Who Is Responsible for Paying the Utility Bill?
Whether a lease is written or verbal, both parties must agree on which party is responsible for paying the utility bills. The tenant may be responsible for some utilities, such as electric and gas, while the landlord may be responsible for others, such as water and sewer. Make sure that the lease outlines who is responsible to pay for which utilities.
Does There Have to Be an Individual Meter for Each Apartment?
If the tenant is responsible for paying the utility bill, the Pennsylvania Utility Code requires the landlord to ensure that each residential unit is individually metered. This means that there cannot be a “foreign load” on the tenant’s utility bill—the tenant’s wiring cannot include the common areas or another apartment. If there are three units in a building, then there must be three separate meters for each of the apartments and a separate meter for the common areas.
If a rental unit is not individually metered, then the landlord is responsible for the utility bill—including any past due balance. The utility company should not bill the tenant for the service until it is confirmed that the wiring has been corrected.
- A 10-day written notice before a shut-off
- An attempt to contact the resident or an adult in the household personally at least 3 days before the shut-off
- An attempt to contact an adult in the household at the time of the shut-off
- During December to March, if the utility company has not made personal contact prior to shut-off, it must post a notice in an obvious place at the rental property stating the utilities will be shut off and must give at least 48 hours’ notice
After a 10-day notice has been given to a tenant by a utility company, the company has 60 days to turn off the tenant’s utility without another 10-day notice.
If the utility company turned off service without prior notice, it has broken the law. Contact the utility company and demand that the service be restored immediately. Ask to speak to the supervisor and write down the name of the person you speak with. If necessary, call the Public Utility Commission at 1-800-692-7380.
Steps to Avoid a Utility Shut-Off
If the utility is in the tenant’s name, it is the tenant’s responsibility to contact the utility company immediately with any billing dispute or payment problem in order to avoid having the utilities shut off.
- The tenant should contact the utility company at the phone number on the notice and ask to set up a payment agreement. The length of payment agreements is determined by law. If their household is low income, they should inform the utility company as there are longer payment agreements available for low income households. The utility company is only required to provide one payment agreement for the same debt. If a utility is not providing a payment term you can report them to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) at 1-800-692-7380. The PUC can issue a payment agreement.
- The tenant or landlord can also show the bill was paid or show that there is a disagreement (dispute) about the bill. If you dispute the bill or disagree with the meter readings, you must notify the utility company and tell them that you dispute the bill. The service will not be able to be shut off during the period that you are waiting for a response to your inquiry or dispute. The tenant will still be obligated to pay all utility bills that are not in dispute, including any bills that are received while the complaint is ongoing. If you and your utility company cannot agree, call the Public Utility Commission (PUC) at 1-800-692-7380.
- The utility company cannot shut off service if the tenant obtains medical certification that someone in the home is seriously ill or someone has a medical condition that will be made worse by a shut off. After informing the utility company about this medical condition, the tenant will need to get a doctor or nurse practitioner to call or send a statement to the utility company confirming the medical condition. The shut off can be stopped for a maximum of 30 days at a time. The medical certification can be renewed two additional times. If the service has already been shut off, this will require the utility company to restore service. Payments will still have to be made on any undisputed utility bills.
- If the tenant is a victim of domestic violence and has a valid Protection from Abuse Order (PFA), there are special procedures and protections for handling the utility service. The tenant can call the utility company to inform them of the PFA so these special procedures and protections can be put in place. The tenant may be required to provide a copy of the PFA to the utility company.
- If the tenants are a low income household, there may be special arrangements or programs that can help.
See Resources for Tenants Having Trouble Paying Utility Bills for information on programs that help low income customers.
Utility Shut-Offs Due to Landlord Failing to Pay
If the landlord is responsible for paying for utility service and fails to pay the utility bill or if the landlord instructs the utility company to shut off the service, the Utility Services Tenants Right Act requires that the tenant be notified by the utility company at least 30 days in advance.
Once the utilities have been shut off, the situation may become more complicated. If you, as the landlord, do not make the necessary payments to restore service, then a tenant may have to make the payments in order to get the service restored. Any bill which the tenant pays on behalf of the landlord to get the service restored can be deducted from their rental payments. The tenant may also be able to have the utility service transferred to their own name.
There is a provision within the Pennsylvania Utility Code that makes it unlawful for a landlord to retaliate against a tenant for exercising their rights under the Pennsylvania Utility Code. Any landlord, agent, or employee of the landlord who threatens or retaliates against a tenant can be liable for damages equal to two months’ rent or the actual damages sustained by the tenant, whichever is greater, and legal costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees.
There is an anti-retaliation provision in the law that presumes illegal retaliation if an owner seeks to raise the rent or evict a tenant within six months of the tenant exercising their rights under the Pennsylvania Utility Code, except in cases of nonpayment of rent. Note that these rights cannot be taken away even if the lease says the tenant has waived these rights.
A landlord is not legally allowed to interfere with a tenant’s utility service, even if they are behind in rent. Even when the water, sewer, gas or electric is included in the monthly rental payments, a landlord cannot legally shut off a utility service. This may be considered an illegal attempt to evict without going through proper legal procedures.
Getting Utility Service Back On
Between April 1 and November 30, if you or the tenant pays the amount owed in full or arranges for a payment agreement (if eligible) and meets any other conditions required by the utility company, service must be restored within 3 days.
Between December 1 and March 31, the service must be restored within 24 hours if you or the tenant pays the amount owed in full or arranges for a payment agreement (if eligible) and meets any other conditions required by the utility company.
Resources for Tenants Having Trouble Paying Utility Bills
If a tenant has not paid the utility bills or they are behind in paying, the utility company can shut off the service to your rental property after giving proper notice. See Utility Shut-Offs. However, even if a tenant cannot pay the whole amount owed, they can take steps to keep the utility service on.
- Electric, gas, and some water companies have Customer Assistance Programs (CAPs). CAPs are available to low-income customers who have difficulty paying their full monthly bill. These programs provide discounts to the monthly bill as well as past debt forgiveness in exchange for the customer making regular monthly payments.
- Utility companies must allow a tenant to pay their bill on a budget plan, so that winter payments are not extremely high while summer payments are low. Under a budget plan, payments are averaged so that each monthly payment is the same.
- Tenants may be eligible for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program may be able to help low income tenants in paying their utility bills or other costs
of keeping warm (space heaters and home repairs). The Department of Public Welfare operates three energy programs—the Energy Assistance Cash Grant, the Crisis Grant, and the Crisis Grant Weatherization Repair Assistance. If a tenant is experiencing a heating crisis, they may be eligible for benefits through the LIHEAP crisis program. Emergency situations include broken heating equipment or leaking lines that must be fixed or replaced, a lack of fuel, shut-off of a main or secondary heating source, a danger of being without fuel (less than a 15-day supply), or a pending termination of utility service (received a notice that service will be shut off within the next 60 days).
- Each electric and gas company has a Hardship Fund to which low-income customers may apply in order to avoid shut-off or to have service reconnected.
- The Weatherization Assistance Program and the Residential Low Income Usage Reduction Program are free services provided to eligible low-income utility customers. Services provided may include a home energy survey, weatherization services, and usage reduction education.