|Can My Utilities Be Cut Off in the Winter?||
Last updated: September 2015
The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/journalist who writes for The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois.
I’m worried about paying my utility bill. Isn’t there a law that prevents a utility company from cutting off your power in the winter? What can they do if you can’t pay your bill?
There are two basic limits to cutting off someone’s power, gas, or electric service under Illinois law. One applies whenever it’s cold, the other during specified winter months. The limits do not apply to every gas or electric provider.
The cold weather law absolutely prohibits disconnections by an Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) regulated or municipal utility whenever it's cold. The temperature that triggers the disconnection prohibition depends on whether the utility is regulated by the ICC or is a municipal utility.
ICC regulated gas or electric utilities may not disconnect service whenever it's going to be 32 degrees or colder. If the "official" National Weather Service forecast reports that it will be 32 degrees or colder at any time during the 24 hours after a scheduled cut, or over the following weekend or holiday, your power can't be cut off. That saves you from being stuck in the cold without power.
The 32 degree rule applies year-round, so it prevents power shut-offs during any cold snaps in September or May.
The cold weather rule for municipal utilities states that residential gas or electric service cannot be cut off for nonpayment on any day that the National Weather Service forecasts that the temperature will be 20 degrees or below during the holiday or weekend.
Only ICC regulated gas or electric utilities follow the winter rules. Unless you are military personnel or a veteran, the winter rules restrict, but don't absolutely prohibit, disconnections between December 1 and March 31. The winter rules prohibit disconnection for non-payment of a bill or deposit if you are a service member or veteran. Also, winter rules prohibit ICC regulated gas or electric utilities from being cut off for non-payment if you participate in a Low Income Home Energy Assistance Plan (LIHEAP).
Fortunately, many ICC regulated companies just don’t do disconnections during those winter months, since they don’t want to bother watching the forecast. But if they really want to disconnect you in the winter, and the weather allows it, these companies have to give certain notices and, in most cases, are required to offer a deferred payment plan before shutting your power off.
A deferred payment plan gives you a chance to avoid disconnection by giving you more time to pay. It’s a written agreement that requires you to pay off your back bill over time while paying your new bills on time.
If you miss payments after setting up a deferred payment plan, the power company has to let you catch up on your payment agreement before shutting you off. That’s called reinstating, and means your payments on both the back and current bills get completely back on schedule. If your financial condition has changed since entering into the payment arrangements, you have the right to renegotiate the agreement one time.
It’s important to remember that these "winter rules" laws apply only to ICC regulated gas or electric utilities: these rules don't apply to power cooperatives or to municipal power companies. Co-ops and city utilities must follow their own rules, so ask the provider for a copy of those rules or by-laws.
Two final tidbits from the ICC utility regulations: Your payment isn’t late if it’s received within 2 business days of the due date. Low income customers of ICC regulated utilities are eligible for more favorable payment arrangement terms and deposit requirements, as well as late payment fee waivers. Low income customer status is based on LIHEAP eligibility as certified by the community LIHEAP agency. Although LIHEAP applies only to gas and/or electric service, low income customer status also applies to ICC regulated water companies so long as you tell the water company you received LIHEAP.
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