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Q and A with Jason Merkel on NorthWestern’s change in gas services

Oct 01, 2020 |

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NorthWestern Energy service technicians are no longer responding to customer’s requests to light pilots, no heat, no hot water, appliance checks or routine CO (carbon monoxide) checks. This change started Oct. 1.

We want our employees to understand why the company has made these changes, so we asked Jason Merkel, general operations manager, to shed a little more light on the decision.

Amie: We told customers that changing technology was the main reason we are changing our policy. Could you give us more insight on what you mean?

Jason: Most equipment installed today contains control board and hot surface igniters that are specific to a make or model. Most appliance contractors commit to a certain brand or two so they can both purchase parts and maintain the trouble shooting skills and test equipment necessary to adequately service this equipment.

As often reported by our serviceman, customers call and wait for us to respond and the servicemen determines there is an operational problem that they do not have the parts to fix. They then tell the customer they will have to call their HVAC contractor, leaving the customer in the same position they were in and more time has passed. Our servicemen don’t appreciate being put into an ever-increasing position that they can’t help.

Amie: Is this also a liability concern?

Jason: Yes. When we go in the home to address a concern on the customer’s side of the meter, we are taking the risk that we may be held responsible for problems arising from customer’s equipment or systems, whether we provide service or not – beyond NorthWestern’s natural gas system. That means we increase the likelihood that the company will be involved in litigation.

This liability greatly reduces if we stay focused to the gas delivery equipment owned by the company.

Amie: You mentioned to me that this decision is also for the safety of our employees. Could you explain how going into customer homes could be dangerous?

Jason. Over my career, I have been invited to go with servicemen to specifically witness the work conditions in some of these homes. Appalling and unsanitary living conditions and equipment located in unsafe crawl spaces without adequate work space are all conditions our serviceman faced regularly, as these are premises that are often plagued with appliance failures. HVAC contractors and others could choose whether or not to provide service. Before this change, we did not have a choice.

Amie: What are our service technicians still doing?

Jason: Our gas personnel are very skilled, and our on-going training continues to support their ability to be the best professionals in our business. I know this because it is impossible to hire externally and obtain the broad skills and abilities of our gas personnel. I am incredibly proud of them.

We will continue to respond to emergency CO, gas odors and hit line calls regarding customer’s gas service, including the meter and the infrastructure that runs to customer meters. Our service technicians will also provide line checks and pressure checks from outside customer homes to assure safety.

We can address it in a number of ways. We can ask the customer if they are comfortable assuring their equipment is operational. Many customers are, or understand they have electronic ignition equipment, etc. If they are not comfortable, and only in the case of an outage, our people will continue to be trained to perform the relights, and operational checks for electronic equipment.  

Gas outages constitute a very small percentage of the current total order types that put our serviceman in customer homes.

This was not a decision we took lightly, and gave much consideration to the change in service and how it impacts our customers.

 

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