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As expensive winter looms, know your rights when it comes to disconnection

One in five Chicago households are over 30 days late on their heating bills as of Sept. 30. Cumulatively they owe more than $120 million, according to a report published in Crain’s Chicago Business. As we head into what could be one of the most expensive heating seasons in recent history, it’s vital you know your rights if a natural gas or electric utility threatens disconnection now or in the future.

Although there are regulations that prevent disconnection during the winter months, they are not applicable to every account and/or circumstance. Do not assume you are protected just because it is cold. Check out your rights, outlined below.

If a gas or electric company plans to disconnect your service, it must deliver a written warning to your residence. By law, the notice must be red in color and be delivered in an envelope separate from your regular bill.

This notice must detail how much you are required to pay to avoid shut off, when that amount is due and when your service will go off if you do not pay on time. The utility company has 45 days from the date of the notice to shut you off. You are entitled to receive a warning call 48 hours before the electricity or gas is disconnected. Make sure the utility has your current phone number at all times, so you never miss such a call.

The utility is permitted to disconnect you without warning if:

  • Your utility equipment has been tampered with.
  • There is no customer of record at your address.
  • There is a dangerous or potentially dangerous condition, such as a gas leak.

A utility CANNOT disconnect your service:

  • If the temperature is below 32 degrees or expected to fall below 32 degrees within the next 24-hour period and disconnection would affect your heat.
  • If the temperature is above 95 degrees or expected to rise above 95 degrees within the next 24-hour period (electricity only).
  • On any day preceding a weekend or holiday when temperatures are expected to meet the above criteria.
  • If it’s between December 1 and March 31 AND if the utility accepted LIHEAP funds on the account after September 1 of the heating season.
  • If it’s between December 1 and March 31 and you have an electric heat account (if your primary heat source is powered by electricity).
  • If it’s between December 1 and March 31 and you are a service member who has just been assigned to duty.

A utility CAN disconnect your service if:

  • If you fail to pay an entire past due bill or security deposit.
  • If you default on a payment plan you negotiated with the utility.
  • If you deny the utility access to your meter.

While regulations prohibit shut-offs after 4 p.m. and on weekends and holidays, technically a disconnection can be performed as long as the utility has personnel available to take a customer call or payment and reconnect the same day.

Do everything you can to prevent disconnection. If you are shut off, you lose the rights and protections that are in place for active customers.

If you receive a disconnection notice, call the utility immediately to discuss your options. You may be able to enter into a payment arrangement or apply for financial assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. In special situations, you may use a medical certificate to postpone disconnection.