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Starting Utility Services

In many states, consumers can choose their telephone and energy service provider. Contact your state utility commission to find out whether you have a choice. Some commissions will provide a list of service providers and advice on making a choice, and most state utility commissions will take any complaints you have concerning utility sales and service.

When you move into a new home or apartment, you may also be required to have the utilities (electricity, gas, water, waste removal, and cable) turned on in your name. Your city or county government may handle some services, such as water, sewer, and garbage collection. If you live in an apartment or are leasing a house from a homeowner, the landlord may handle this for you, but that is not required. If you request service, provide as much advance notice to the utility company as you can, at least one week in advance of the date you need service to start. Also, if you are relocating, don’t forget to have service turned off at your old address. Each company may require you to pay a fee to start service. You may also be required to pay a deposit or allow the company to check your credit to establish service at your home. If any of these companies fails to meet its service requirements, file a complaint with the company; you may be able to get a refund of your installation fee. If that doesn’t work, contact your state’s utility commission.

Switching Utility Providers

Your state’s public utilities commission may allow you to “un-bundle” your electric (or gas) service, so that you purchase your electricity from one company and the delivery of the electricity from a separate company. The electricity supplier will generate your electricity, but your local utility company will still deliver the electricity to your home. Some suppliers may call you or advertise specials to encourage you to switch your service. Before you decide which option is best for you, ask these questions:

  • How do the supplier’s rates compare to the rates of your utility company?
  • Is the energy rate fixed or does it vary from month to month?
  • What other fees or taxes will be charged?
  • How long does the contract last? Are there penalties if you cancel early?
  • Will the rates change over the life of the contract?
  • Will you receive one combined bill that includes charges from both the supplier and utility company?
  • Is there a special offer or incentive for signing up?
  • Is the company licensed by your state’s public utility commission?

For more information on switching utility suppliers, contact your state’s public utilities commission.

Billing

Once you have established service, you should start receiving your bills at regular intervals, normally monthly or quarterly. Utility bills are based on the amount of energy or water you actually use. However, if you live in an apartment complex, the amount you pay for some utilities may be prorated or split, based on a mathematical formula, among all of the residents in your community, no matter how energy conscious you are. If the amount of energy varies by season, you may decide to sign up for a budget billing program. These programs allow you to smooth out your monthly payments by paying more in lighter-use months, so your bills are still manageable in months with heavier use. Contact your utility companies to sign up for these programs. To learn ways to save on your energy bill, check with Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition to your actual service, you may have other fees on your bill, such as administrative fees, public surcharges, or local taxes. Contact the service provider if you see charges you don’t understand or didn’t authorize, or if you have difficulty making timely payments.

If you have difficulty paying your bills, especially for electricity or gas, help is available. Contact the company to find out if it has a program in place to help consumers. Also, your state’s utility commission may sponsor a program to either reduce your bill or make your payments based on a set amount of your income each month. Programs like these from utility companies and local government are usually based on your income. You may also consider applying for help through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The benefits vary from state to state.