The Texas Public Utility Commission lifted a moratorium on electric, water and sewer disconnections earlier this month, allowing providers to send disconnection warning notices to customers with past due bills. There’s a 10 day waiting period following the notice, so the first disconnections can resume on Tuesday, June 29.
The PUC put the moratorium in place after the February winter disaster that left millions of Texans without power and killed at least 151 people - according to the latest count from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
If you’re behind on your electricity bill, read on for steps you can take to prevent shutoff.
Ask for a payment plan
Call your retail electric provider and ask to join a deferred payment plan. Andrew Barlow, director of external affairs at the Texas PUC, said that triggers additional protections. PUC rules won’t allow an electric provider to disconnect service if a customer is honoring a payment plan.
“If you will reach out to your retail electric provider and let them know your situation and initiate a conversation about a deferred payment plan, right there, your power is going to stay on,” said Barlow.
PUC rules say initial payment required by the plan cannot be more than half the amount due and a customer must be given at least five billing cycles to pay the rest.
Keep in mind, many providers will apply a switch-hold to customer accounts. That stops a customer from switching providers while on a payment plan.
AARP Texas filed a petition, asking the PUC to temporarily amend the rules to prevent electric providers from asking for a more than 33% down payment and to allow customers to stretch payments out over nine billing cycles instead of five. AARP Texas said the PUC hasn’t responded to its filing yet.
Apply for utility assistance
PUC rules say you can’t be disconnected by your retail electric provider if you’re waiting on charitable assistance.
To find organizations that are helping pay utility bills, call 211.
You can go to this site and click the button for “utility bill payment help”, then scroll to the bottom of the page and enter your city or county information, then click the gray “find help” button at the very bottom of the page. There are income limits, but the programs are open to owners and renters.
A separate Texas Rent Relief program can also help with utility bills. However, you must be a renter to apply. Find out if you qualify here.
You don’t have to be behind on rent to apply for utility assistance through the Texas Rent Relief program – according to Kristina Tirloni, senior communications advisor with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
Some applicants have told NBC 5 Responds it can take weeks to be approved for help. If that’s the case, Tirloni said the program can also cover late fees.
“Anything they're applying for, those fees or anything related to that bill or whatever type of assistance they're needing, then Texas Rent Relief will help that individual with those costs,” said Tirloni.
The program has nearly $1.2 billion in funds to distribute. According to the program’s online dashboard, it has paid out nearly $422 million to more than 65,000 Texas households since the program launched February 15.
Extreme weather, medical conditions have additional protections
PUC also prohibits disconnections if your county is under a National Weather Service weather emergency.
Under PUC rules, customers with critical care or chronic condition designations have extra protections like additional notice in case of disconnection for nonpayment.
The designation identifies a residential customer who has someone in the home who has a serious medical condition that requires an electric-powered medical device or someone with a medical condition that would be impacted significantly by loss of heating or cooling.
Customers can fill out an application, submit it with a doctor’s note to their transmission and delivery utility - like Oncor. If the customer submits the form to their retail electric provider, it is required to forward the application to the transmission and delivery utility.
You can find the critical care or chronic care designation application and instructions here.
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Water and sewer rules on disconnections
If a residential water or sewer customer needs more time to pay, PUC rules say water or sewer utilities should offer deferred payment plans if the customer’s bill is more than three times the average monthly bill for that customer for the previous 12 months.
The customer can’t have more than two disconnection notices in the prior year.
Disconnections paused if PUC is looking into a complaint
If you feel your utility provider isn’t following the rules, you can file a complaint with the Texas PUC customer protection division by calling 888-782-8477 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
A utility can’t shut off service if you have an active complaint with the PUC.
Rules are different for co-ops, municipal utilities
Electric cooperatives, municipally-owned utilities don’t fall under the PUC customer service rules.
If you’re in a co-op or get your power through your city, check with your provider about payment plan options to avoid disconnection.
Watch out for scams
If you get a phone call from someone who claims they are with your utility company and they threaten to disconnect service unless you pay immediately, it’s a scam.
Those threats can also come over email, text, even a knock at your door.
Don’t give that person information or money. Instead, call the phone number on your bill to reach your provider directly.
A legitimate utility provider won’t demand immediate payment over the phone or through gift cards or cash app transactions.
NBC 5 Responds is committed to researching your concerns and recovering your money. Our goal is to get you answers and, if possible, solutions and resolution. Call us at 844-5RESPND (844-573-7763) or fill out our Customer Complaint form.