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Your Utility Company Can Shut Off Your Utilities

Posted: August 5, 2005

You need to be aware that Pennsylvania enacted a new law called “Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act (RUCPA)” that enables utility companies to shut off utility services under certain circumstances.

On most modern dairy farms today, dairy farmers are dependent on a continuous, reliable supply of electricity (and in a few cases natural gas) for the successful operation of the dairy farms. You need to be aware that Pennsylvania enacted a new law called “Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act (RUCPA)” that enables utility companies to shut off utility services under certain circumstances. The primary purpose of this new law -- enacted in December 2004 -- is to protect responsible, bill-paying customers from rate increases because some other customers choose not to pay their utility bills even though they can afford the expenses. This new law changes the rules that apply to cash deposits, termination of service, reconnection of service, and payment arrangements. This law applies to all customers on residential tariffs for electricity, natural gas and water from all investor-owned companies throughout the commonwealth.

Your utility service (electricity, gas or water) can be shut off by your utility company if you fail to do any one of the following:

  • Pay your bill
  • Follow through on payment arrangements
  • Pay any required deposits
  • Allow the company to access its equipment on your property

Your utility service can now be shut off even during the winter months (December 1 through March 31) if you fail to be a responsible utility customer as defined above and provided that your household’s income level exceeds 250% of the federal poverty level. In 2005, that income level (before taxes) for a family of four persons is $48,375. During the winter months, the utility company will attempt to notify you first of their intention to terminate your service and allow you to make appropriate arrangements to avoid termination.

Your utility company will send you a notice ten days prior to shutting off any service. The company will attempt to contact you three days prior to the shut-off date. If the utility company cannot contact you during the winter months, a company representative will leave a 48-hour notice at your residence.

You can avoid the shut-off of any of your utilities if someone living in your home is certified as seriously ill by a licensed physician or nurse practitioner. You will be required to provide a letter from a licensed physician or nurse practitioner stating that shutting off the utility service will harm the ill person in the home. The initial medical certification can be for up to 30 days, with renewals possible for up to a total of 90 days. Please note, however, that you are still responsible for paying your utility bills even if there is a medical certificate for someone in your home.

Your utility service will be restored within 24 hours during the winter months after you pay the overdue bills and meet any other conditions specified by the utility company. During the months of April through November, your service will be restored within three to seven days after you pay the bill and meet other conditions. The amount you need to pay to have your service restored depends on your household income and payment history. If you have broken two or more prior payment arrangements, the utility company can require you to pay the full balance of your bill in order to have service restored. In addition, you may be required to pay a deposit and reconnection fees. Whenever your service is shut off, the utility company will leave a notice specifying what needs to be done to get your service restored.

The utility companies will work with you and explain programs that may help you, depending on your income or hardship situation. You can only establish one payment arrangement with either the utility company or the PA Public Utility Commission (PUC). However, the utility company may offer more than one payment arrangement option for you to select the preferred arrangement. For those customers who are already in a CAP (customer assistance program), the PUC cannot establish the payment arrangement if you fail to pay your monthly CAP payment. For this situation, the only time that the PUC or your utility company can set up a new payment arrangement for you is when you are experiencing severe circumstances such as loss of income, serious illness, major damage to residence, or increased number of dependents in a household.

You must recognize that a utility company can shut off your service at any time without giving you any advance notice for any of the following reasons:

  • Stealing utility service
  • Getting service through fraud
  • Tampering with your utility meter
  • Failing to maintaining safe service conditions

Even though you may be tempted at times to “pull the plug” on your electricity company and generate your own electricity, you must recognize that you cannot generate electricity at a lower price than what the utility company charges you in practically all cases. At today’s prices for fuel oil to power a generator, the total cost to operate an on-site generator is about 15-18 cents per kWh. Furthermore, there is the safety concern involving the deadly carbon monoxide gas that is given off by the engine running the generator. There is also the issue of whether the electricity you generate has sufficiently high quality required for your computers and your equipment controlled by computers.

The health, comfort, safety, and overall well-being of all Pennsylvanians will be improved with the implementation of this Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act.

Dennis Buffington, Agricultural and Biological Engineering