Winter is fast approaching, and living in Minnesota, I expect lots of snow and cold! At the farm, we just stocked up on firewood; several cords of oak and maple that will definitely keep the chill away! I love heating with firewood – it is cozy, and as warm as the fire I stoke.
I am lucky to be in control of my heat source. Those who rent may be at the mercy of a cheap landlord who hates paying utility bills. Or, renters may pay for their own heat which leaks through old windows and doors, leaving the occupants shivering, and longing for the steamy days of summer. Whoever pays the bill, we all know that heating costs are expensive.
THE COLD WEATHER RULE (MINNESOTA ONLY)
For those who live in Minnesota, we have what is known as the Cold Weather Rule (CWR). This rule is effective from October 15th until April 15th. It prevents shut-off of any heat utility as long as you make payment arrangements with your provider for a balance due, AND you stay current on those payments.
Some people mistakenly believe your heat cannot be disconnected during this time frame. That is completely wrong, so beware! If you don’t pay your utility bills, your service can and will be shut off. No doubts about it!
On the other hand, this does not mean you have to pay your utility bill in full by October 15th to get protection under the CWR. It simply means you must contact your utility company to arrange a payment plan, and then honor your agreement. Never promise more for a payment than you can really afford. And be aware, your provider can’t demand payments that do not fit your income.
If your income drops during this time, call the utility company immediately to make a new payment plan. If the utility doesn’t agree to a change, you can appeal to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to avoid a shut-off. But you must do so right away, as timelines are tight. You can reach the PUC at 1-800-657-3782. Or, visit its website at www.puc.state.mn.us for more information, and answers to many questions about protection under the CWR.
Not all utilities are covered by the CWR. Delivered fuels, such as fuel oil, propane and firewood, are exceptions to the CWR. But, all natural gas and electric utilities must follow the CWR and offer you a payment plan. And, if you need electricity to keep your heat on, you may apply for the CWR with your electric company. For example, maybe you heat with fuel oil but you control the heat with an electric thermostat.
ENERGY ASSISTANCE (MINNESOTA ONLY)
Minnesota also offers help to those who cannot afford to pay their full utility bills during the winter. Energy assistance can help with regular heat bills, and provides emergency help to stop a shut-off. Call the Energy Assistance Hotline at 1-800-657-3710 or First Call for Help at 211 from a landline, or 1-651-291-0211 from a cell phone, to find an energy assistance program near you.
FOR EVERYONE ELSE:
If you do not live in Minnesota, your state may have its’ own version of the Cold Weather Rule. Contact your utility provider to ask, or visit its’ website for more information. You could also contact your local Legal Aid organization for more information. A directory of legal service agencies can be found on the home page of Legal Services Corporation at www.lsc.gov. Simply select your state and county from the drop down boxes provided.
In general, you should always plan ahead and budget for increased utility costs over the winter. This is typically when your bills will be highest. The first step is finding out how much those bills will be. Review last year’s bills or contact your utility provider for that information. If you are moving to a new home, talk with the landlord, former owner, or the utility company to get an idea how much the utilities (both heat and electric) have been averaging.
To keep payments affordable, ask your utility provider about a budget plan so you can pay the same amount every month. That way, your utility bills will always be predictable.
NEXT STEPS :
LSS Financial Counseling serves everyone. If you’d like help with tools or financial coaching, just give us call at 1-888-577-2227 or visit us online at www.conqueryourdebt.org and pick what works best for you. We offer services in-person, over the phone or online.
Author Barb Miller is a Bankruptcy Specialist focusing in counseling and education at LSS Financial Counseling.