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Heating checkups criticized

Questar plan may gouge customers, watchdog says

Utah's utility watchdog group is convinced Questar Gas Co.'s green-sticker campaign is full of hot air and may be gouging customers.

Questar launched the program in 1998 in response to lower heat compositions of natural gas supplies that eventually will be making their way into Wasatch Front homes.

Questar said Utahns should have gas-burning appliances adjusted by a licensed heating contractor, who would place a green sticker on the appliance when he was done. Without the adjustment, the company said, appliances could produce excess carbon monoxide.

But on Tuesday, the state Committee of Consumer Services said the initiative does not provide any additional safety benefits and is wasting consumers' money. A typical adjustment can cost anywhere from $50 to $200, according to the committee. Questar places the adjustment costs between $75 and $125.

"The committee remains unconvinced that Questar's green-sticker

program offers any real safety assurance to customers," said Reed Warnick, counsel for the committee. "And the committee is very concerned that Questar doesn't seem to know how many, or which, appliances need to be adjusted, or how many and which have been adjusted. The company doesn't appear to be adequately monitoring its own program."

Questar Gas spokesman Chad Jones said he was shocked that the committee questioned the value of the inspection program.

"The fact is that supplies are changing, and people need to have their appliances checked," Jones told the Deseret Morning News. "Virtually every expert witness, including their own, acknowledge it is a very real safety issue."

"The committee's actions seem calculated to undermine the company's efforts to protect customer safety," Jones said in a prepared statement.

Barrie McKay, Questar's director of regulatory affairs, told the committee on Tuesday that, without the adjustment, carbon monoxide output levels can exceed national standards.

However, McKay acknowl- edged that if gas appliances were properly ventilated, the safety issue really didn't pose a problem. In addition, McKay said that if appliances were installed in homes after May 1, 1998, technically the appliances did not need modification.

"Mr. McKay admitted today that many appliances don't need to be adjusted at all," Warnick said. "People are getting it done when they don't need to have it done. The other sad thing is even if this is a necessary safety program, it's not being carried out by Questar in any way where they can tell us where it's been done properly. Are the technicians that are doing it, doing it properly? How many places does it not need to be done? Who are the high-risk customers where it needs to be done first? They have not tracked it at all."

Julie Orchard, a spokeswoman for the Utah Public Service Commission, said the commission believes the green-sticker program is important. "It is a public health and safety issue," she said.

Warnick said he wholeheartedly supports the idea of regular inspection of gas appliances to make sure they are operating properly and safely, but the green-sticker program is something Questar locked itself into by deciding to transport a different composition of natural gas.

When Questar initiated the green-sticker campaign, it educated manufacturers, dealers and contractors about the pending changes. By September 2001, a public campaign was launched, but it was eclipsed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This month the company plans to inform customers in their monthly billing statements of a summer 2008 deadline for having appliances checked.

A carbon dioxide processing plant near Price is currently removing excess carbon dioxide from coal-bed methane gas, allowing natural gas to burn better in appliances in Wasatch Front homes.

The plant has allowed Questar more time in implementing its green-sticker campaign. However, the Utah Supreme Court recently rejected the $25 million cost of the plant from being passed on to Questar's customers.

As of June 2003, 24 percent of Questar's customers indicated their appliances had been adjusted, McKay said. That's up from 13 percent in the first quarter of 2002.


E-MAIL: danderton@desnews.com