The mother-in-law, a child of the Depression, used to remind us, “You watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” Sometimes we RV folk have a tendency to let the details—the pennies—slide in favor of enjoying less stressful times. But pennies add up, and in today’s tough economy, a little penny watching can stretch the overall RV travel dollar.
A few months ago a new law in Arizona reinforced the “watch your pennies” view for RVers. That law says that RV park owners cannot charge their tenants more than what an average area resident would be charged for electricity. Was that law really needed? And how might that law—or similar ones in other states—affect you?
The issue of possible price gouging came to light in an official sense back in 2006. Arizona’s chief utility regulator, the state Corporation Commission, found that some RV parks in Yuma were charging tenants double the amount that park owners were actually paying for the “juice” themselves.
Eventually, a bill was passed through the legislature cutting the ability of park owners to “resell” electricity at a profit. In mid-2008, the bill became law. To see if the law was working out, we did an informal survey of RV parks in areas of Arizona with high rates of RV tourism—the Phoenix metro area, and Quartzsite. The results were eye-opening. In the Phoenix area, electric rates charged tenants seemed to be in line with the new law. But in Arizona’s “outback,” Quartzsite, visitors faced a different picture.
In La Paz County, along Arizona’s “West Coast,” Quartzsite RV park patrons best be ready to part with the brass. There the prevailing residential electric rate charged by the local utility is just a tad over 8 cents per kilowatt-hour during the winter (tourist) season. Yet the majority of RV parks surveyed in town charged far more than that, none less than 16 cents, some as high as 18 cents for that same kilowatt. In Yuma, the story was largely the same, with some parks including electricity in their space rental rates, and others charging, typically 17 to 18 cents per kilowatt-hour. So what gives?
Part of the problem, says former Representative Marianne McClure (who sponsored the legislation), is fear on the part of RV park tenants to challenge their electric bills. Under the current law, an RV park tenant who feels overcharged can take the park owner to court. Should they win, the law allows the court to award repayment of the amounts in dispute. However, if the case is lost, the tenant is responsible for paying the park’s court costs. Not surprisingly, since the law has gone into effect, not one RV park tenant has filed suit over the matter.
Oddly enough, tenants in mobile home parks have the same protections under law but instead of having to take the park owner to court, they can ask the state to help them—at no charge. In a case decided in favor of the tenant, not only must park owners make amends for the overcharge on electricity, they must also award the tenant a free month of rent.
Some may wonder: Is it really worth all the hassle anyway? After all, what’s the quibble over say, nine cents a kilowatt-hour? To the individual tenant, perhaps, it doesn’t amount to much. If a winter visitor to Quartzsite stays for three months, uses three kilowatts a day, and is overcharged by 8 cents per metered hour, it only adds up to a bit over $21 over the stay. For the RV park owner, with say 70 spaces filled, it amounts to an additional $1,500 in the pocket, courtesy of his guests. Perhaps the principle of the matter is more important than the money.
We asked the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (AZARVC) for their thoughts on the matter. Past president John Thomson said the issue of electric charging is a touchy and difficult subject. Thomson says some interpret the new law to suggest tenants should pay no more than the “per kilowatt” charge, while in reality the utility companies add on for things like meter reading, billing and taxes. True enough, and such charges can add additional impact, particularly on smaller RV parks where less electricity is consumed. Nevertheless, the law allows a tack-on for “administrative costs” of billing tenants.
Thomson says only about a quarter of the state’s RV parks are members of the owners’ association; he feels most park owners simply aren’t aware of the new law. Quartzsite owners, however, should probably know—one of the local papers made a good-sized hue-and-cry over the matter last fall.
Power Where You Travel
What about states you might frequent? Washington doesn’t allow parks to resell electricity—it only allows RV park owners to recoup their electricity expenses. However the law does provide park owners the opportunity to tack on a flat administrative fee. “Let’s say $5 to $25 a month for billing each tenant for electricity service,” says Marilyn Meehan, a representative of the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission. Twenty-five bucks to have your meter read? Happily, in our checking with several RV parks in the Evergreen State we found none that took advantage of that option, and most seemed to be charging a fair rate for electricity.
On the other side of the U.S., Florida’s Public Service Commission has oversight over electric billing. A state expert says RV spaces are not usually individually metered, but rather a “master meter” for the park is read; park owners there are to spread the cost of electricity out over the tenants of the park so they make no profit on the power. In Florida, most parks get electricity at commercial rates, a much lower per unit charge than the residential rate. In practice, we found some park owners do use individual site meters—perhaps to more equitably divvy up the costs. Tenants with complaints about charges can go directly to the commission for help.
What to do? When calling to make a reservation, ask what you’ll be charged for electricity. Don’t settle for a routine, “A lot depends on how much electricity you use, most pay thus and so,” ask for the specific per kilowatt-hour charge. If you’re not sure about what state laws apply where you’re traveling, a good place to start is by doing an Internet search for “electric utility regulation” followed by the name of the state. If the utility regulator can’t tell you, they may be able to direct you to someone who can.
Depending on your viewpoint, the way electricity is charged at your favorite RV park might be just fine, a bit of an annoyance, or downright criminal. Much depends on your attitude, and your pocketbook.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.