(DNAINFO) By Jeff Mays
EAST VILLAGE — Con Edison discovered 150 instances of gas theft or diversion of services, such as tampering with wires, pipes or connections, last year after more than 9,000 investigations were conducted, DNAinfo New York has learned.
The utility has 1.1 million gas customers and uses tips from customers and a computer algorithm to find anomalies in the system.
The issue of illegal gas connections has come to the fore because investigators believe that an illegal gas hookup led to March’s deadly East Village explosion and building collapse that left two men dead.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office is investigating the fatal explosion. Con Edison is now working with the Manhattan DA, the Department of Investigations and the Department of Buildings to investigate illegal gas connections, sources said.
Con Edison says illegal gas hookups are uncommon in the five boroughs and that they have protocols in place to prevent the dangerous practice.
Meter readers and gas and electric mechanics are the first line of defense against illegal hookups and are trained to spot and report them.
“We rely on meter readers to tell us when they see something suspicious,” Con Ed spokeswoman Joy Faber said.
Con Ed also investigates tips from customers.
In addition, Con Ed has hired a vendor that uses an algorithm to determine “anomalies and unusual changes in energy consumption that might indicate theft of service,” said Faber.
But the agency may not be doing enough to stop illegal gas hookups, experts say.
“There are a hell of a lot more than 150 out of 1 million customers stealing gas,” said Mark McDonald, president of NatGas Consulting who also spent 20 years as a gas utility investigator for a company in Massachusetts. That’s a rate of 0.01 percent.
Con Ed’s findings average to three illegal gas hookups per year, per inspector, a figure that McDonald, found to be “quite low.”
By comparison, National Grid, which supplies natural gas to 1.2 million customers in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island discovered 500 instances of gas theft in 2014, said spokeswoman Karen Young.
That’s a rate of 0.04 percent.
“We investigate every reported tip and if theft of service is confirmed we take immediate action to make the situation safe and attempt to recover revenue for gas usage,” said Young.
The Department of Buildings found 226 violations of illegal or defective gas hookups in 2014 and 162 in 2013. The agency refers all illegal gas hookups they discover to Con Ed who makes a determination of whether to shut off the gas.
“It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of value and return for their investment. I’m not sure they are using all the tools they have because that number does seem quite low,” McDonald added about the number of illegal gas hookups discovered by Con Ed.
Representatives from Con Edison declined to discuss whether the number of illegal gas diversions and thefts discovered last year is low given the number of customers they serve.
But Con Ed officials said they believe the problem is not common and the numbers are proof.
The investigators from Con Ed’s Revenue Protection Unit found 1,800 cases of electrical theft or diversion last year out of 3.2 million electric customers.
Adam Forman, a research associate at the Center for an Urban Future, said Con Edison can do more to discourage the practice of stealing utilities.
Other northeastern utilities have programs where they allow landlords to finance expensive repairs to gas and water pipelines that are the responsibility of the building owner to discourage theft.
“There is a huge upfront cost of updating a 60-year-old gas line,” said Forman.
In the East Village explosion, Con Edison had conducted multiple inspections of the work a plumber did to provide gas to five apartments above the ground level sushi restaurant that Con Edison says was the only registered gas customer at the building.
The work failed inspection on the day of the explosion.
“When people conceptualize utility deliver they think Con Edison and National Grid but we need to think about the hundreds of thousands of landlords and homeowners behind the meters who are also responsible for the safety of our city,” said Forman.
McDonald said that other utilities also have programs where they reward workers with money for uncovering illegal connections.
At the utility he formerly worked for, inspectors would get a percentage of the money collected from commercial customers found to have been siphoning gas. It was wildly successful.
“This is not about money for the workers but for the safety of the public,” said McDonald.