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Public Utilities

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General information about your rights when dealing with public utilities. #0700EN

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What is a public utility?

It is a public utility district (PUD) or governmental agency such as a city or county that provides water, electricity or gas. We call these the "provider.” 

*To find out if your services are public or private, call the company or the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), toll- free: 1-800-562-6150.

Who should not read this?

Do not read this if the utility is provided by a private source, such as a community well of a homeowners' association, a cooperative such as Inland Power and Light, or a privately owned utility company, such as Puget Power, Pacific Power and Light, Washington Water Power, Cascade Natural Gas, Northwest Natural Gas or Washington Natural Gas.

*The Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) regulates privately owned utilities. You may have other rights if served by a private utility. Call the UTC for more info.

Can the provider refuse to put service in my name?

No. But you may have to do some things before you can get service in your name. Examples:  

  • Pay or enter into a repayment plan for past due bills, even from a different address

  • Pay a (re-)connect fee

  • Pay a security deposit  - you can ask to have this waived (forgiven) with proof of a good payment record

  • Supply basic info and/or sign documents that you will pay for services

Can I pay an average monthly amount throughout the year to avoid high winter heating bills or summer water bills? 

Yes. Any provider of utility service to heat your home, or cities providing water, must offer customers with low incomes "budget billing" or "equal payment."  It must do this no matter what time of year you ask for it, how long you have lived there, and whether you rent or own. Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 480-90-138.

I have kids. Can the provider shut off my service?

Yes. There is no statewide protection against utility shut-off for people with kids. Some counties or cities have protections. Ask yours about this. They may work with you if both these are true:

  • You have an emergency.

  • You have shown a history of good payment and willingness to pay back bills.

Can the provider shut off my service for nonpayment in the winter?

  • If you have a low income, they may not shut your service off between November 15 and March 15 if you do all these:

  • Within five business days of getting the overdue notice, tell the provider you cannot pay the bill. Even if you do not act within five days and your service is already off, you can get it reconnected by taking the next steps. You must pay any reconnection charges.

  • Ask them who runs the federal energy assistance program in your area. It is usually the local Community Action Program. Give that program a statement of your household income for the past twelve months. They will make sure you have a low income. They will decide the maximum you must pay on your bill. Ask the program about any other services required, such as weatherization or utility assistance.

  • Prove you have applied for any other help available for home heating in your community. Give a statement that you will use any other help you get to pay current and future utility bills.

  • Prove you have applied for low-income weatherization help, if available.

  • Agree to a payment plan that brings you current by October 15. You can pay as much as you want during the repayment period. The provider cannot make you pay more than 7% of your monthly income, plus one-twelfth of any amount owing after you turned in your application.

  • Agree to pay what you owe even if you move.

*A P.U.D. or city must include this info in your past due notice. It must also help you get through all the steps above. The law for this is in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 54.16.285 (P.U.D’s) and RCW 35.21.300 (cities). Read the law at your local law library, or online.

Am I responsible for bills the landlord or the last tenant did not pay?

Usually, no. See next paragraph for exceptions. You may have to pay a reconnect fee if the utility was shut off.

You are probably responsible for all or part of the past bills in someone else's name if you had an individual obligation, such as you lived at the address during the time billed, or you agreed with the landlord or last tenant to pay the bill for that period.

Can they charge me for someone else's bill without my consent?

Generally, you are only liable for anyone else's bill if you agree to be. However, property owners are liable for utilities provided to the land they own, even if the tenant was supposed to pay. You do not have to sign a paper to be liable for someone else's bill. Consistently paying someone else's bill, having your name on their account, or promising you would pay may all look like agreeing to be responsible for their account.

I have been responsible for someone else's account in the past. I no longer want to be. What should I do?  

Send the provider a dated, written statement stating you will no longer be responsible. Include name(s) and account number(s). Keep a copy of the letter for yourself. If charges for those accounts show up on your bill anyway, see "What if I disagree with my bill," below.

My landlord did not pay their bill. Can the provider shut off my service?

Yes, but you must get written advance notice of the shut-off and a chance to appeal. Different providers have different notice periods and procedures.

*If you did not get written notice of the shut-off, read the next section after this one.

If the utility is already in your name, or you and the landlord agreed you would pay the utility, you are already responsible for payment. Contact the provider about a repayment plan.

If your landlord is currently responsible for the bill, the provider should give you both:

  • written notice of a threatened shut-off

  • a chance to put the utility in your name

Then you will be responsible for future bills. The provider cannot make you pay the landlord’s or past tenant’s past bills. If the provider tries, you can send the provider a letter based on the Sample Letter. You may have to pay a security deposit and/or reconnect fee.

While you are negotiating with the provider, talk to the landlord, too. State landlord-tenant law prohibits the landlord from shutting off your utilities even if you are behind in rent. A landlord who intentionally shuts off service faces penalties including money damages, attorney's fees and court costs for you. RCW 59.18.300

To collect from the landlord for intentionally shutting off your utility and/or failing to pay the bill, read How do I Sue in Small Claims Court and Tenants' Rights. If you deduct from your rent before winning a judgment against the landlord in court, you may be evicted. Talk to a lawyer first.

What if I did not get any notice that my service would be shut off?

*If your lease says the landlord is responsible for the utility bill, read the section above and this one.

A city utility must make a reasonable effort to provide written notice to your address at least seven days before cutting service if any of these is true:

  • You live in a multi-family rental unit that receives service through a single account.

  • The billing address is different from the service address.

  • The city has been notified that a tenant lives at the address. 

If they shut off your service without giving you the required notice, call the utility immediately. Talk to the person in charge. They should turn your service back on right away and keep it on until you get proper notice and a chance to respond.  If the utility will not restore service, ask to speak to the lawyer who handles its affairs. This is often the city attorney.

What if I disagree with my bill?

If the bill is too high because of a water leak or other emergency not your fault, the provider may work with you to make a payment plan and/or cancel part of the charge. Call the provider. Explain what happened. They do not have to work with you. The more polite you are, the better your chances.

Any time you disagree with the bill amount, call the provider right away. State why you disagree. If you cannot fix the problem this way, ask for an administrative hearing.

When do I have to ask for an administrative hearing?

Your provider may have a deadline to ask for a hearing after you get a bill. You should ask for a hearing even if you are trying to work things out with the provider. If the informal process does not work, you will not have missed the deadline.

*Ask in writing for the hearing. Save a copy of the dated request for yourself.

What should I bring to the hearing?

  • any papers or people who can support your claim  

  • extra copies of the papers with you for the PUD and for the hearing officer (judge)

What if I disagree with the hearing officer’s decision?

The hearing officer will explain any appeal rights you have.

Can I get help paying my utility bills?

Maybe. Some providers discount electrical service to senior citizens and income families with a low income. Ask your provider.

Most PUDs have funds to help households with low incomes with utility bills they cannot pay, especially in winter. Different PUDs have different eligibility requirements.

You can also try your local Community Action Program (CAP) and DSHS office. DSHS’ programs for families with children, Additional Requirements for Emergent Needs (AREN) and Additional Requirements (AR), can help with facing shut off. This help is only available once a year. Read Additional Requirements.

Where can I get more info?

PUDs and other providers must give you written info about:

  • their services

  • their policies

  • their procedures about your rights as a utility consumer

This info includes explanations about:

  • the providers’ credit and deposit requirements, rates and charges

  • metering and billing

  • payment arrangements

  • complaint procedures

The provider must send you this info if you ask for it.  The full list of info you are entitled to is in WAC 480-90-103.

This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of September 2018.
© 2018 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014

(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)

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Sample Letter to Utility Company

Last Review and Update: Sep 25, 2018
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