Q: When can an electric or natural gas utility disconnect my service?
A: Electric and natural gas utilities are allowed to disconnect service when and if:
• you have failed to pay your bill and the utility has followed proper notification procedures and other requirements;
• you have moved from the premises or asked that service be disconnected;
• repairs are needed, including scheduled maintenance, or a dangerous condition exists; or
• you or someone in your household has tampered with company equipment or violated other utility regulations.
Disconnection for nonpayment can occur any time during the year, even if elderly or small children are in the home. You cannot, however, be disconnected or denied service based on the past due bills of a previous customer who no longer lives in the same household.
Q: What if a disconnection would be dangerous to the health and safety of someone in my home?
A: When disconnection of utility service would be especially dangerous to your health or the health of someone in your home or would prevent the operation of necessary medical or life-support equipment, certification by a medical professional can help to prevent a disconnection or to have services restored. Certification forms are valid for 30 days and each household can request up to three certifications in any 12-month period. Medical certification forms are available from the PUCO website, utility companies or many public health facilities. This certification will prevent a shutoff or restore service within 21 days of termination of service in certain circumstances.
Q: Must utilities take any steps before disconnecting a nonpaying customer?
A: Yes. Utilities must meet certain requirements to ensure you the opportunity to work out a payment plan and avoid losing your electric or natural gas service.
• You have at least 14 days to pay each month’s bill. If payment is not received by the time the next bill is generated, the utility can begin the disconnection process.
• The utility must notify you at least 14 days before disconnecting your service. This notice may either appear as a message on the bill or be sent separately.
• On the day of termination, a representative from the utility must try to contact you or another adult in your home personally before disconnecting your service. If a utility representative is unable to reach you or another adult by phone or in person, a written notice will be affixed to something in a visible location (such as your door) before disconnecting service.
• The utility can disconnect your service only during normal working hours. The company cannot disconnect service after 12:30 p.m. on a day when its offices are not open the next day.
• During the winter heating season (Nov. 1 – Apr. 15), the utility must make contact either with you or another adult at the premise at least 10 days before disconnection. Contact can be in person, over the telephone or via a hand-delivered written notice. This provides additional time for you to work out a payment plan.
Q: Can I get help with my bill and avoid disconnection?
A: Yes. Utilities are encouraged to work out an extended payment plan with you. If you face disconnection and cannot work out a payment plan, electric and natural gas utilities must make available the following assistance programs:
1) Your choice of one of the following plans:
A “one-ninth” plan that allows you to make nine equal monthly payments on the arrearages while paying current charges on a budget bill. The budget bill allows you to pay the same amount each month.
A “one-sixth” plan that allows you to pay one-sixth of past due charges in addition to the total amount of current charges each month for a period of six months.
A “one-third” plan that allows you to pay one-third of your total bill each month (past due amount plus current charges). All companies are required to offer the “one-third” plan during the winter heating season (Nov. 1 – Apr. 15).
2) PIPP Plus (Percentage of Income Payment Plan Plus) – allows income-eligible customers to pay a percentage of their monthly household income toward their energy bill. Households with an income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines are eligible. The payment amount each month is typically six percent of your monthly income for natural gas and six percent for electric. PIPP Plus customers pay the same amount each month and can qualify for reductions in the arrearages by paying the gas and electric bill on-time.
3) Fuel fund assistance – Many Ohio utilities also provide payment assistance through fuel funds. A fuel fund is a program that makes private and/or corporate dollars available to low-income households for bill payment assistance.
Q: Might I be eligible for state assistance programs?
A: Yes. In addition to electric and natural gas utility programs, state assistance also may be available based on your income, including:
• HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Plan) – provides a one-time payment toward winter heating bills.
• E-HEAP (Emergency Home Energy Assistance Program) – provides crisis assistance up to $175 once per winter heating season to prevent disconnection or to have services restored.
• Winter Reconnection Order – special emergency procedures by the PUCO that enable consumers to avoid a utility disconnection or restore their heating services by making a one-time payment of $175. If your heating service has already been disconnected, you may have to pay an additional reconnection fee of up to $36.
• Summer Crisis Program – provides one-time bill payment assistance in the summer months for customers who are over the age of 60 or have certain medical conditions.
• Energy Efficiency and Weatherization Programs – provide inspections and repairs to help save energy and money.
Information about local assistance programs may be available by contacting your Community Action Agency or your local electric or natural gas utility.
Q: Where can I get more information on energy disconnection and reconnection issues?
A: The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC), the residential utility consumer advocate, publishes a number of fact sheets about how to access utility assistance. To obtain free copies of any of OCC’s fact sheets, visit OCC’s website, www.pickocc.org or contact OCC toll free at 1-877-PICKOCC (1-877-742-5622).
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the residential utility consumer advocate.