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Included in the bill was a letter stating that the electronic transmitter on the Garcia's gas meter was faulty, causing it to send the wrong information to Questar. The meter, according to the utility, had underreported the amount of natural gas the couple had used by half, ever since they moved into their home two years ago.

"We paid our bill every month and gave them exactly what they said we owed," Lori Garcia said. "Now to have them come and say, well, 'You owe us this money because our equipment was faulty,' isn't right. We're not responsible for their mismanagement, or their faulty equipment."

About 500 Utah families are in the same predicament. Questar says that, on average, each family owes $1,200.

Dozens of customers have filed complaints with state utility regulators, arguing that because Questar never bothered to test its equipment for accuracy, the company should be responsible for its own mess and the $600,000 or so it claims it is owed.

"From what they told me there has been a 'transponder' on my meter for the past four years," said Art Wasik of Salt Lake City, who unexpectedly was hit with an extra $1,200 on his bill. "It is unbelievable that they could put a piece of new technology on someone's meter and not bother to even test it to see if it is operating properly."

Wasik, who lives on a fixed income, said, ''I'm going crazy trying to pay for higher-priced [gasoline], rising property taxes, and now this.''

As a cost-cutting measure, Questar four years ago began putting radio transmitters on all its meters. Those transmitters allowed laptop computers inside company trucks that were driven through a neighborhood to automatically read the meters on every home. The process eliminated the need for company employees to walk through and individually check each dwelling's meter.

"We've saved our customers millions of dollars," Questar Gas spokesman Chad Jones said earlier this week. "And when we were [reading meters] manually, we had much higher incidents of misreads and disputed bills."

In November, Questar started loading new software into the truck computers. The software for the first time was able to check the transmitters on individual meters to ensure they were accurately sending the correct information about gas usage.

Prior to that, the company would check a few days after installing the transmitters to see that they were operating, not whether they were accurately recording gas usage, Jones said.

Most were, but about 500 statewide weren't sending the right data, Jones said, adding that with only a few exceptions, those customers who are impacted have already been notified.

"They weren't malfunctioning. They just weren't set properly. We're sorry about that and are doing everything we can to work with our customers on this problem," Jones said.

Questar asserts that it is working individually with customers to set up payment plans or other arrangements. "We're not happy about this. We messed up. But we hope they [our customers] will understand," Jones said

Robert Slattery of Salt Lake City is not one of those. He is having a hard time figuring the whole thing out, especially given that after he contacted a Questar representative about the extra $370 that appeared on his November bill, Slattery contends he was told he should have recognized there was a problem years ago.

"I was told that I should have known when my bill went down, that something was wrong. But that was around the same time when I had a new furnace and extra insulation put in my house. It made sense to me that my bill would go down."

Lori Garcia said there was no way she and her husband could have known the transmitter on their gas meter was sending the wrong information.

"We had this home built and moved in two years ago. It was about the same-size house we had before, and the bill was about the same for both."

Of the more than two dozen Utahns who have filed complaints, a half-dozen have requested a formal hearing before the Public Service Commission. Questar's Jones said the utility anticipates those requests will be combined into one case.

Questar's position is that under rules set by the PSC, the company can go back 24 months to adjust a customer's bill after an underbilling is discovered. That includes problems related to its gas meters.

However, there are other provisions that may limit the company's ability to backbill for a shorter period of time - six months. And that question is one the PSC probably will take up.

How Questar's meter reading works:

* Radio transmitters on Questar's natural-gas meters send signals to laptop computers inside company trucks as they are driven through neighborhoods, detailing the amount of gas used in each home and eliminating the need for employees to walk to each meter.

To file a complaint

* If you have made contact with Questar but still are not satisfied, you can contact the Utah Division of Public Utilities at 801-530-7622 or 800-874-0904.

* A complaint also can be filed on the division's Web site at http://www.publicutilities.utah.gov.

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