Utility bills can strain the budgets of many Iowans. This is especially true for Iowans who are elderly or have a disability and are living on fixed incomes. If you cannot afford to pay your natural gas and electric utility bills, you have certain rights and remedies that may help you avoid having utilities shut off.
The Winter Moratorium
Your utilities may not be shut off during the “winter moratorium” if you apply for and qualify for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program helps many low-income households pay their heating costs. If you are certified eligible for LIHEAP, utilities cannot shut off your gas or electric services from November 1 through April 1. You should try to pay as much as you can on your utility bills, even during the winter moratorium. As of April 1, however, if a balance remains past due on a utility bill, the utility company can stop your service if the bill is not paid or a payment plan arranged. To find the nearest place to apply for LIHEAP, go to this website: http://www.dcaa.iowa.gov/bureau_weath/how_apply.html or call your local Community Action Agency.
Regular Payment Plans
Gas and electric utilities are required to offer you a reasonable payment plan if you have not been able to pay your gas or electric bills. Whether a payment plan is “reasonable” depends on a number of factors, including your ability to pay. At a minimum, utilities must give you the option of spreading payments evenly over at least 12 months if you have not been disconnected, or have been disconnected for less than 120 days. If you have been disconnected for more than 120 days, then the utility must give you the option of spreading payments evenly over at least 6 months.
If you have been unable to keep up with your utility bills, you should contact your utility to negotiate a reasonable payment plan. You must be offered this type of payment plan unless you are behind on an existing payment plan (and sometimes, even if you have defaulted on an existing plan, as explained below). While you are on the payment plan, you also have to pay your current bill.
Second Payment Plans
A second payment plan must be offered to you by the utility if you made at least two full payments in a row, and on time, under the first payment plan before getting behind in payments. If this happened to you, you should contact your utility and request a second payment plan. This second payment plan must be for the same amount of time as the first plan, or longer. While you are on the second payment plan, you also have to pay your current bill. The utility may require you to make the first payment up front before allowing you to make a second payment plan.
Regardless of the time of year, utilities can be required to delay disconnection for 30 days if it would present a special danger to your health or to the health of anyone who lives with you. Contrary to what some believe, a health hazard is not limited to life-threatening situations or those where a customer needs electricity to operate a medical device. A health hazard can happen if a member of your household has a physical or mental impairment (including depression) or developmental delay (also known as mental retardation). Sometimes, just having very young or very old members of the household may be enough to delay disconnection. If the utility company is given a doctor’s statement stating that a person living at the residence faces a special danger if they go without gas or electric service, the utility must delay disconnection for 30 days. If the gas or electric service has already been shut off, but for 2 weeks (14 days) or less by the time the utility receives the doctor’s statement, the utility must reconnect service immediately. Then, they must wait 30 days before disconnecting again. During the 30 day delay, a payment plan must be entered into and you must continue to pay your current bill, or else the utility may be allowed to disconnect you after 30 days pass (unless the winter moratorium is in effect and you are certified as eligible for LIHEAP, as discussed above).
If one of the heads of the household is deployed for military service, you can inform the utility company about that, and the utility company is prohibited from disconnecting service during the deployment and for 90 days after that person returns, even if nothing is paid on the bill during that time. Again, it is always best to keep making payments to the maximum extent possible during any period when disconnection is prohibited in order to create “good will” with the utility company (with whom you may be negotiating a payment plan) and to keep the problem from being harder to solve.
Good Samaritan Rule
Someone else may set up new service where you live in his or her name if you have fallen behind in payments to the utility company. The only requirement is that the person be “credit-worthy.” This arrangement can avoid gas and electric service shut-offs or get service turned back on if it has been shut off. The utility company cannot require the new customer to pay your old bill as a condition for giving him or her service, but the company can require that the standard deposit be paid (up to the highest bill for one month’s service at that address in the previous year).
Statute of Limitations
Gas and electric utilities cannot refuse service to a person because of an old bill if the statute of limitations on that debt has run. Most utility debts are based upon unwritten contracts, which carry a 5-year statute of limitations (on written contracts, it is 10 years). Knowing when the 5-year period expires can be complicated legally, so legal advice should be sought if you think your debt should be too old for the utility to give that as a reason to refuse service).
Limitation of Service
Utility companies that provide electric service have the option of providing service limiters for customers who are behind on their utility bills and facing disconnection. This is a device that would limit the amount of electricity provided to a house. The utility company can only install this device if the customer agrees, and it is an alternative to disconnecting the electricity service. This could be something the utilities will use in the future, but seek legal advice about options before agreeing to this.
Other Possible Assistance or Payment Options.
Some County General Relief Departments, Area Agencies on Aging, Community Action Programs, churches and other local charitable organizations may have funds to help Iowans who are low income, have a disability, or are elderly. You should contact your local Area Agency on Aging, churches and charities for program availability.
In addition to the above, utilities must comply with other requirements. These include providing certain notices and a list of customer rights and responsibilities. If you propose what you think is a reasonable payment plan to the utility, and the utility rejects it, or if you otherwise feel that disconnection or refusal of service is not appropriate, you can file a complaint with the Iowa Utilities Board. Contact them at:
Iowa Utilities Board: (877) 565-4450
Iowa Utilities Board
1375 E. Court Avenue, Room 69
Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0069
You can also file a complaint by fax (515-725-7399), or online at the Iowa Utilities Board website:
You can contact Iowa Legal Aid toll-free at (800) 532-1275 to apply for legal help.
Last review 3/8/13