What Every Utility Customer Should Know
Authored By: Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, Inc.
IF YOU have complaints about utility service, or if the company decides to shut off your service, or if the company refuses to give you service, Public Utility Commission (PUC) rules may protect you. This is true only if your utility company is covered by the PUC. Most are.
* This pamphlet deals only with utility companies covered by the PUC.
Customer Assistance Programs
Electric, gas and some water companies have Customer Assistance Programs (CAPs). CAPs are available for low-income customers who have difficulty paying their full monthly bill. Although each company's CAP is called by a different name such as 'CAP Rate', 'CRP, or 'On-Track', they each provide discounts to the monthly bill as well as past debt forgiveness in exchange for the customer making regular monthly payments. Ask your company if you are eligible.
Budget payment plans
These utility companies must allow you to pay your bills on a budget plan, so that your winter payments are not extremely high while your summer payments are low. Under a budget plan, your payments are averaged so that each monthly payment is the same.
Shut-offs (Termination of Service)
If you have not paid, or if you are behind in paying, your utility bills, the company can shut off the service to your home. But even if you cannot pay the whole amount owed, you can take steps to keep your utility service on. Here are some things you should know.
First . . .
The company cannot cut off service without
- a 10-day written notice before shut-off;
- an attempt to contact you or an adult in your household personally at least three days before the shut-off;
- an attempt to contact you or an adult in your household at the time of the shut-off. During December through March, if the company has not made personal contact prior to the termination, it must post a notice in an obvious place at your house saying your utilities will be shut off in not less than 48 hours.
Second . . .
You may be able to avoid a shut off after these notices are given by contacting the utility company at the phone number in the notice. You should ask to set up a payment agreement to pay your bill in installments. The length of the payment agreement is determined by law. However the utility company is required to provide you only one payment agreement for the same debt. After you have contacted the utility, if you think the utility is not providing payment terms required by law you can call the PUC toll free at 1 (800) 692 7380. The PUC may provide you with one PUC issued payment agreement in addition to that provided by the company.
Third . . .
Your service may not be shut off if you can show you paid the bill or if there is a disagreement (dispute) about the bill. If you do not agree with the bill or your meter readings, you must call or write the utility company and tell them you dispute the bill. Service cannot be shut off until the dispute is settled, provided that you arrange to pay any part of the bill that you do not dispute. But to protect your rights, contact the PUC immediately if you and your utility company cannot agree.
In other words, if you were not able to settle your dispute with your utility company, you can make an informal complaint by calling the PUC toll free at (800) 692 7380 or by writing to them at Bureau of Consumer Services, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, P. O. Box 3265, Harrisburg, PA 17120. Use of the toll free number, before termination, will provide you with immediate protection against shut off.
If you are not satisfied with the decision on your informal complaint, you can file a formal written complaint with the PUC. You should receive a formal complaint form from the PUC when it sends you its decision on your informal complaint. If not, you can get a formal complaint form by contacting the PUC.
Your utilities cannot be shut off during the entire time from when you tell your utility company of your disagreement until a final decision is made, provided you arrange to pay that part of your bill(s) that you don't dispute.
Fourth . . .
Your service may not be shut off if someone in your home is seriously ill or has a medical problem that will get worse if you lose utility service. After telling the company about this health problem, you must act promptly to get a doctor or nurse practitioner to call or send a statement to the utility company about this person's health condition. This will prevent a shut off of service or restore service that has been shut-off. But you still must arrange to pay any undisputed utility bills you receive.
If you receive notice that your utilities will be shut off, act quickly to protect your rights. It may be harder to get service turned back on after a shut off. If you run into problems acting on your own or if you need some information, contact the PUC, a private attorney or your local Legal Services office.
Help in paying your utility bills
You may be able to get help in paying your utility bills and other costs of keeping warm (for example, warm clothing, space heaters, or house repairs needed to keep you war) under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). You may be eligible for either or all of the three energy programs run by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. These programs are the Energy Assistance Cash Grant, the Crisis Grant and the Crisis Grant Weatherization Repair Assistance.
To apply or for more information about LIHEAP, contact your local County Board of Assistance or the Community Action Program serving your area.
Each electric and gas company has a Hardship Fund to which low-income customers may apply in order to avoid shut-off or to have service reconnected. Although each company's Hardship Fund may be called by a different name such as 'Dollar Energy', 'UESF' or 'MEAF', they are all funded for the purpose of assisting low-income customers pay keep utility service. Call your company to see if you are eligible.
Help in reducing your bills
The Weatherization Assistance Program and the Residential Low Income Usage Reduction Program are free services provided to eligible low income utility customers. Services provided may include a home energy survey, weatherization services and usage reduction education. Contact your utility company or the Community Action Program serving your area in order to apply or to get more information.
If your case involves a threatened or actual shut off of utilities, you should contact the PUC at (800) 692 7380. If you have some other utility problem that you can't work out with the company (for example, your bills are unusually high or you can't get utility service), call (800) 782 1110. If you need legal assistance, contact your local legal services office or a private attorney. The Office of Consumer Advocate at (800) 684-6560, may also be able to assist you.
THESE ARE only some of the rights you have as a consumer of utility services.
The law often changes. Each case is different. This pamphlet is meant to give you general information and not to give you specific legal advice.
Please use the information found in this brochure carefully since the law is constantly changing and the information may not accurately reflect any changes in the law that occurred following the creation and publication of the brochure.
Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, Inc.
118 Locust Street
Harrisburg, PA 17101
This public information pamphlet was edited by Neighborhood Legal Services Association and produced by Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, Inc.