If you are facing a utility shut-off, contact the Attorney General's Consumer Hotline at (617) 727-8400. The AGO may be able to provide additional information and/or mediation services to assist you in resolving your situation. You may also wish to consult your own attorney. If you decide to seek legal representation but do not have your own attorney, you may wish to contact the Massachusetts Lawyer Referral Service at (617) 654-0400.
Under certain circumstances, a gas or electric heating provider is not allowed to shut off your heat, even for non-payment. You must be unable to pay your bill because of financial hardship and certify to one of the following circumstances:
- Everyone in the household is over 65, or
- All adults living in the home are over 65 and a minor child resides in the home, or
- You or someone who lives in the home is seriously ill, or
- There is a child under the age of one living in the home.
Qualified customers should contact their energy service company and explain the situation. The company is likely to ask for a copy of the child's birth certificate or other pertinent information such as written proof of illness from a physician and/or proof of inability to pay based upon income.
There is also a winter moratorium in place every year from November 15 to March 15. During those months, gas and electric companies cannot shut off service because of an inability to pay. However, this moratorium does not apply if service was shut off for non-payment before November 15.
Cable operators are allowed to disconnect cable service for non-payment under the following conditions: (1) a subscriber's account must be considered delinquent, (2) the cable operator must give the subscriber a written termination notice, and (3) the customer must be given at least eight business days from the mailing date of the termination notice to pay the balance due. For detailed information about cable billing practices, visit the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable.
Water Service or Other Government-Provided Utilities
Consumers who have a billing dispute with their local water company or other Massachusetts city, town or regional public service provide should contact your local city or town hall or other government utility provider directly.
Discounted Utility Rates
Utility discounts are lower rates charged to low-income customers for gas, electricity and telephone service. Massachusetts law requires regulated utility companies to offer discounted rates to customers who receive public assistance benefits and meet income limits. Electricity or gas supplied by a municipal gas or electric department, a company that has the name of a city or town in its name, are not required to offer low-income discount rates. However, some do voluntarily offer these rates. Contact your utility company for more information.
From November 15 to March 15, Massachusetts law provides protection for residents who are struggling with their heating costs. The "winter moratorium" prevents gas and electric companies from shutting off your heating fuel because of your inability to pay for it. Also, they cannot shut off a service that you need to run your residential heating system. Charges will continue to be applied during this period and the customer will still owe the utility company for the provided service, and consumers should still pay what they can afford during this time. Contact your energy utility to negotiate a payment plan to cover these accrued heating charges. The moratorium does not apply to debt accrued before November 15.
In addition to the winter moratorium, Massachusetts provides some additional protections from utility shutoffs for those who quality.
Home Heating Assistance
Each winter, many Massachusetts senior citizens and low income families are forced to choose between heating their homes and buying food, medication or other necessities. Many more struggle to get by, unaware of or unable to seek help in paying their heating bills. More than one million households in the Commonwealth are eligible for some level of energy assistance - but less than half participate.
If you or someone you know is in need of assistance this winter, there are resources available to help. There may also be additional resources available. To find out if you qualify, or for more information, contact your local Community Action Program or fuel assistance office. A consumer does not have to be unemployed to get help.
In addition, home heating companies are often flexible in working out discount and budget payment plans. Contact your dealer to discuss your situation and ask if an alternative payment schedule is available.
Propane gas for heating and home and business use presents issues different than those encountered with other energy sources. It is difficult to comparison shop for propane, and consumers must consider a variety of factors to determine whether they are getting the best value. In some cases, the propane dealer, not the customer, owns the tank. This factor is especially important if a customer wants to switch dealers.
Propane is also priced differently than oil or gas, and consumers may be charged a higher rate even if only a small amount of fuel is used each year. Many propane dealers offer a balanced billing payment plan that allows customers to spread out annual costs over many months, lowering the cost of higher seasonal bills. Remember to read all contract terms carefully and inquire about all fees and charges before signing an agreement.
Energy Audits & Weatherization
Local electric and gas companies offer free residential energy audits. These audits are paid for by all customers through an assessment on their monthly energy bills. Such audits provide important and useful recommendations that help reduce current and future energy costs.
Property owners can also conduct energy audits themselves. The investment of a few hours can pay big dividends in energy savings. For example, drafts can be a major source of lost heat. Experts indicate that reducing drafts in a home result in savings of between 5 and 30 percent per year. They advise checking for indoor air leaks and drafts throughout the home or building, including gaps along the baseboard or edge of the flooring and at the corners of the walls and ceiling. In addition, owners and occupants can check to see if air can flow through these places:
- Electrical outlets
- Switch plates
- Window frames
- Weather stripping around doors
- Fireplaces and attics
- Wall or window mounted air conditioners
- Home insulation (walls and ceilings)
- Basements and attics for leaks near electrical wires, pipes and windows
Weatherization and Insulation
Property owners should annually inspect their heating and cooling equipment, and heating and cooling filters should be replaced once a year. Similarly, though every home needs proper ventilation, cracks or openings may allow too much cold air in the winter and too much moisture in the summer, causing mold and mildew. The following are some useful tips to help alleviate these problems:
- Insulate rooms and replace old windows. Temperatures inside the house will be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Weatherizing will also prevent mold and mildew, which may cause health concerns.
- Use caulking and weather-stripping on all doors and windows.
- Insulate the first six feet of hot and cold water pipes that are connected to the water heater.
- Use locks on windows and doors to make them tighter and draft resistant. Also, close curtains and shades at night to keep the home warmer.
- Install carpet or roll out more rugs in the winter to prevent heat loss.
- Replace light-material curtains with heavier ones to help prevent air from leaking in.
- Remove air-conditioners from windows and cover air conditioners to prevent cold air from seeping through.
- Seal any fireplaces not in use
- Close doors and vents in rooms not in use.
As part of long-term planning, property owners should consider an investment in energy efficient windows, heating systems and appliances if economically feasible. Although there is an initial "front end" cost, replacing older systems can pay off by reducing energy bills and cutting air pollutants. Consumers should calculate how long it will take to recover their costs through future savings to determine if a major energy efficiency investment makes financial sense.
Energy Saving Tips
When consumers face higher prices, the quickest way to reduce energy costs is simply to use less energy. One obvious factor affecting natural gas and electric bills is the weather, particularly extreme winter and summer temperatures. Simple conservation steps such as adjusting thermostats each season (lower in the winter, higher in the summer), replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents bulbs, purchasing energy efficient appliances labeled ENERGY STAR and having an energy audit of your home (free through your utility) are good ways to start.
Not only does reducing energy usage help households and businesses save money on their bills, it also decreases the strain on New England's electric grid during periods of "peak" energy use. During heat and cold waves, reducing the use of appliances, electronics and other electric devices helps prevent the region's electric grid from potentially overloading, which could cause service disruptions - or worse. Ideally, consumers should make efforts to avoid non-essential power usage between 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., when the demand for power is highest.
Reducing energy use and promoting conservation are two ways in which individuals can support efforts to develop sustainable, efficient and environmentally sound energy options in the future. There are several other cost effective measures that residents can employ that will lower energy bills and help save significant amounts of energy.
For more ideas, visit ENERGY STAR Guidelines for Energy Management to help build on the steps listed above and continue saving year after year. The ENERGY STAR Challenge includes information on establishing a building's energy use and setting a savings goal.
For more information on weatherization and insulation, see the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources fact sheet on insulation.
Additional information on energy audits and other conservation and efficiency tips is available at www.massSAVE.com. MassSAVE is a public/private partnership created to assist consumers in managing their energy use through efficiency and conservation. The website is a statewide clearinghouse for all programs offered to Massachusetts utility customers including the scheduling of energy audits through local energy utilities.
For information on special offers and rebates on energy efficient products, visit www.energystar.gov or the Energy Star Guide to Selecting Energy Efficient Windows.
Additionally, the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources offers assistance for businesses through its Commonwealth Energy Resource Teams
Lighting & Electricity Use
Experts agree that energy for lighting accounts for about 10 percent of the average electric bill.
Look at the wattage of all of your light bulbs. Replace standard incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) for areas where lights are on for hours. CFLs use 75 percent less energy, last up to 10 times longer, produce the same amount of light and do not get as hot as traditional light bulbs. Contact your electric company to see if they offer rebates for the bulk purchase of energy saving lights. For information about recycling CFLs, visit the Recycling Products Containing Mercury page of this website.
Use motion detectors or timers for outdoor lights and in areas where there is little activity.
Use Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) instead of bulbs for holiday lighting. LEDs use 90 percent less energy, are more durable and can last years longer.
Turn off computers and other home electronics. Unplug small appliances - televisions, DVD players, phone chargers, and kitchen appliances when not in use. Since 20 percent of energy is still used even if the appliance is not turned on, consider using a surge protector power strip to turn off appliances at the end of the day. This device is easy to use and has the added benefit of protecting the appliances.
Clean out electric dryer filters often to use less energy for drying clothes. Wash clothes in cold water rather than hot. Hang laundry outside to dry. Run washers, dryers and dishwashers only with a full load and during the early morning or late evening. Many dishwashers have a delay start feature, which allows it to run overnight. And use the air-dry feature on dishwashers.
Heating & Water Use
Install programmable thermostats, which lower heat at set times when the home or business is not occupied.
Keep temperatures at a steady rate (e.g., 65 degrees) throughout the winter and wear layers of clothing if temperatures get colder. Lower the heat to 55 degrees if away for a day or longer. A steady temperature also helps prevent water pipes from bursting.
Make sure heating vents are not blocked by appliances, electronics or furniture.
Use wood-burning stoves and other solid fuel-burning heating appliances - and be sure to follow the regulations for safe use.
Run washers, dryers and dishwashers only with a full load and during the early morning or late evening. Many dishwashers have a delay start feature, which allows it to run overnight. And use the air-dry feature on dishwashers.
During warmer months, use an attic fan to draw hot air out of the attic and use a whole-house fan to draw fresh air in through windows and exhaust through roof vents.
Take a shower instead of a bath to use less water and to lower water heating costs. Lower the amount of water usage by installing water-saving fixtures (e.g., on faucets and shower-heads). Lower the temperature of the water heater to below 120 degrees. Repair water leaks in all pipes.
Tips for Commercial Consumers
Use natural light whenever possible; keep lights turned off until needed. Shut down parking lot lights between midnight and 5:00 a.m. Replace incandescent lights with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFCs). Replacing 25 percent of lights in high-use areas with CFCs can net a 50 percent savings in lighting costs.
Set thermostats lower in the heating season - some school and government agencies set their heat at 65 degrees. Encourage employees to wear sweaters.
Open windows and use outside air as much as possible to heat and cool space. Install automatic thermostats (with timers) for heating and cooling systems. Reduce the number of hours when using heating or cooling systems - e.g. turn them on one hour before opening and off one hour prior to closing.
Purchase software to automatically shut down all computers at a designated time. Businesses with a lot of computers should use energy efficient fans to cool them.
Insulate duct work and hot water pipes that can leak heated or cooled air into unconditioned spaces. Insulate or replace windows. When reroofing a building, consider using R-30 insulation.
File a Complaint
Nearly all complaints about electric, natural gas and telecommunication companies operating in Massachusetts - their rates, quality of service, etc. - are handled by the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) and the Department of Telecommunications and Cable (DTC). The DPU is responsible for enforcing Massachusetts laws and regulations affecting investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities. The mission of the DPU's Consumer Division is to protect consumers from unjust utility company practices and to monitor the quality of the services they provide.
If you are having a problem with a utility, the DPU recommends that you first contact the utility company and try to resolve the matter. If that does not resolve the issue, contact the DPU through the Online Complaint Form, or call the Consumer Division at (617) 305-3531 or toll-free at 1-800-392-6066.
The AGO shares jurisdiction with the DPU in the area of electric and gas consumer complaints. Residents facing utility shut-offs or who want to report possible fraud or unfair practices should contact the Attorney General's Public Inquiry and Assistance Hotline at (617) 727-8400. The AGO may be able to provide useful information or mediation services to assist in resolving your situation. Please note that the AGO does not have authority over the price of home heating oil or gasoline.