On April 2, many Iowans could have their utilities shut off. Each year, the winter moratorium runs from November 1 through April 1. During the winter moratorium, most low-income customers of gas and electric utilities have special protections. Gas and electric services cannot be shut off if someone in the home is eligible and applied for energy assistance, called LIHEAP (for “Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program”). Many people fell behind on their utility bills this winter. They will be getting shutoff notices. The notices will say service could be shut off after April 1 if they do not pay past-due bills. Here are some options these customers have.
Proper Notice Is Required
- The utility company must first send a written notice to the customer.
- The notice must say that they plan to cut off service.
- The notice must be put in the mail at least 12 days before the utilities would be shut off.
The company does not have to send a separate shut-off-notice—it can be part of the monthly bill. Customers should be sure to read their bills carefully. If you fell behind on a payment plan for a past due bill, the utility company does not have to give you written notice before service is shut off. They must at least try to reach you by phone or in person before disconnecting service.
Regular Payment Plans
Most utilities must offer a reasonable payment plan if you fall behind on your gas or electric bills. Whether a payment plan is “reasonable” depends on a number of factors, like how much you can pay.
- At the very least, utilities must give you the option of spreading payments evenly over at least 12 months if utility service is still on or has been shut off for less than 120 days. This means the utility cannot require that your first payment be larger than the rest.
- If service has been shut off for more than 120 days when you ask for service and a payment plan, the utility must give you the option to spread payments evenly over at least 6 months.
- If you have been unable to keep up with your utility bills, you (or your lawyer) should contact your utility to work out a reasonable payment plan.
- You must be offered this type of payment plan unless you are behind on an existing payment plan.
- While you are on the plan, you also have to pay your new monthly bills.
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 under the first payment plan before getting behind in payments again. If this happens, you should contact your utility and ask for a second payment plan.
- This second payment plan must be for at least as many months as the first plan had been, and also must require the payments to be spread evenly over those months. This again means the utility cannot require that your first payment be larger than the rest, but they can require that you make the first payment ‘up front’ (which they cannot require for your first payment plan, when you are not already in default of a payment agreement).
- While you are on the plan, you also have to pay your new monthly bills.
A shut off must be delayed 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.
- A health hazard can happen if a member of your household has a physical or mental impairment (including depression) or developmental delay (intellectual disability, for example).
- Sometimes just having very young or very old members of the household may be enough to delay a shutoff.
- If the utility company (or city utility) is given a doctor’s (or other health care provider's) statement stating a person living at the residence faces a special danger if they go without gas or electric service, the utility must delay the shutoff for 30 days.
- If the gas or electric service already has been shut off and the utility gets a doctor’s statement within 14 days, the utility must reconnect service immediately. Then they must delay the shutoff for 30 days.
- 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 again in effect and you qualify for protection).
Good Samaritan Rule
Someone else, such as a friend or relative, may set up service where you live in his or her name if you fell behind in utility payments. The utility cannot require your friend or relative to pay your old bill, and must give them service for your benefit if they are credit-worthy and can pay the usual deposit (no more than the highest bill for one month of service in the previous year at your address). This can avoid gas and electric service shut-offs or get service turned back on if it has been shut off. Gas and electric utilities will sometimes refuse such requests by a credit-worthy person to provide service for the benefit of a friend or relative, or to require the caller to be responsible for the delinquent bill. It may require persistence, noting that the rules require them to provide the service. You may want to seek legal assistance if you continue to have problems.
Other Possible Assistance or Payment Options
Community Action Programs (“CAP”) and some county General Relief offices, Area Agencies on Aging, churches and other local charities may have funds to help Iowans who are low income, have a disability, or are elderly. You should contact your local CAP, Area Agency on Aging, churches and charities for program availability.
Utilities must comply with other rules as well. These include providing certain notices and a list of customer rights and responsibilities. If you offer a reasonable payment plan and the utility rejects it, or if you think it is wrong to shut off or refuse service, you can file a complaint with the Iowa Utilities Board:
Customer Service, Iowa Utilities Board
350 Maple Street
Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0069
Additional Protection for Veterans and their Families
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.
If you have an old bill on an account that has not been in service for 10 years or longer, the utility may not be able to require you to pay the old bill in order to get new service. This is because the Iowa Utilities Board had for many years interpreted the law to limit how long a utility can refuse service due to an old bill.
It is always best to keep making payments to the maximum extent possible during any period when your utility provider is prohibited from disconnecting your service. Making payments during the winter moratorium creates “good will” with the utility company (with whom you may be negotiating a payment plan) and also keeps the problem from getting worse.
If you have a utility problem, contact Iowa Legal Aid:
Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans.
To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275.
Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org. A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.