which regulates Pepco.

Needless to say, Pepco needs to do more than just testing. It needs to fix: its web interfaces, its privacy and security practices, its installation practices, its advertising, and finally, how it communicates with customers. If customers are so badly misled, Pepco shouldn't expect customers to sign up for its programs, no matter how good they turn out be.

Indeed, I related this story to several people and each one had a Pepco tale of woe. One of my friends said that he filed a complaint with the MD PSC last year about the same program. It seems that Pepco had advertised the program would be available last summer and it wasn't available. I've also found Pepco's blog which has lots of people complaining about the web billing system. I am experienced enough to avoid Auto Bill Pay systems but how naive was I to have signed up for the internet thermostat?

Several of the people I spoke to asked why I would trust Pepco to have control over my thermostat. Now I'm wondering what could I have been thinking when I agreed to this.

More importantly, my house is cold.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Phone Tax Increase

Faced with close to a billion dollar shortfall (and continuing deficits for years to come), Montgomery County, Maryland is struggling with tax hikes and service cuts. I won't summarize all the cuts and tax hikes but I will mention one that falls in the area of interest to readers of this blog.

The county council is considering a resolution to increase the county tax on telephones from $2 to $3. That's per phone - so total up your family's cell phones and your house phone and multiply by 3 to get the amount you'll be paying to MC (Montgomery County). If we're lucky, they won't raise it even higher.

Oh, also add MC's 911 tax. That's another .75 per phone. At least, that's what I see on my bill.

On My Bill

I threw in the on my bill in the previous sentence because I wouldn't be surprised if you see something different on your bill. Indeed, I don't see the $2 charge on my bill although I do see the 911 charge. And one of my neighbors tells me that his MC 911 charge is $1. Is my phone provider doing the computation incorrectly? Or are the computations just maddeningly complex?

I wouldn't be surprised if complexity is an issue. For instance, my phone is VOIP and although I have an MC billing address, the actual phone number doesn't look like an MC number. But I made sure that the 911 service is working so perhaps how MCness is determined depends on which department is doing the determining. Another neighbor of mine notes that she has a 202 (Washington DC) number with a Montgomery County billing address that is assessed the $2 tax so there's yet another explanation needed.

Yet another scenario is exhibited with my cell phone. It has a NJ number with a NJ billing address but the phone stays in MC 99% of the time. Although the phone company knows this, I am not assessed the $2 tax.

And, of course, I use Skype and other free video services. Needless to say, I don't pay the $2 for Skype.

How are we supposed to deal with this morass? More specifically, how can we know which tax computations are correct? How can we predict how this pending resolution may actually affect us if we cannot even understand the current implementation?


So back to the original issue. Is MC justified in increasing the tax? The county could have offered a rationale. For instance, regulation costs more than it used to. But that's not what the council staff notes say. And they also don't say that MC collects taxes for telephone service in other ways, such as charging for access to rights of way or charging other business taxes. In fact, no rationale whatsoever is offered.

Surely, the real reason is that MC needs more revenue and they've figured out that this tax is one to which people are relatively insensitive. I would argue both of these points. (I'll skip the first point - surely it goes without saying that MC has many unnecessary expenditures.)

The real reason people seem insensitive to telephone taxes is more likely that few people understand their phone bills. They are laden with taxes from various levels of government (local, state, and federal taxes appear on mine) as well as charges from telephone providers that aren't taxes but are designed to sound like they are so customers won't question them. The regulatory cost recovery charge and administrative charges that appear on my Verizon Wireless bill are good examples of such, uh, taxes. [Although phone providers are careful not to use the word tax on any of their charges, the government is fairly loose with how they use tax, fee, and surcharge. For simplicity here, I'm calling all these extras taxes.]

So, in my view, the phone companies and government(s) are doing exactly the same thing (taking advantage of telephone users), albeit in different ways.

What To Do

I suspect it is fruitless to complain to the council. But I encourage you to do it anyway. If enough people do so, it may make a difference. The council will be holding a hearing on Tuesday May 18 before the regular meeting of the MFP committee. [How to give public testimony.]

Or you can do what I did the last time the council raised the phone tax. I switched my service to a jurisdiction with a lower taxes. It is surprising that taxes vary widely between jurisdictions. MC is far from being the lowest. But it is also far from being the highest.

I mentioned earlier having a NJ cell phone. That was a no brainer - since I have some relatives in NJ, I simply asked if I could piggyback on their family plan. I checked with Verizon Wireless as well and they had no problem with the phone being out of the area.

I ultimately reduced my payments to Verizon significantly and my payments to MC went to zero. Having an out-of-state area code doesn't seem to be the problem that it might have been a decade ago. Now, most people have plans where interstate calls cost the same as local calls. So for the phone on my family plan, I pay $12.99 for wireless access. That includes all taxes and fees.

I also transferred my landline to VOIP. This also reduced my payments to MC and my payments to Verizon went to zero. For VOIP, I pay $18.07. That includes all taxes and fees.

If you do write that letter to the council, mention that higher taxes will be counterproductive - and that you intend to transfer your phone service to a jurisdiction with lower telephone taxes. The county predicts they're going to reap a windfall of $11.85 million from higher taxes. But they're going to have to do it without us.