Power outage problem: Residents want answers

Ruth to the Rescue responds for residents zapped by power outages


Many of you might take for granted that when you flip a switch in your home, the power will be there!

That hasn't been the case for residents in a portion of Ortonville and Oxford. They share a power circuit and say they've been plagued by power outages in the past year.

"If the wind blows too hard, we have a storm, it snows, we just cringe and wait," said Sandy Harper of Oxford.

Calling Ruth to the Rescue For Help

Ken Miller of Ortonville was the resident who called Ruth to the Rescue to get some help. He told Ruth to the Rescue he'd invite a "few" friends over for a meeting. Nearly two dozen neighbors showed up on a Friday night to share their dissatisfaction with DTE.

"Why is my service substandard when other towns around here have never lost their power," said Mike Carten of Ortonville.

Trouble Beyond the December Ice Storm

Much of the frustration the neighbors feel goes back to the big ice storm last December. It was one of the worst weather events in years, but these residents say they've lost power many other times as well.

Donald Richmond of Ortonville started tracking the outages. By his count, the neighborhood lost power 11 times in 2013 and 6 times by the end of January, 2014. They wanted answers, and Local 4's Consumer Expert Ruth Spencer sat down with an executive from DTE on their behalf.

She asked the Vice-President of Distribution Operations Trevor Lauer if the residents' count was accurate.

"Our records show that the customers lost power five times in 2013 and they've lost power 4 times so far in 2014. Still not an acceptable number of outages," he told Spencer.

Whatever the exact number of outages, it's clear these neighbors are worried they can lose problem at any time.

"We kind of live on pins and needles here," said Richmond. "People can't leave, people can't go on vacations."

They worry what will happen to their sump pumps, pets, and other things if they're not home when the power cuts out. "It's just this lingering, haunting thing that is below you at all times," added Donald Richmond of Ortonville.

Local 4's Consumer Expert Ruth Spencer asked, "What would you say to folks who say, 'Hey, we're afraid to leave our homes for fear the power's going to go out?"

"I don't know how I'd respond to that. Power outages tend to be very short in nature," answered Trevor Lauer, Vice-President of Distribution Operations.

The December ice storm left the neighborhood without power for seven days. Lauer says there are lingering problems from that storm that need to be fixed. He also admitted these neighbors are living on what DTE calls a "high defect circuit."

He also says part of the problem is the area is filled with trees. While the trees add beauty to the neighborhood, they can also cause interference with the proper flow of power. "When you live in heavily treed areas, sometimes you will have outages because of the trees," said Lauer.

He said DTE has been aggressive about trimming trees wherever possible, but pointed out state law forbids the utility from cutting trees on private property. Lauer told Ruth to the Rescue, the company would work with customers who give permission to remove trees, if those trees actually threaten the power lines.

Power Out, Frustration Grows, Service Complaints

Neighbors say losing power is just the start of their problems. They say during outages DTE gives them conflicting information and shows no compassion about the cost of the outages.

"It was quite expensive. we spent over $300 just in gas during all these power outages, and DTE gave us $25 of credit on our bill ... I think $25 a day would be nice," said Sandy Harper of Ortonville.

"I got the run around so bad, I got so frustrated, I started crying started breaking down," Janette Biel of Ortonville told Ruth to the Rescue.

Lauer says he's reviewed the customer service calls to this neighborhood. "Times like this can be tense for everybody right? A lot of pressure on everybody, especially over the holiday storm. Everyone wanted to be with their families," he said.

Other residents complained about inaccurate estimates of when the power would actually be restored. They felt deadlines were set and missed over and over and over again. Even worse, residents say the online apps that are supposed to provide updates weren't accurate.

"We would get messages saying the power was back on when it wasn't. That happened quite a few times during that outage, " said Nancy Doyle of Ortonville.

On that issue, Lauer says DTE must improve the time estimates it gives for power restoration. He says the company is hampered in that area because the circuit does not have Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or so-called "Smart Meters."

He says once the area has AMI, it will be easier to give more accurate answers about when the power will be, or has been, restored.

"Ninety-percent of our estimates are correct, but for the ten percent of people that don't have correct estimates, that's not a good experience,"said Trevor Lauer, DTE's Vice-President of Distribution Operations. He told Ruth to the Rescue all of DTE's customers should have the AMI system by the end of 2015.

Solution To Stop Outages

DTE has outlined a plan of attack that should improve power reliability on this particular circuit.

*DTE will be replacing overhead wires on the circuit to improve power quality.
*The company will do tree trimming in the area to reduce the impact of tree interference.
*DTE will be sectionalizing the circuit to reduce the number of people affected by future outages.
*It will continue monitoring the circuit for more possible upgrades.
*Customer service will notify residents 48 hours in advance of any planned outages caused by the ongoing improvements.

"These customers will see a much different experience on their circuit starting this spring," Lauer told Ruth to the Rescue. He says the improvements to the circuit will start when the snow and ice clear, hopefully in April.

Ruth to the Rescue provided DTE with a list of all the residents who've complained about the series of outages. DTE says it has reached out to about 50 customers to talk about improvements to the system's reliability. The communication has taken place via letter, phone, and personal meetings with DTE engineers.

Residents are hopeful that the extra attention will lead to positive changes, but feel it's hard to trust DTE after the past few months.

"We have to break down that mistrust and make sure that, as we try to communicate, they're also hearing what we're trying to say so that it's an effective communication," said Trevor Lauer, DTE's Vice-President of Distribution Operations.

If you have power problems to report you can call 1-800-477-4747.