HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) today directed electric, natural gas and water utilities to coordinate with the PUC, consumer advocates and organizations to educate Pennsylvanians about changes in the law dealing with utility shut-offs. The PUC also acted to prevent wrongful terminations of low-income customers, and again put utilities on notice that violations of the law concerning winter terminations of residential customers and the failure to properly restore service will be subject to civil penalties under the Public Utility Code.
The PUC took these actions today by approving its Second Implementation Order for Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code, following input from utilities and consumer advocates during two Commission roundtable forums in July.
“Our message today is a simple one: ‘Prepare Now,’” PUC Chairman Wendell F. Holland said. “Winter is coming, and energy prices are rising. We are prepared and will educate and protect our consumers. And today we tell our regulated utilities that they must be prepared, too. We have been analyzing and implementing Chapter 14 since Nov. 30 of last year, and working to protect the health and safety of utility customers. We will continue to implement it transparently, and by seeking and acting on input sought and accepted from all parties -- advocates, utilities and state officials.”
Commissioner Kim Pizzingrilli said, “For the past two winter heating seasons, the PUC launched ‘Prepare Now’ campaigns to urge Pennsylvania residential customers to learn about conserving heat and energy, budget billing, home heating safety and low-income assistance programs. It is critical that the Commission and utilities work with consumer advocates and community based organizations again this year to develop consumer-outreach programs to ensure that customers are fully aware of their rights under Chapter 14.”
The PUC directed utilities to revise their winter-termination notices to include information to help customers determine whether they fall under the low-income categories protected from service shut-offs. The Commission’s Office of Communications will design and disseminate material to continue educating consumers about Chapter 14. The PUC directed utilities to work with the Office of Communications to coordinate any additional educational efforts it plans to undertake to ensure that their customers understand the new rules of the road.
Other actions under today's Second Implementation Order include:
- The PUC reiterated that, given the serious repercussions that winter terminations could have on life and property, utilities are put on notice that violations of the law concerning winter-terminations of residential customers and the failure to properly restore service will be subject to civil penalties under the Public Utility Code.
- To help avoid erroneous terminations, the PUC determined that electric and natural gas utilities must use the income and household size information in their databases to prevent sending termination notices, between Nov. 21 and Jan. 31, to low-income households. Water utilities must continue to apply winter-termination procedures in place prior to Chapter 14 when terminating heat-related water service.
- Also to help avoid erroneous terminations, the PUC directed electric, natural gas and water utilities to revise their standard 10-day notices, before shutting off service, to inform affected customers of how termination may be prevented; to make the notices uniform from one utility to another; and to include other pertinent information such as guidance that victims under a Protection From Abuse Order cannot have their service terminated and contact resources for customers with disabilities or who need translation assistance.
- The PUC clarified that Chapter 14 does not authorize winter terminations to premises occupied by residential tenants protected by the state Utility Service Tenants Rights Act.
- Under Chapter 14, a customer's utility service will not be shut off if someone in the household is certified as seriously ill from a licensed physician or nurse practitioner. Today, the PUC directed utilities to ensure that service is restored within 24 hours of receiving a medical certificate.
- The PUC concluded that utilities can require an up-front payment of money owed to restore service to a customer, but said the amounts of these payments are clear and may vary depending on household size and income, and whether or not a customer has broken prior payment arrangements.
- The PUC directed utilities to continue to exercise good faith and fair judgment in attempting to enter a reasonable payment agreement when a customer contacts the utility prior to termination to ensure reasonable payment terms and that utilities receive payment for services.
- The PUC said that a residential customer facing termination can avoid a shut-off by making a "catch-up" payment on an existing payment arrangement.
Chapter 14 was passed by the General Assembly as Senate Bill 677 and signed into law as Act 201 of 2004. Chapter 14 seeks to eliminate the opportunities for customers capable of paying to avoid paying their utility bills, and to provide utilities with the means to reduce their uncollectible accounts. The new law changed rules for regulated electric, water and major natural gas utilities that apply to cash deposits; reconnection of service; termination of service; payment arrangements; and the filing of termination complaints by residential customers.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission ensures safe, reliable and reasonably priced electric, natural gas, water, telephone and transportation service for Pennsylvania consumers, by regulating public utilities and by serving as responsible stewards of competition.
For recent news releases, or more information about the PUC, visit our Internet homepage at www.puc.state.pa.us.
Docket No. M-00041802F0002