Utilities should be one of the most accommodating debts on your list of monthly bills because, if nothing else, it’s easy to reduce your bill by adjusting the heat and air conditioners and turning off unused appliances.
But if there is a jar to the economy – like the COVID-19 pandemic – keeping the lights on can become a real struggle, especially if your wallet has been hit. Fortunately, there are plenty of agencies and organizations that provide assistance paying utility bills. Unfortunately, even with help, millions struggled to keep up.
The average electric bill in the U.S. in 2020 was $113.59 per month and ranged from a low of $74.10 a month in Utah to a high of $152.88 in Hawaii. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, energy costs consume between 5% and 22% of a family’s monthly budget.
The National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) estimates that entering the summer of 2021, Americans were more than $20 billion behind on utility and water bills.
Federal, state and even utility companies put a moratorium on shutting off the electricity, but those are expected to expire by the end of July 2021, meaning the bills come due for an estimated 37 million households.
Typically, an electric bill is due 21 days after the meter is read. Before the COVID-19 moratoriums went into effect, if the electric bill wasn’t paid by the due date, you should receive a late notice that gives you five business days to make the payment. Afterwards, the utility company can disconnect your service with a few exceptions that vary from state to state.
Emergency Payment Assistance
It’s important to try to stay ahead of the game when you’re behind on payments. Use the 21 days to reach out to organizations and apply for assistance. If you come up to the five-day window, you’ll need to look for emergency payment assistance.
Do whatever you can to keep the power on. Once it’s turned off, the utility company will charge reconnection fees and could require a deposit to turn it back on.
Help paying utility bills can come from three different sectors:
- Government assistance
- Charity aid
- Utility company programs
A good first step is to check out databases of agencies that assist with utility payments.
Utility Bill Assistance During COVID-19
If you’re struggling with the impact of COVID-19 to pay your electric bill, two sources of help are your own utility company and federal assistance through the three stimulus bills approved by Congress.
The stimulus bills provided $9.1 billion to help people pay phone bills, medical bills, electric bills and other expenses.
A big part of the assistance is through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which we’ll detail soon.
One other resource worth investigating is DoNotPay.com, which bills itself as a “robot lawyer” and tries to get bill extensions for those affected by coronavirus. DoNotPay sends your utility company a “polite” letter requesting an extension. If the extension is denied, it follows up with a second letter with relevant local and state laws to try and convince the company they’re better off granting an extension.
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
If this has become a reoccurring issue, you need to look into the government agency LIHEAP. The program is meant to help low-income households that pay a high proportion of their income for home energy. The Office of Community Services, Division of Energy Assistance granted $3.32 billion in funding for LIHEAP in 2020.
LIHEAP can help pay heating or cooling bills, and help pay for low-cost home improvements such as weatherization to lower utility bills. On average, about 20% of households that are qualified for LIHEAP receive benefits.
How to Qualify for Energy Assistance
Eligibility for this program varies by state, but generally it starts at the $19,200 income level for a one-person household (150% of the federal poverty line which was $12,880 in 2021).
Then add $4,540 per person in the household. A family of four would have to earn less than $32,550 (4,540 x 3 + 19,200 = 32,550) to qualify. You could be automatically eligible If you are currently enrolled in SNAP, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.
States also have their own forms of utility assistance. Ohio, Colorado, New Jersey, Nevada, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Maine all have various forms of Percentage of Income Payment Plans (PIPP).
The idea is that a customer pays a fixed percentage of their income to their gas or electric bill, and if they make full and on-time payments, the remaining balance is forgiven at the end of each month.
Your local LIHEAP office should have more information on state-run programs like PIPP.
Enrolling in LIHEAP will help in the long term, but if you’re in danger of having your lights cut off in the next 24-48 hours, you need help right away. Call local churches and social service agencies and ask if they have emergency/crisis funds available to pay utilities.
When you’re unable to pay your bills, the one option you want to avoid is using your credit card. The debt you pay this month could get compounded with interest charged by your card company and make the situation worse.
If credit card debt got you here in the first place, you should look into credit consolidation help from a nonprofit agency as a way out. In the meantime, take advantage of the aid that is out there.
Dialing 2-1-1 is the financial help equivalent of 9-1-1 for this type of emergency. A regional operator will direct you to local organizations that can help with a number of problems including utility assistance.
These are some of the organizations you will be referred to:
- Salvation Army
- Catholic Charities
- Love Inc.
- Lutheran Social Ministry
- Vincent de Paul Society
- Jewish Federation of North America
- Urban League
There are many more, especially at local churches, which usually have specific ministries within the church that cater to financial crisis situations. Call the churches in your area and ask if they have a crisis assistance program that could keep your utility from being shut off.
Electricity Shut Off Laws
In addition to the orders by states for utility companies to suspend disconnections during COVID-19, some states have laws preventing utility companies from shutting off utilities under other circumstances.
These laws typically state that power can’t be disconnected during the cold winter or hot summer months. Families with children or a customer with a medical need may also have utility disconnection laws protecting them.
Utility Company Programs
The utility company itself will often work with its customers so long as you communicate your situation with them.
Many companies have payment plans designed for these problems. They might take your balance and add a small amount to future monthly bills until it’s paid off. Another option is to pay one fixed rate determined by your average utility bill the last 12 months. This should help you budget more efficiently and avoid an enormous bill in the hot or cold months.
Some utility companies partner with local charities and can help you find assistance. Duke Energy, for example, has an Energy Neighbor Fund that works in conjunction with local agencies in Florida.
The Dollar Energy Fund works with 31 utility companies around 12 states to provide aid in the form of grants similar to LIHEAP.
What Can You Do If Your Electricity Is Disconnected?
If none of the above steps work and you don’t qualify or can’t find assistance to prevent your electricity from being shut off, there are a few final steps you can try.
The Energy Crisis Intervention Program, or ECIP, helps low-income households in a crisis situation. Getting a 24-48 hour disconnect notice from a utility company qualifies as a crisis and an opportunity to contact ECIP. Much of this assistance is through LIHEAP.
Simple Steps to Save on Electricity
As mentioned at the top, there are steps you can take to make electricity more affordable in your home and all it takes is a common sense approach to the problem.
- Your heating and air conditioning system is the number one cause for soaring electric bills. Adjust the thermostat up 4-6 degrees in the summer and down 4-6 degrees in the winter to save money.
- Your water heater may be next in line for costing you money. Stop using hot water to wash clothes. Most of the electricity used on a load of wash goes to heating the water. Same is true with kitchen or bathroom sinks. Only turn on the hot water if you absolutely want hot water.
- Shut the curtains, or pull the blinds closed. Keeping the sun from heating up your home will save you a ton of money on air conditioning costs. During winter, open up the drapes and blinds to let some warmth into a cool home.
- Turn off the lights and fans when you leave a room. Why pay for power to a room when you’re not in there benefiting from it?
- Cover all dishes in the refrigerator. Food releases moisture when it’s uncovered, which makes the condenser in your refrigerator work harder to keep things cool. Help it out by putting leftover food in a Tupperware container or, at least, covering it with plastic wrap or aluminum foil.