If you receive notice that your utilities will be shut off, you need to act quickly to protect your rights. It is more difficult to get service turned back on after shut off. No matter who is responsible to pay for the utilities, a utility company cannot cut off service without the following:
- A 10-day written notice before shut-off
- An attempt to contact you or an adult in your household personally at least 3 days before the
- An attempt to contact you or an adult in your household at the time of the shut-off
- During December to March, if the company has not made personal contact prior to termination, it must post a notice in an obvious place at your house saying your utilities will be shut off and they must give you at least 48 hours’ notice
After a 10-day notice has been given to a tenant by a utility company, the company has 60 days to turn off the tenant’s utility without another 10-day notice.
If the utility company turned off service without prior notice, it has broken the law. Contact the utility company and demand that the service be restored immediately. Ask to speak to the supervisor and write down the name of the person you speak with. If necessary, call the Public Utility Commission at 1-800-692-7380. If you need legal assistance, consult a private attorney or call your local Legal Aid office.
Steps to Avoid a Utility Shut-Off
It is your responsibility to contact the utility company immediately with any billing dispute or payment problem in order to avoid having your utilities shut off.
- Contact the utility company at the phone number on the notice. Ask to set up a payment agreement. The length of payment agreements is determined by law. If your household is low income, make sure you inform the utility company as there are longer payment agreements available for low income households. The utility company is only required to provide you with one payment agreement for the same debt. If you do not believe a utility is providing a payment term you can report them to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) at 1-800-692-7380. The PUC can issue a payment agreement.
- Show that you paid your bill or show that there is a disagreement (dispute) about your bill. If you dispute your bill or disagree with the meter readings, you must notify the utility company and tell them that you dispute the bill. Your service will not be able to be shut off during the period that you are waiting for a response to your inquiry or dispute. You will still be obligated to pay all utility bills that you do not dispute, including any bills you are receiving while the complaint is ongoing. If you and your utility company cannot agree, call the Public Utility Commission (PUC) at 1-800-692-7380.
- The utility company cannot shut off your service if you obtain medical certification that someone in your home is seriously ill or someone has a medical condition that will be made worse by a shut off. After you tell the utility about this medical condition, you will need to get a doctor or nurse practitioner to call or send a statement to the utility company confirming the medical condition. The shut off can be stopped for a maximum of 30 days at a time. The medical certification can be renewed two additional times. If your service has already been shut off, this will require the utility company to restore your service. You still have to make payment arrangements on any undisputed utility bills.
- If you are a victim of domestic violence and have a valid Protection from Abuse Order (PFA), there are special procedures and protections for handling your utility service. Call your utility company to inform them of your PFA so these special procedures and protections can put in place for you. You may be required to provide a copy of the PFA to the utility company.
- If you live in a low income household, there may be special arrangements to help you – See Trouble Paying Utility Bills for information on programs that help low income customers.
What if my Landlord is Responsible for Paying the Utility Bills?
If your landlord is responsible for paying for utility service and fails to pay the utility bill or if the landlord instructs the utility company to shut off your service, the Utility Services Tenants Right Act requires that you be notified by the utility company at least 30 days in advance.
Once the utilities have been shut off, the situation may become more complicated. First, attempt to have the landlord make the necessary payments immediately to restore your service. If the
landlord does not make the necessary payments to restore service, you and any other tenants may have to make the payments in order to get the service restored. Any bill you pay to get the service restored can be deducted from your rental payments. You also may be able to have the utility service transferred to your name. However, be careful—you may need to put down a sizable deposit and it may also affect your lease. Seek legal counsel as soon as possible if you do this.
Getting Utility Service Back On
Between April 1 and November 30, if you pay the amount owed in full or make a payment agreement (if eligible) and meet any other conditions required by the utility company, your service must be restored within 3 days.
Between December 1 and March 31, your service must be restored within 24 hours if you pay the amount owed in full or make a payment agreement (if eligible) and meet any other conditions required by the utility company.
Who Is Responsible for Paying the Utility Bill?
Whether a lease is written or verbal, both parties must agree on which party is responsible for paying the utility bills. The tenant may be responsible for electric and gas while the landlord is responsible for water and sewer. If your lease is in writing, make sure that the lease outlines who is responsible to pay for utilities.
Does There Have to Be an Individual Meter for Each Apartment?
If the tenant is responsible for paying the utility bill, the Pennsylvania Utility Code requires the landlord to ensure that each residential unit is individually metered. This means that there cannot be a “foreign load” on the tenant’s utility bill—the tenant’s wiring cannot include the common areas or another apartment. If there are three units in a building, then there must be three separate meters for each of the apartments and a separate meter for the common areas.
If a rental unit is not individually metered, then the landlord is responsible for the utility bill—including any past due balance. The utility company should not allow the tenant to be billed for the service until it is confirmed that the wiring has been corrected.
Can My Landlord Retaliate Against Me for Asserting My Rights Regarding Utilities?
There is a provision within the Pennsylvania Utility Code that makes it unlawful for a landlord to retaliate against a tenant for exercising their rights under the Pennsylvania Utility Code. Any landlord, agent or employee of the landlord who threatens or retaliates against a tenant can be liable for damages equal to two months’ rent or the actual damages sustained by the tenant, whichever is greater, and the costs of suit and reasonable attorneys’ fees.
There is an anti-retaliation provision in the law that presumes illegal retaliation if an owner seeks to raise the rent or evict a tenant within 6 months of the tenant exercising their rights under the Pennsylvania Utility Code except in cases of nonpayment of rent. Note that these rights cannot be taken away even if the lease says you have given away these rights.
Can My Landlord Shut Off My Utilities Because I Am Behind in Rent?
Your landlord is not legally allowed to interfere with your utility service, even if you are behind in your rent. Even when the water, sewer, gas or electric is included in your monthly rental payments, a landlord cannot legally shut off your utility service. This may be considered an illegal attempt to evict you without going through proper legal procedures and if this happens or if the landlord threatens this, you should consult an attorney or call legal aid. See Q and A Eviction: My Landlord Has Threatened to Lock Me Out.
Trouble Paying Utility Bills
If you have not paid, or if you are behind in paying, your utility bills, the utility company can shut off the service to your rental property after giving proper notice. See Utility Shut-Offs. However, even if you cannot pay the whole amount owed, you can take steps to keep your utility service on.
- Electric, gas and some water companies have Customer Assistance Programs (CAPs). CAPs are available to low-income customers who have difficulty paying their full monthly bill. These programs 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.
- 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.
- You may be eligible for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program may be able to help you in paying your utility bills or other costs of keeping warm (space heaters and home repairs). The Department of Public Welfare operates three energy programs— the Energy Assistance Cash Grant, the Crisis Grant, and the Crisis Grant Weatherization Repair Assistance. If you are experiencing a heating crisis, you may be eligible for benefits through the LIHEAP crisis program. Emergency situations include broken heating equipment or leaking lines that must be fixed or replaced, lack of fuel, a main heating source or second heating source (a source that is used to operate the main heating source or used if the main heating source is not working) that has been completely shut-off, and danger of being without fuel (less than a 15-day supply) or of having utility service terminated (received a notice that service will be shut off within the next 60 days)
- 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. Call your company to see if you are eligible.
- 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
- The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has many resources to help keep individuals and families warm during Pennsylvania winters. Visit their website at www.puc.state.pa.us to learn more.
- If you live outside of Philadelphia, visit the $1 Energy Fund at www.dollarenergy.org or contact your utility company for information on programs that may help you pay your utility bill.
- If you live in Philadelphia, visit the Utility Emergency Services Fund (UESF) at www.uesfacts.org or call (215) 972-5170 for information on a program that may help you pay your utility bill