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CONSUMERS : Utilities Are Starting to Adjust to the Two-Worker Household

Times Staff Writer

As more and more Americans enter the work force--64.7% of all households in the country were employed full time last year--scheduling appointments for essential services at home has become a headache that won’t go away. Consumers can’t be in two places at once, so why can’t utilities make personal, time-specific appointments?

In some cases, Southern California utilities--the gas, phone, electric and water companies--are trying to do just that.

The Southern California Gas Co. is formulating plans to provide additional services to consumers by 1990--an expansion of services that would include extension of weekday working hours to provide service from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and to include Saturday as a regular work day.

Gas company spokesmen say they feel “increased work hours and time of dayscheduling is needed because of the growth of two-worker families.”

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And many smaller companies, such as Pasadena Water & Power and the City of Santa Monica’s water division, have fewer customers and are able to offer specific time appointments now, according to their representatives.

But the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which regulates utilities, does not require utilities to set up time-specific appointments for consumers. “We do get complaints from people asking why the utilities can’t do that (specific appointment scheduling), but we tell the people to take that issue up with the specific utility,” said Duane Filer, supervisor of the PUC’s telecommunications unit of consumer affairs in Los Angeles.

“It’s difficult from a scheduling process to meet specific time frames, said Gary Lambeth, customer service operations manager for the gas company, which is responsible for 4.3 million meters in Southern California, serving about 14 million people. “But we have a pretty flexible schedule except at peak times, like now when the “pilot load” is just starting because people want furnaces on.”

Even now, Lambeth added, the gas company tries “to provide four-hour service windows, scheduling either before noon or after one.”

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Regarding the extensions of hours under consideration at the gas company, Lambeth foresees that the company “might even offer (specific time appointments) for a charge . . . The four-hour window service is free of charge, but people might prefer to pay a premium for special service.”

The Next Best Thing

For the time being, if you simply cannot be home for the service visit, most utilities suggest the next best thing is to arrange for a neighbor, relative, landlord or apartment manager on hand to let in the service technician.

The Southern California Gas Co. is the only major utility that still includes free home service to customers, going out to check on the safety of any gas-burning piece of equipment. Its repair persons turn on pilot lights, adjust malfunctioning furnaces, air conditioners and stoves.

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Gas company representatives don’t do major repairs, but do perform many minor ones. “We have nuts, bolts screws and hardware,” Lambeth said. “We take a look at the appliance for them and about 80% of the calls we can handle.”

Regarding service appointments, “Our goal is not to have somebody waiting all day,” said Ed Freudenburg of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “We know how that is. We’ve all been through it.”

Currently, DWP offers customers either morning or afternoon appointments--mostly to check accuracy of meters or install new ones--but will give the customer the phone number of the field office that services his/her area “so they can probably get the time to within an hour or two. If the person just can’t make it any other time, he can request the first appointment of the day,” said Freudenburg.

Sometimes DWP repair persons “work on to 6 p.m.,” Freudenburg said, “but as a general policy we don’t.” There are, of course, 24-hour crews for emergency situations, just as there are for the other utilities.

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Practice Discontinued

DWP used to repair customer’s electric ranges and water heaters, but that practice was discontinued March 1, 1977.

Southern California Edison, which serves 3.7 million consumers, also stopped similar electric repair service for customers a number of years ago.

“If a customer has a question about the bill, if it’s very high, and it appears an investigation is necessary, we put them in touch with the location that serves them and try our best to accommodate them,” said Southern California Edison spokeswoman Jane Ritter. “We have morning or afternoon appointments, if it is necessary for the customer to be there, and that’s not too common.”

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For the telephone companies, in addition to the latest technology, which limits the need for many house calls, there is also the matter of deregulation.

Since 1984, phone companies are not responsible for the wiring inside your home, only for their wires coming to the house. They also don’t repair phones anymore. That job is handled by subsidiaries, which have you bring in or send in defective equipment, or by the private firms which sell phones.

However, both GTE and Pacific Bell, which service the majority of Southern California phone customers, offer maintenance programs for inside wiring.

Generally, representatives of the utilities who service Southern California insist that they try as hard as possible to accommodate customers’ needs in scheduling appointments, but that making a time-specific commitment is difficult because their service technicians can never be sure how long previous jobs will take.

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“We’ve tried a great number of times (in past years) to make specific appointments,” said Tom Leweck, public affairs director of GTE California, which supplies phone service to 2.9 million customers--from Santa Barbara County south to San Bernardino. “But it’s difficult. You never quite know when you go out on a job how long that job is going to take. A dentist knows it takes half an hour to fill a cavity, or a barber, half an hour to cut hair, but you don’t know what problems you may get when you go out on this (phone) job.”

Most GTE offices, according to Leweck, deal only with a.m. or p.m. appointments, but many customers ask for the first appointment in the morning, so that they will be able to get to work on time or be only a little bit late to their job.

Pacific Bell’s Lissa Zanville said that “the majority of (phone) work can be completed without going into somebody’s home, except to add new jacks or additional phone lines.” According to Zanville, Pacific Bell installs service to an average 55,000 new residence customers each month, except between June and September, when the average jumps to 70,000. But most do not require a house visit. If a house call is required, Pac Bell will give you a morning or afternoon appointment, she said. Customers should call a week ahead to schedule and try not to ask for Friday, the busiest day.

“We are experimenting a little on the business side,” Zanville admitted. “We’re making more specific (time) appointments for business customers to see how it works. It’s a real possibility we could expand (that service) to homes.”

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