Hocon’s Hocus-Pocus

The other day, a Westport resident turned on her oven. A stench “like rotten avocados and burning pineapple” wafted through her home.

She called Hocon. They sent a “thorough and considerate” technician. Within 20 minutes, he determined there was no leak.

That’s the good news.

Unfortunately, the reader writes:

A week later I received a bill for over $470. It was $199 for the Hocon rep visit, $225 for an emergency, $18 for a gas surcharge, plus a surcharge for something else I was too stunned to memorize.

Days later, I learned that our local fire departments check out gas leaks for free.

But the person on the phone at Hocon never mentioned that, or anything about extra emergency charges. They just sent someone over.

The company president writes on Hocongas.com: “It is our hope to provide you with a level of service that is beyond your expectations, in line with what my dad always strived to achieve.”

Goal: achieved. The invoice was Way. Beyond. Expectations.

Excellent service — no complaints there. But a 20-minute visit, 10 minutes of driving at most, and a bill for almost $500? I understand there’s a level of expertise here, but seriously? (Don’t forget, our expert fire department is free.)

I’m thinking (for a hot nanosecond) it’s my fault for not asking about fees in advance. But I didn’t think I’d have to. Experience has taught me there’s typically a fee of $100. Maybe $150.

Then I realize, horrified: I’m victim-blaming myself. They’re the large company. I’m the paying customer. It’s their responsibility to be transparent.

We could easily assume there’s no fee if they don’t tell us there’s a fee. But society has taught us to quietly pay any invoice we receive. Hocon — and many other companies  — make a lot of money because of this.

To be sure I hadn’t overlooked anything, I poke around their website. No fees are listed anywhere.

I call an employee, asking, “Where can I find the fees?” Her response: “I don’t really know.”

I email the president (let’s call him “Dave”): “Where can I find a list of fees? Your employee doesn’t even know.”

Days later I receive a response from the general manager of a Hocon office: “Our fee schedule is posted in the office as required.” (Then he dismisses the clueless employee as possibly new and “flustered.”)

Fun! A trip to the Hocon office! But when can I come? I have to email the GM to find out.

He writes, “We have some availability later this week or anytime next week.” (M-F, 8:30-4:30).

The Hocon office is at 33 Rockland Road in South Norwalk.

Sounds like Hocon is taking advantage of an antiquated law (policy?), writing their fees on a scrap of paper and taping it to an office wall. They can probably count on one hand how many residents know about the posting, and even fewer who have seen it. That gives Hocon freedom to charge whatever they want to. We’ll blindly pay it.

President Dave further writes:“As a kid, I grew up listening to [Dad] tell me about taking care of the customer.” You mean taking advantage of a crazy old policy to ensure customers are unaware of your ever-increasing rates?

Consider the following scenario – a long-time customer who has never missed a payment:

I ask Dave to post his fees on his newfangled “internet site.” It would be a super easy way to take that scary first step into the 21st century!

But I haven’t heard from him.

If he really wants to help his customers, he could tell them to call the local fire department for emergencies. He could put his fees on the site so we can make informed decisions — or, better, question why they need a full $18 to drive 10 minutes to our home on top of a $225 emergency fee?

But he won’t. That would be bad business!

If you’d like to know what you’re expected to pay — and you prefer to not schedule an appointment and drive to the Hocon office to view the fee poster on a mutually convenient time during your work day — please email him and ask him to be transparent. Put fees on the site, in an easily located spot.

His email is dgable@hocongas.com.

(“06880” aims for much better customer service. After all, we’re entirely reader-supported. Please click here to help.)

17 responses to “Hocon’s Hocus-Pocus

  1. Don’t pay the bill and switch to Gault.
    It’s not the fee that is so off putting, it’s the not posting it on the internet.
    BTW, 18 bucks for the driving time is peanuts…at 5.50 or 6.00 a gallon for diesel fuel, you got a transport bargain; just not published one.

  2. This is, unfortunately, not surprising based on our experience. 10+ years ago, Hocon billed us $5/gallon for a large propane delivery when prices were <$2/gallon. When I called the Hocon office, they said it was a mistake and adjusted the price. The next bill arrived and it was also for $5/gallon. I called them and they told me it was a mistake, to which I responded that you get to use that excuse once. The second time is when you’re trying to cheat your customers. They adjusted the price again but we switched companies, choosing Leahy’s, which offers great service and non-Westport pricing (a bit of trivia; the Leahy family used to own the Danbury Fair grounds and their location is across the road from what is now the shopping mall). We’ve been very happy with Leahy’s ever since switching and highly recommend them.

  3. Darryl Evanson

    It was the customer’s fault to not ask what the charge would be in advance, BUT Hocon is now dead to me as a gas co. option because they certainly took advantage of this situation by charging a crazy amount. Bad publicity, yet they deserve every bit of it.

  4. Diane Yormark

    I have been happy with the Rural Gas company for years…switch and show these ba…rds they can’t get away with price gouging

  5. Larry Weisman

    I too had an unpleasant experience with Hocon. Without notice the allowed my propane tanks to run dry because, they claimed, I owed them $200, which had in fact been paid. But whether or not it had been paid, their action was unwarranted. I switched my account the next day.

  6. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Scary story. I wonder what the “root cause” of the malodorous odor was. Should’ve called Vice President Harris. She does root causes for free. And I’m sure the WFD is now going to be very pleased when they start getting calls to respond to “check this out” for every sulfurous odor emanating from every orifice in every Westport home. Was it a leaky gas line, a cow fart from the few token bovines still residing at Nyala Farm or switching to a vegan diet featured in 06880 from that trendy new health food restaurant down on Main Street where the Y used to be. Life in Westport is always exciting.

  7. It’s hard to believe, but this horror story is an argument FOR state regulation of all utilities. No, investor-owned gas companies can’t get away with any of this stuff under CT’s PURA regulations.

  8. Unlike the “gas company” in most places, propane and fuel oil, are not regulated utilities. So safety, as well as price, is your responsibility.

    I recall that 15+ years ago, the propane companies did not even pull building permits before installing tanks, piping and appliances (probably less likely on new houses.).

    With fuel oil tanks and lines there is no periodic inspection done by most oil companies — even if you have a service contract — and the cleanup costs of a leak are enormous and usually not covered by insurance.

    So if your house uses oil or propane, you need to know exactly where tanks and lines are (often underground) and have them inspected and maintained regularly.

  9. Something quite common in new homes really scares me: propane (and natural gas) furnaces in the attic, which may be well-sealed off from the house so the smell of leaking gas may not be noticeable.

    And, unlike a basement, you’re rarely up there so less likely to notice a small leak before it turns into a big one.

    Propane is scariest because, unlike natural gas, it’s heavier than air, so sinks down into the house where an explosion’s more likely to hurt or kill you.

    • Is the logic for putting the furnace in the attic that it’s protected from potential basement flooding? Is it an energy efficiency thing? I know some of the new high efficiency furnaces have some unique requirements for exhaustion.

      I would imagine such installations would pass our town building inspectors (otherwise the house couldn’t be occupied), so I’m guessing there’s some rationale and sign-off for this approach (especially with regulations being much tighter these days).

      • The builders who do this say that In a big house, it’s more energy efficient to put smaller furnaces right near where the heat and a/c is needed, so less heat is lost in the ductwork. I think they also like not having to deal with ducts going up inside the walls.

        • But if they were really concerned about energy efficiency they’d be installing heat pumps.

          • Yup. I gotta tell you… these days I have a hard time distinguishing between what is legitimately efficient/eco friendly, or whether it’s just a cost saving measure (or a marketing measure) masquerading as an eco friendly measure…

  10. Stephanie Bass

    And I gave a story for you: the details are different but I have been (NOTE: Dan will try really really hard not to go in auto crude language my MO after being) taking advantage of by HVAC guy: Paid $13,000 for new furnace and AC system during lockdown; cost $4600 to get it fixed and working; paid Hector Sanchez for new steps and walkways after I fell and broke my leg…. Wait: 2 more being taken advantage of scenarios… and I am smart and tough and just tired. The latest is …. More details. I don’t know if it is women or a class thing; I think it is just the climate of take advantage of consumer. And Eversource raising $4; the bill with lists jf costs their lawyers have wangled from the government; Verde letter this week: electricity up from 8.99 to 14.89 a unit when every other source mysteriously raised to 15.WE ARE SCREWED (sorry Dan), no explanation and signed Warmest regards….and no one kissing us.

  11. Sorry – this is probably “TMI” – but one reason most Westport folks are still using dirty fuel oil (vs heat pumps) is the obscenely high electric rate.

    Eversource, as of last month, charges over 26 cents per kilowatt hour, while Duke Energy a far better and more reliable utility down here in NC charges just over 9.4 cents.

    With the heat pump, our energy bill (2,400 SF house) averages about $200 a month including winter heating and summer A/C. Even in the most extreme months it doesn’t never goes above $230. And this is in a 40 year old house. A new, better insulated and tighter sealed house would be quite a bit less.

    • Bill Strittmatter

      Heat pumps are clearly the best answer “down south”. However, they don’t really work well when the outside temperature falls below around 40 degrees at which point some sort of back-up is needed whether electric, gas or oil. When that kicks in, gas or oil tend to be more efficient and generally less expensive than electric even when electricity prices are relatively low. Having said that, heat pump with gas backup is a good option “up north”.

  12. I have a heat pump with Nat gas backup and it works incredibly well in Westport. The gas backup doesn’t kick in below 40 degrees, it’s more like sub-20 degrees. I can probably count on one hand the days per year it’s needed. And this is confirmed by my gas bill which barely rises in the winter. Heat pumps are perfect “up north” but only if it’s a new build. Retrofitting could be pricy.