A progressive nightmare: Stuck in a sauna for seven hours


I wasn’t in the house when they cut the electricity yesterday, but I’m told it was swift and merciless.

A utility truck from Progress Energy, our power company, pulled up to the curb, a technician opened our meter, flipped a switch, and then scurried back into her truck.

And just like that, we were powerless at 11:45 a.m. on a blazing hot Central Florida summer morning. Within half an hour, the temperature in our house, which doubles as my office, hit 82 degrees.

Before she made a quick exit, the technician told Kari she couldn’t turn the power back on without an order.

And that’s all she did, she said. Fill orders. We’d have to call the 800-number if we wanted our electricity back.

Never mind that Kari dashed into the house and retrieved our most recent utility bill, which showed we paid for our electricity. In fact, we’d paid every utility bill on time since moving into the house nine years ago.

And never mind, too, that she’d demonstrated pretty conclusively that this was Progress Energy’s mistake.

Orders are orders, the technician stammered. And then she was gone.

For anyone thinking, “Come on, just open a window, make a call, and wait your turn,” you’ve obviously never experienced Central Florida in the summer. The heat is torture. Long-time residents describe it as a hot, wet blanket: humidity in the high 90 percentage and oven-like temperatures.

By the time I returned from running a few errands and found my family inside a powerless home, temperatures were approaching the mid-80s indoors. My office felt like one of those steam rooms with the warning signs posted that caution pregnant women and people with heart conditions to stay out.

But here we were, trapped.

Indifferent and patronizing

I dialed Progress Energy, spent close to half an hour on hold, and finally reached a customer service representative who agreed to investigate my arbitrary disconnection from the power grid. It turns out someone else who was moving to our neighborhood and wanted to set up new service had given Progress my address in error, and the company simply took their word for it. They closed my account and opened another one at my own address under a different name.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’ve paid my bills. I’ve been at this address for almost a decade. How can you do that?”

The representative — her tone of voice alternating between indifferent and patronizing — explained that under Florida law, it had to be done this way. The rights of the people who ordered new service superseded my right to power.

“But why not call me to find out if I want the power to my own home disconnected,” I asked, trying to stay polite.

“That would be impractical,” she said.

“But that’s not a law,” I replied. “That’s a policy.”

I should have kept my opinions to myself.

Customer service agents can quietly inflict misery on customers by moving them to the end of the line. Even though I was assured that my case had “priority” over the other disconnected customers — the ones who hadn’t paid their bills — I began to have my doubts as it neared 3 p.m., and temperatures in the house pushed 90 degrees.

What law?

Out of curiosity, I checked the Florida statutes on disconnecting utilities. Although the state has a variety of laws that address certain situations, such as medically-necessary electricity and power being cut off in the event of a law enforcement action, a write-up on a utility website summed it up best: The Sunshine State, it said, “Has no rules, laws, or regulations in place to protect residents.”

Several urgent calls later, there was still no power, and no sign of a utility truck. My interactions with the power company became increasingly absurd.

Sample:

Rep: We have a truck in your area and you’re next on his list.

Me: Do you know where the truck is?

Rep: We do not.

Me: Really? You don’t know where your own truck is? Have you ever heard of GPS?

Rep: I’m sorry, we do know where he is. We cannot tell you for the safety of the driver.

Huh? They can’t tell me if the truck is 10 minutes away – or two hours away. What a circus.

By 5 p.m., it was 93 degrees in my living room. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll appreciate this analogy: It was like that planet, Crematoria, on the Chronicles of Riddick. (See image above, courtesy of Wikia.)

I thought my cell phone, now down to just a sliver of battery, was about to burst into flames.

Well, just about.

I made another urgent call — my fifth of the day — to inquire about the lack of progress. A representative offered yet another empty apology, same tone of voice as all the others — a little “don’t care” and a little “stop bothering me.”

By now, I was certain that my attitude — polite, but firm and maybe a little too firm — had gotten me moved to the end of the queue. Another representative confirmed my suspicion. I was still due to be plugged in today, she said, but I was the technician’s final order.

Lucky me.

When the Progress truck finally rolled into my driveway at 6:45 p.m., it took only seconds to restore our power. No one bothered knocking at the door to let us know everything was OK. We had to figure that out for ourselves when cool air began streaming through the vents. I saw the utility truck’s tail light as it turned down the street, making a quick escape.

I learned a few lessons as I baked in my own office yesterday, unable to get any work done.

First, monopolies breed mediocrity. Progress is a de-facto monopoly in my neighborhood; my only other choice is to go off the grid and install a noisy windmill or solar cells, which I am sorely tempted to do now.

Also, when a customer service agent tells you they’re following the law, ask if they’d be kind enough to show you the law. My agent had no idea what she was talking about. She either didn’t know the difference between company policy, state law and doing the right thing, or she thought I wouldn’t be smart enough to figure it out.

And finally, when you’re embroiled in your own dispute with a monopolistic utility (and eventually, you probably will be) be as nice as possible while they’re fixing your problem. Keep your powder dry until power is restored. That’s the time to write to your state’s ombudsman or public utility commission.

I complained to a supervisor, and my seven hours in the sauna netted me yet another absolutely insincere apology, delivered in that same tone of voice — seriously, do they train them to all sound that way? — and a $25 Target gift certificate.

I’m not sure if that’s enough. What do you think?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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