Prairie State Legal Services


Renter's Handbook

Utilities


Applying for Services
Deposit
Deferred Payment Agreements
Estimated Bills
Late Payment Charges
Shutting Off Your Services
Winter Re-Connection Rules
Dispute and Complaint Procedures
If Your Landlord Provides Utilities
Electricity and Gas
Water
Telephone
Energy Saving Tips
Cooling Energy Savers


Applying for Services

When you apply for utility services, the utility company will first decide if you owe that company any money. They can look only at your payment record for the same services as those that you are applying for. This means that if you are applying for electric service, the electric company can only look to see if you have a past due bill for electricity. If you did not pay your water bill or some other bill, the electric company cannot refuse to give you service for that reason.

If the utility company determines that you failed to pay a past due bill for the same class of service at your present or some former address, they can refuse to give you services unless you pay your past due bills and/or provide a deposit, and/or enter into a deferred payment agreement. See Deferred Payment Agreements.


DepositBack to Top

The utility company can ask for a deposit if you are applying for services and have failed to pay your past due bills. If you are already a customer, during the first 24 months of service, the utility company can require that you pay a deposit if you pay late. If you receive a bill every month, you must pay late 4 times during a 12-month period before the utility company can require a deposit. If you are billed every two months, you must be late 3 times in a 12-month period or late 2 times in a row. If you are billed every 3 or 6 months, you must be late only 2 times in a 12-month period before the utility company can require a deposit. You must pay a deposit, if requested, any time you tamper with the wiring, pipes, meter or any other service equipment. If the company wants to ask for a deposit, they must do it within 45 days after the event which gives rise to the request for a deposit.

If you have a question about the amount of your deposit, ask the utility company about it. For gas or electric, it should be 1/6 or less of your estimated yearly charge and you have to be given at least two billing periods to pay for it. You may also have to pay up to 1/3 of the deposit with in 12 days. For water or sewer, it should be 1/3 or less of your estimated yearly charge to be paid within 30 days. They can ask you to pay 1/3 of your deposit within 12 days of their request for a deposit.

Generally, you should get your deposit back with interest after one year or when you stop services so long as you don't owe the company any money and so long as you haven't repeatedly paid late or tampered with their service equipment. If you don't receive your deposit back, find out why not - If you are still not satisfied, make a complaint. See Dispute and complaint Procedures"


Deferred Payment AgreementsBack to Top

Generally, if you owe money to a utility company and you are already a customer, that utility company must give you a chance to pay the debt off in installments. That is, you must be given the opportunity to make arrangements with the utility company to retire your debt by periodic payments known as a deferred payment agreement. The only time a utility does not have to give a customer a deferred payment agreement is when the customer has failed to make a payment under such a plan during the past 12 months.

If you are applying for new service from the utility company, but owe a past due bill, it is up to the utility company to decide whether to give you a deferred payment agreement. If you are a former customer who has been cut off and is applying for a winter re-connection, the utility company must offer you a deferred payment agreement, but only if you are otherwise eligible under special rules. See Winter Re-connection Rules.

Any deferred payment agreement must be reduced to writing and will require that you pay a certain amount of money for a certain number of months. This will be in addition to the regular bill, as it comes due. You will be required to pay up to 1/4 of the amount past due at the time of entering into the agreement. (See the sections on Shutting Off Your Services and Winter Re-connection Rules for situations where your down-payment on a deferred payment agreement can be smaller.) The size and duration of your payments must be determined after taking into account a number of factors including the size of the debt, your ability to pay, your payment history, the reason for the debt, and any other relevant factors. The maximum duration of the agreement is 12 months, and the minimum is two months or four months for gas or electric.

If your financial circumstances change during the period of the agreement, you are allowed to renegotiate the terms and conditions of the agreement, taking into account your new circumstances. You cannot renegotiate if more than 14 days have passed since you missed a payment under the agreement.

If you break a deferred payment agreement by missing a scheduled payment, but your gas or electric services have not been discontinued, you can get your agreement reinstated by paying all past due amounts. You have this right only once during the course of a deferred payment agreement. If any deferred payment agreement is broken and not reinstated, the utility company has the right to terminate your service.


Estimated Bills

Your bill is determined by reading your meter which measures how much energy you have used. All utility companies are required to make an actual meter reading at least every second billing period, unless they have been prevented from doing so. If the utility company is unable to read your meter, the company may leave a card and request that you mark it and mail it in or have you call your reading in. If this is not done, the company will estimate how much you have used by looking at the past service history of your residence.

When the utility company does get out to read your meter, the estimate is corrected and you could be in for a surprise of a very large bill or a very small bill. Often, however, the estimates turn out to be close to correct. At any rate, you end up paying only for what you use. If you do receive a card, it is to your benefit to read the meter and send the card to the company or call it in to protect yourself from surprises. If you have questions about how to read the meter, the utility company will explain it to you or send you a pamphlet.

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Late Payment Charges

Your due date is printed on the bill. If you don't pay by then, you may be billed a late payment charge. You get a two-business-day grace period from the due date if you have mailed your payment in. A utility may consider a mailed payment to be late if it is postmarked after the due date printed on the bill.

The due date printed on the bill may not be less than 21 days after the date of postmark on the bill. The amount of the late charge cannot exceed 1-1/2% per month of the amount past due. Certain customers who receive a monthly benefit or support check which comes after the due date can ask the utility for a preferred payment date.


Shutting off Your ServicesBack to Top

A utility company can shut off your utility services for a variety of reasons. If you fail to pay a proper deposit or pay a past due bill, or if you fail to make a payment required by the terms of a deferred payment agreement, or deny access to a meter, or violate utility rules, then the utility company can shut your service off. However, before they can shut off service, they must give you a proper written notice.

The notice must be delivered to you at least five days before shutting off the service or eight days if the notice is mailed. A shut off notice is effective for two consecutive 20-day periods, provided you get a call from the utility during each period. If the utility does not shut off the service within the two periods, then the utility must issue a new notice before it can do so. The notice must be in a certain form. See Sample Notice 1.

Utility service cannot be shut off lawfully, or if it is shut off, must be restored if a deferred payment agreement is entered into and followed. Also, utility service cannot be shut off and, if shut off, must be restored if the reason for the shut off is being disputed with the utility company or the Illinois Commerce Commission. See Dispute and Complaint Procedures.

In addition, where gas or electric service is necessary to heat your residence, shut off is prohibited on any day when the National Weather Service forecasts, for the area of your residence, that the temperature will be 32 degrees or less at any time during the following 24 hours. Likewise, shut off is prohibited on any day before a weekend or holiday if the forecast indicates that the temperature will be 32 degrees or less during the weekend or holiday.

Also, shut off is prohibited for up to 60 days whenever the shut off will aggravate an existing serious illness of any person living in the residence. You must have a doctor or local board of health certify the illness. See Sample Notice 2.

During the winter months, (December 1 through March 31) the electric and gas utilities are prohibited from shutting off service necessary to heat the residence unless the utility has first offered the customer a deferred payment agreement and a levelized payment plan. The maximum down payment which the utility can demand for a deferred payment agreement in this situation is 10% of the amount due. In a levelized plan, the customer pays for current service in approximately the same dollar amount every month. In addition, the utility must provide the customer threatened with shut off with names and numbers of agencies that help people pay their utility bills.

If you receive a winter shut off notice, you have six business days from the date of the notice before the utility company can act. You must move quickly. Talk to the company about it. If you get no results, contact an attorney immediately. Don't wait until your utilities are shut off. You have more rights before your utilities are shut off. If your utilities have been shut off, you may have to pay the entire charge to be reconnected, unless you qualify for the winter re-connection rules.


Winter Re-connection RulesBack to Top

If your utility service has been disconnected for non-payment of a bill or deposit at any time since December 1 of the prior winter, you can get service turned back on between November 1 and April 1 of the current heating season, if you satisfy special winter re-connection rules. To qualify, you must not have used the special winter re-connection rules the previous year. Also, you must have paid at least 1/3 of all utility services charged since December 1 of the prior winter. You cannot qualify for special winter re-connection if the utility can prove you benefitted from any tampering with its equipment.

If you qualify in this way, then the utility company must reconnect your service as soon as possible, provided you enter into a deferred payment agreement with the utility company, pay 1/3 of the amount past due and pay 1/3 of any required deposit. If you can show the utility company that you cannot afford to pay those amounts, you can get reconnected upon paying 20% of the amount past due and 20% of any required deposit.


Dispute and Complaint ProceduresBack to Top

If you question a bill or have a problem with your utility service that isn't being resolved, you can call the utility company and ask for a staff person who handles disputes. If the dispute still cannot be resolved, you have the right to have the problem considered and acted on by a utility supervisor. If the dispute still cannot be resolved, you have the right to have the problem reviewed by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), the state agency which regulates public utilities.

The ICC has both an informal and a formal complaint procedure. The first step is an informal complaint to the ICC Consumer Assistance Section. The utility will give you their phone number. That office will investigate the complaint and try to resolve it to the satisfaction of all the parties, but it cannot force an agreement.

If the dispute still has not been resolved, then you can file a formal complaint with the ICC. If you do so, you must follow the ICC Rules of Practice and an attorney is recommended. There will be a hearing before a hearing examiner who has the power to resolve the dispute by order and whose orders can be reviewed in the courts.

When you do question a bill, a utility company cannot shut off your services for non-payment during the complaint process so long as you: (1) pay the undisputed portion of the bill; (2) pay all future monthly bills by the due date; and, (3) follow in good faith the dispute procedures of the utility company and the ICC.


If Your Landlord Provides UtilitiesBack to Top

If your lease or other agreement with the landlord requires the landlord to pay the water, gas or electric utilities an he or she doesn't pay the bills, there are things you can do to prevent a shut off. In this situation, the tenant or a group of tenants served by a common meter, may pay for the utility service if non-payment threatens continuation of service. Any amounts which a tenant pays for utilities that the landlord was required to pay may be deducted from the rent due by the tenant or tenants. The landlord cannot evict you for this nor can he raise the rents. In buildings with three or more apartments, the utility company cannot terminate service for the landlord's non-payment until they deliver a special notice to all the tenants. If the utility company receives payment in full of all past due amounts from the tenants, the utility company must restore service to the tenants.

The utility company must also restore and continue service to any tenant who requests that the utility put the bill in her/his name and establishes satisfactory credit references or pays a security deposit. If the tenant is billed an amount for service to parts of the premises not occupied by the tenant, the landlord is liable to the tenant for those bills.

Also, when tenants in multi-unit buildings receive notice from the utility company that service is going to be shut off because the landlord didn't pay, the tenants can petition the court for a "receiver" to accept the rents and pay the utilities. An attorney is required for this procedure.

It is against the law for a landlord to rent any unit in which the tenant is responsible for payment of utilities for common areas of the building or for other tenants, unless the landlord gives the tenant certain information in writing before the lease is signed or other rental agreement is made. If this happens to you, check with an attorney to see if you got the proper information. Also, it is against the law for a landlord in a multi-unit building with a master meter to demand that the tenants pay a share of the utilities, unless the landlord discloses in writing to the tenant the formula used by the landlord for allocating utility payments among the tenants.

It is also against the law for a landlord to cause utility service to tenants to be interrupted or terminated by failing to pay bills which the landlord is responsible for or by tampering with the utility's equipment or lines. If this happens, the tenant is not required to pay rent for each month that utility service is interrupted this way. If service was interrupted this way for only part of any month, then the tenant is responsible for only part of that month's rent. A court could also order the landlord to pay other damages to tenants in this situation, including statutory damages up to $300 per tenant if the landlord was reckless or wilfully disregarded the tenant's rights.

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Electricity and Gas

Contact the utility company before you move in so that you can have your service connected the day you arrive. You must allow at least one business day for turning on your electricity and gas. You can probably do this by phone rather than by going to their office.

If you smell gas at any time, call the gas company. They will send someone out as soon as possible to identify the problem. If you cannot reach the gas company, call the fire department for emergency shut off.

If you have any questions about who pays for electricity and/or gas, refer to your lease. If the lease does not mention who pays for these utilities or you do not have a written lease, contact your landlord and ask. If he or she has agreed to pay for one or both of the utilities, make sure t his agreement is in writing or is in your lease. This will save a lot of trouble once the bills start arriving. If you pay for these utilities, then it is an added expense you must consider with your rent. When moving to an apartment, you should ask how much these bills usually cost. Think about this when deciding whether or not to rent the apartment.

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Water

There are both private and municiple water copmpanies. In larger apartment complexes, generally the landlord will supply water at no extra charge to the tenant. If you have any questions, look at your lease or ask your landlord. If water is not mentioned, be sure to contact your landlord before calling the water company. If the landlord is going to supply you with water, be sure to get it in writing immediately in order to avoid future problems.

If your water bill is high, check for leaky faucets and toilets. Check the valve inside the tank of your toilet to make sure it is not leaking. If repairs are necessary, contact your landlord. If he or she is paying the water bill, you should receive speedy service and a "thanks".


TelephoneBack to Top

Contact the telephone company listed in the yellow pages of your local phone book. Stop by the office or call in advance and they will try to install the phone the day you arrive. They require at least two business days' notice for installation, but would prefer one week.

There will be a minimum installation charge if the telephone jacks are already in place and you supply the phone. If the equipment is not already in place, the fee will vary depending on the number of phone lines and services requested. If this is your first telephone, the company will usually require an advance payment of one average monthly bill. If you have had phone service in the past and have paid your bills on time, there is no reason why you would have to pay a deposit. Complain to the supervisor if you feel you are being treated unfairly. If you are required to pay a deposit, you will receive interest on your deposit after one year. The amount of the deposit will depend on your service and credit rating.

When someone moves out and the phone bill is in her/his name, it may be necessary for the person leaving and whoever is going to take over the phone bill to visit the phone company to make the necessary changes in writing. Make sure the person using the phone is the one being billed for it.

Call forwarding, call waiting and similar services may cost "only pennies a day", but can be very expensive over time. Resist the sales pitches of the phone company, and get only the phone service you actually need.

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Energy Saving Tips

With today's prices, it is important that you take a good look at the expense of your utility bills. Heating and cooling your home/apartment is a large portion of energy costs. Therefore, do not waste that heated or cooled air. There are several ways you can reduce the load on your heating or cooling equipment. The following are some heating energy savers:

  • Draft-proof windows and doors. First, test these areas for drafts. One method is to take a lighted candle and move it around the frames and sashes of the window. If the flame flickers, you need some type of weatherstripping. For doors, slide a quarter under the door. If it fits and goes through, you need weatherstripping to fill the gap. Try caulking or taping with heavy plastic tape where possible. You might also try weatherstripping gaps with foam rubber. For windows, you might try putting plastic tightly over the windows with tacks to seal out drafts. If you have a gap at the bottom of the door, fill it in with some type of stripping such as foam rubber, a tube filled with bags, or a rolled up rug.
  • Don't turn the heat on until you have to. Use an extra blanket on cool nights.
  • Lower your thermostat to 65 or 67 degrees during the day and lower it to 60 or 62 degrees at night. You can save on your fuel costs.
  • Shut the vents in rooms you are not occupying regularly.
  • The best insulation for cool temperatures is simply to dress warmly.

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Cooling Energy Savers

Overcooling is also a problem in the summer with overuse of air conditioning. Try not to use more than you need. The following are preventive tips:

  • Shut off room air conditioners or close vents of rooms you are not occupying.
  • When you use the air conditioning, set your thermostat at 78 degrees, an energy efficient indoor temperature.
  • Do not set your air conditioner at a colder temperature when you first turn it on. This will not cool the room any faster.
  • Set the fan on high except in hot, humid weather. When it's humid, set the fan on a lower speed; you get less cooling, but this will draw more moisture from the air.

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