Water Utilities FAQs

shutterstock_86961598The rights of water consumers in New York State depend on whether the water supplier is a municipality or a large or small water company. Large private water companies (those with revenues of at least $250,000) are regulated by the Public Service Commission (PSC) and subject to the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA). These rules generally parallel those for electric and gas service.

Although smaller water companies are exempt from HEFPA, they still must comply with PSC regulations concerning termination and complaint procedures. They are also subject to rules governing service termina­tions to multiple dwellings, customer security deposits, payment agencies, back-billing and the refund of overpayments.

Municipally owned water suppliers (those of cities, towns, villages, etc.) are not governed by the Public Service Law. Still, they must comply with the statutes which created them. More importantly, municipal water consumers have certain constitutional rights which municipal water suppliers, as governmental entities, may not take away.

Please click on the arrow ( V ) to access the answer to each question.

Large Private Water Companies


Getting Service


Q. How do I get service?

A. You can apply for water service by calling the utility and giving your name, address, telephone number, and prior account number, if any. If your verbal application for service is denied or not acted upon, you have the right to complain to the Public Service Commission.

Sometimes the utility requires a written application. This can happen when a former customer’s service at your residence was terminated for non-payment, the meter has advanced or been tampered with since the last customer left, or your application is made in your name by someone else.

The utility must notify you within two business days if it will require a written application and why your verbal application is not sufficient. It can also require reasonable proof of your identify to verify your name and prior address so you may be asked to provide your driver's license or credit card. The utility may also ask for proof of responsibility for service at your new residence and will ask to see a lease, deed, bill of sale, or other document showing you occupy the premises. The utility cannot require you to give your Social Security number as a condition of receiving service.

Q. Can a utility refuse me service if I owe them money on a previous account in my name?

A. The utility must provide service to you even if you owe money on a previous account in your name, if you:

  • Pay the amount you owe in full; or
  • Make a payment agreement to pay off the amount you owe in installments over time. The utility must offer and negotiate such an agreement to you; or
  • Have a dispute with the utility concerning the amount which has not been paid pending with the Public Service Commission in a complaint proceeding; or
  • Are receiving or have applied for public assistance, Supplemental Security Income, and the local social services office has agreed to pay for all or a portion of amounts owed on your previous account and agreed to provide the utility with a guarantee of future payments on your new account; or
  • The Public Service Commission (PSC) directs the utility to provide you with service.

Q. I just moved into an apartment where an old tenant, not on the lease, had the utility account in his name. He was pocketing the money from the roommates and did not pay the bill. He has now moved out and our water was shut off two weeks ago. We have a bill of $400 and the utility will not allow me to open a new account in my name without a new lease. Is there any legal recourse? I cannot afford to pay this bill for which I am not responsible.

A. Public Service Law 31 requires the utility to provide service to an occupant who does not owe the company money for past service in his or her name.

Applications for service may be made verbally (usually by telephone) or in writing. Where there are arrears from a prior account at the premises, the company may require a new applicant for service to make a written application and to provide proof of identity. This may be done at utility company offices.

Service is available to an "occupant" whether or not they are named on a written lease. A lease is not a precondition to receiving utility service, but if you are on a lease it can be one way to provide evidence you are an occupant at the premises.

Other evidence of one's occupancy at a particular address that should be acceptable are driver's license, passport address, other ID with the address and mail received at the address.

The utility is required to provide service to a new applicant within 5 days and must provide written notice of denial if it refuses service. A denial of service should include detailed information about how the denial may be reviewed by the Public Service Commission (PSC).

If the utility refuses service the applicant can call the PSC Hotline if service is off or is about to be shut off (1-800-342-3355).

An applicant whose request for service has been denied can also lodge a formal complaint about a denial of service by calling the PSC at 1-800-342-3377. Complaints may also be made lodged in person at PSC offices, by mail to the PSC, and on their website.

Q. How will I know if the utility intends to deny me service?

A. If the utility intends to deny your application, it must send you a written notice within three business days of your date of application, informing you of the reasons for the denial and the steps you must take to get service (such as a Deferred Payment Agreement). And you have a right to a Public Service Commission (PSC) investigation and review of the denial, including the appropriate address and telephone number for filing the complaint and the PSC hotline number (1-800-342-3355).

If you have not received service or a notice within three business days, you may deem your application for service to have been denied and complain to the PSC by calling 1-800-342-3377 or file a written complaint with the PSC.

Q. When can the utility demand a deposit?

A. In general, residential service must be provided with no deposit to an applicant. Deposits may not be required from recipients of public assistance or Social Security Income. The law and regulation permit the utility to require a deposit in the following situation:

  • When the applicant is a short term customer who is defined as “a person who requires service for a specified period of time that does not exceed one year.”
  • When the applicant is a seasonal customer who is defined as “a person who applies for and receives utility service periodically each year, intermittently during the year, or at other irregular intervals.”
  • If the applicant’s utility service was terminated for nonpayment during the preceding six months.


Preventing Terminations (Shut Offs)


Q. Can the utility shut off my service?


A.  A utility can’t terminate your water service unless you fail to:

  • Pay charges for services rendered in the past twelve months or longer in certain situations;
  • Make payments under a written Deferred Payment Agreement. However, a DPA can be renegotiated if your financial circumstances change;
  • Pay or agree in writing to pay equipment and installation charges related to the initiation of service; or
  • Pay a lawfully required deposit, and
  • The utility gave you a notice in writing at least 15 days in advance that it plans to shut off your service. During that time you can pay the overdue bill or make a payment agreement on the overdue amount to prevent termination. Termination notices may not be sent until at least 20 days after payment was due.

Q. When can service be shut off?

A. At least 15 days after service of a final termination notice which cannot be sent out until 20 days after the payment was due.

Utilities can shut off your service only:

  • Between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • From Monday through Thursday, NEVER ON FRIDAY.

Your service cannot be shut off on a public holiday, the day before a holiday, the week period between and including Christmas and New Year's Day, or on any day before your utility business office closed.

Q. When is the utility prohibited from shutting off service?

A. Service cannot be shut off by the utility if:

  • A Final Termination Notice has not been sent to you;
  • A doctor certifies to your utility that there is a medical emergency;
  • You have an unresolved billing dispute with your utility or the PSC concerning the amount owed;
  • You make full payment of the amount owed when your utility comes to shut off service; or
  • You make a payment agreement with your utility which covers the amount owed.

Q. I rent my apartment in a multiple unit building and utilities are included in my rent. Can the utility shut off my service if my landlord doesn’t pay his bill?

A. Yes, but you have to be notified of the problem and provided with an opportunity to avoid termination.

To give notice the utility must:

  • Provide written notice termination to the owner and superintendent or other person in charge of the building at least 15 days before termination date. During cold weather (November 1 - April l5), 30 days notice must be given for termination of heat-related water service; and;
  • Post written notice of termination in your dwelling’s public areas at least 15 days before the intended termination (30 days during the cold weather period for heat-related water service); and
  • Mail written notice of termination to each occupant of your dwelling at least l8 days before the intended termination (30 days during the cold weather period for heat-related water service); and;
  • Mail notice to specified public officials. The notice must be repeated to most of these officials 2-4 days before service is terminated.

Opportunity to Avoid Termination

If occupants of your dwelling make timely payments for current service, the utility can’t terminate service because the owner failed to make such payments. And the utility can’t require them to pay anything more than the current charges incurred by the landlord. In addition, occupants making utility payments are permitted to deduct their payments from future rent payments.

If occupants in your dwelling can’t reach an agreement with the utility to prevent termination, contact the Public Service Commission (PSC), who will attempt to negotiate such an agreement with the utility. In certain situations, the PSC will stay a threatened termination if the occupants are making good faith efforts pay current bills.

Q. I am a tenant in a two family dwelling with one utility meter and my utilities are included in my rent. Can the utility shut off my service if my landlord doesn’t pay his bill?

A. When the utility knows that a single meter measures utility service to both units of your dwelling, it must comply with the following procedures before terminating service:

To give notice the utility must:

  • Give the owner notice 15 days before termination (30 days during the cold weather period for heat-related water service), and to the occupant of each occupied unit; and
  • Where possible, post a copy of the notice of its intent to terminate service in a conspicuous place at or within the dwelling.

Opportunity to Avoid Termination

Any occupant of a two-family dwelling not metered separately may prevent termination of service by:

  • Paying current charges. If you pay current charges you are not liable for future bills rendered for service. Future bills will continue to the owner (you can receive a copy). You can set off any payments you make against your rent.
  • Applying for service in your own name, thus making you liable for future payments. There are two potential problems with this option. First, you become responsible for service. Second, if the meter registers service to two apartments, the responsible tenant creates a "shared meter," which is against public policy.

Q. What if I have a medical emergency or am blind, disabled or elderly or in cases of cold weather, can my water service be terminated?

A. There are special safeguards against terminations in the following three situations:

  • In medical emergencies;
  • To elderly, blind or disabled customers; and
  • In cold weather periods for heat-related water service.

In medical emergencies, termination is generally forestalled. In the case of the elderly, blind or disabled customers or cold weather, a utility may eventually terminate service after complying with specific Public Service Commission (PSC) requirements.

In each of these situations, the customer remains liable for the costs of service and must make reasonable efforts to pay.

Q. What happens if I have a medical emergency?

A. When your utility is notified by your doctor or the local Board of Health that a medical emergency exists that will be aggravated by the lack of utility service, it has to keep your service on or restore your service for 30 days. The notification may be made by phone, but must be followed within five business days by written certification, which should be on the doctor’s letterhead. This certificate may be renewed for an additional 30 days by the doctor who must explain how long the condition will last and you must show why you are unable to pay your utility bill. If your medical condition is chronic, a longer time period can be approved.

If utility service is required to operate a life support system (ventilator, dialysis machine) the doctor's certificate remains effective unless terminated by the Public Service Commission (PSC). However, every three months, you must show your utility why you can't pay your bill. Your utility will code your account to ensure service is continued to your residence.

If the utility intends to terminate service to a medical emergency account, it must send a final termination notice fifteen days prior to the date of termination.

During the medical emergency your obligation to pay the bill is suspended and you may owe a large amount at the end of the medical emergency. The PSC is required to help you work out payment arrangements to avoid arrearages at the end of the emergency.

Q. Where can I find an example of a physician's certification of a medical emergency?

Q. What are the special procedures to protect the elderly, blind or disabled customers from termination?

A. Utilities must follow special procedures before terminating or refusing to restore service to customers who are identified as blind, disabled or 62 years of age or older. However, these protections only apply if all the remaining household residents are blind, disabled, age 62 or older or age l8 or younger.

When these circumstances are known, the utility must diligently try to contact an adult resident at the premises by telephone or, if unsuccessful, in person, at least 72 hours before terminating service to devise a plan to prevent termination and to pay the bills.

Payment may be accomplished through a deferred payment agreement (DPA), or by payment or guarantee of payment by any governmental or social welfare agency or private organization. If no plan to secure payment can be reached, the utility must notify the local department of social services (DSS) and provide the customer's name, address and termination date, so that the DSS may assist in developing a plan for the customer. The utility must continue the service for at least 15 business days after it makes the referral, unless it is notified by DSS that acceptable payment or other arrangements have been made. The customer may also seek help from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to develop a payment plan.

In cases where service has already been terminated, and the utility is thereafter notified that the customer is entitled to the elderly, blind or disabled protections, the utility is required to make a diligent effort to contact an adult resident at the customer's premises, by telephone or in person, within 24 hours of its receipt of such notice. When it makes the contact, it must follow the pre-termination procedures outlined above (devise a DPA or refer to DSS).

Even when a utility has properly terminated service, it is still required to make a diligent effort to contact an adult resident at the elderly, blind or disabled customer's premises within 10 days following the service termination to determine whether alternative arrangements for utility service have been made. If no arrangements are in place, the utility must try again to devise a plan to restore service and arrange for the payment of bills.

Q. What are the special procedures to protect customers from termination in cold weather periods?

A. During cold weather periods from November 1 - April 15, utilities must follow special procedures in supplying heat-related water service. These procedures vary depending on whether a customer is directly responsible for the utility bill or are a resident of a multiple dwelling unit or two-family house. The utility must identify residential households within its service territory whose water service is heat-related and apply procedures based on the type of dwelling.

Q. I live in a single family dwelling. What are the special procedures to protect me from termination in cold weather periods?

A. Before terminating service to a single family dwelling during cold weather:

  • The utility must try to contact the customer or an adult resident at the customer's premises, by telephone or in person, at least 72 hours before the intended termination to determine whether the termination is likely to cause a serious impairment to the health or safety of any resident. The utility must repeat this attempt at the time of termination.
  • If the utility learns that a resident is likely to suffer a serious impairment to health or safety, it may not terminate heat-related service until:
    1. The utility notifies the local department of social services (DSS) commissioner orally and provides written notice within 5 days that a resident is likely to suffer a serious impairment to health or safety as a result of termination; and
    1. DSS, following its investigation, informs the utility that the reported condition is not likely to result in a serious impairment to health or safety or that an alternative means for protecting the person's health or safety has been devised. (A utility may use its discretion whether to terminate the service if it does not receive any report from DSS within l5 business days after its written referral to DSS.)

If the utility terminates service during the cold weather period without first making the required contact with the customer and the customer does not contact the utility by 12PM on the following day for reconnection, the utility must immediately make an on-site visit to the customer's home to determine whether there is continued occupancy and whether the continued lack of utility service may cause a serious impairment to health or safety. If the utility so determines, it must immediately restore service and refer the matter to DSS. If no personal contact can be made and there are no reasonable grounds to believe the premises are vacant, the utility must immediately refer the case to the local DSS.

If a utility decides to terminate service during the cold weather period because of an unsafe condition or because of meter tampering, it must observe the same procedures set forth above under Heat-Related Service to Single Family Dwellings.

Q. I live in a multiple dwelling. What are the special procedures to protect me from termination in cold weather periods?

A. Before terminating service to a multiple dwelling during cold weather, the utility must follow the termination rules for multiple dwellings, but provide the required written notices at least 30 days before the intended termination.

The utility must also give each occupant at least l0-days written notice of an intended termination. The notice must advise occupants to contact the utility immediately if any occupant has a serious illness or medical condition that is likely to result in a serious impairment to health or safety from the loss of heat related service, in which case the utility must conduct an on-site interview and refer confirmed situations of likely serious impairment to the local department of social services (DSS) office.

For at least l5 business days after referral to DSS, the utility must continue heat-related service to the multiple dwelling or otherwise provide heat to the person likely to suffer a serious impairment. The utility may not thereafter terminate heat-related service to the entire dwelling during the cold weather period unless:

  • It otherwise provides heat to the person likely to suffer a serious impairment;
  • DSS informs that appropriate alternative arrangements to preclude a serious impairment to health or safety have been made; or
  • DSS informs that the claim of impairment is without merit.

The utility may then terminate service after giving at least 5 days written notice to the occupants.

Q. I live in a two- family dwelling. What are the special procedures to protect me from termination in cold weather periods?

A. Before terminating service to a two-family dwelling in or outside of New York City during cold weather, the utility must follow the termination rules for either single-family dwellings or multiple dwellings.

In addition, any notices required must be provided at least 30 days before the intended termination date. The criteria for utility field personnel to use as general standards in determining whether a person is likely to suffer a serious impairment to health or safety are:

  • age, infirmity or mental incapacitation;
  • use of life support systems;
  • serious illness;
  • physical disability or blindness; and
  • Any other factual circumstances which indicate severe or hazardous health situations.

Q. What other protections against terminations do I have in the cold weather period?

A. During the cold weather period utilities and municipalities are required to continue service when a service termination will likely cause a serious impairment to health or safety and the utility customer, because of mental or physical problems, is unable to manage their own resources or to protect themselves from neglect or hazardous situations without help from others. In such cases, there is no distinction between heat-related and non heat-related service. Utilities are required to continue to provide service to these residential customers.

Once a utility has been notified of a situation as described above, it must extend the protection to that customer and notify the local department of social services (DSS) office. If there is any doubt whether termination will cause a potentially serious impairment, it must be resolved in favor of continued service.

Local DSS offices are required to respond to suspected serious impairment to health and safety, neglect, hazard and dormant account referrals as follows:

  • Identify whether the customer referred is a recipient of public assistance.
  • Attempt in-person contact to devise a plan to prevent termination. If in-person contact can’t be achieved, and the utility has contacted the customer but no plan has been devised to prevent termination, the local DSS office sends a letter to the referred household explaining how it may apply for emergency assistance and identify the date by which such application for assistance must be made in order to prevent utility service termination.
  • Send the letter described above to the referred household whenever the utility has not contacted the household before terminating service, there’s no suspicion or verification of a suspected serious impairment or neglect or hazardous situation, or the account is dormant.
  • Report back to the utility within 15 business days, but only in cases where serious impairment to health or safety is likely to result, or in neglect or hazardous situation referrals.
  • Assist the household to make timely application for emergency assistance to resolve the termination threat or to restore service.

While the local DSS office investigation is pending, the utility must continue service for at least l5 business days from the date referral was made unless DSS notifies it that acceptable payment or other arrangements have been made.


Deferred Payment Agreements (DPAs)


Q. What if I can't pay my bill?

A. Under the Home Energy Fair Practices Act the utility is required to negotiate in good faith with you over the terms of a deferred payment agreement (DPA) based on your financial situation.  Under a DPA you agree to pay current bills plus the DPA amount to pay back what you owe over time.

Q. The utility says I broke a previous understanding with its collections office to pay the bills and now they will not negotiate a DPA with me. What can I do?

A. A utility may refuse to enter into a new DPA only if an old one was broken and there has been no change of circumstances that would justify a new one. A DPA, however, is required to be in writing, and signed by both the customer and the utility. Therefore, unless you broke a real DPA, the utility is required to negotiate with you now based on your present circumstances for a real DPA.

Q. The utility still insists on a large down payment to restore service which I do not have and refuses to restore service unless I make the large upfront payment. What can I do?

A. The Public Service Commission (PSC) must review and decide a dispute over the terms of a DPA and may order the utility to immediately restore service. Call the PSC Hotline at 1-800-342-3355.


Small Private Water Companies


Preventing Terminations (Shut Offs)


Q. I am the customer of a small water company. What are the rules for terminating water service?

A. The utility must provide at least 15 days written notice of a termination of service and include instructions for making a complaint to the water company in its notice. Water service may not be terminated on the weekend, holidays or days when the water company offices are not open for business.

Q. I rent my apartment and the landlord includes water service from a small water company in the rent. He hasn’t paid the water bill and the water company is threatening to terminate service to the whole building. What can I do?

A. If the owner or landlord fails to pay bills for service and the entire building is scheduled for service termination, the water company must mail notices to of the impending shut-off at least 18 days in advance. In addi­tion, notices must be posted in public areas of the building at least 15 days before the termination is scheduled to take place.

Small water companies must continue service when the tenants of a multiple dwelling decide to pay current charges for water service. The occupants are not required to pay arrears for earlier billing periods that may appear on the bill. Tenants are permitted to deduct from their rent payments they make for water charges to the utility.

Q. Can the water company require a security deposit?

A. New customers of small water companies can be required to provide a security deposit up to an amount equal to an estimated two months-worth of service. If the customer remains current in payments for one year after making the deposit, the company must return the deposit.  Even if the customer becomes delinquent, the water company must accrue interest on the deposit.

Q. My water company billed me an additional amount for service I received 9 months ago. Can they do that?

A. Small private water companies can bill previously unbilled service or upwardly adjust a previously issued bill up to 24 months from the time service was rendered. Bills for service provided more than 24 months previous can also be issued if the customer was responsible for the lack of billing, for example if access to the meter was blocked.

In the event of any overcharge, the PSC has authority to order refunds. The PSC can also require that a customer receive a refund if they become eligible for a lower rate because of a change in the charac­ter of service taken.

Q. Can my water company terminate my service while I have a complaint pending against the company?

A. The Public Service Commission (PSC) prohibits termination of service by small water companies while a complaint to either the company or the PSC is in process, but the customer must pay any amounts that are not disputed while the dispute is in process.

If the company finds the complaint to be without merit, it still must delay termination another five days after notifying the customer of its findings. The company must also inform the customer of the PSC's complaint handling procedures. Service may not be terminated while the customer pursues a complaint at the PSC, nor for 15 days after the PSC notifies the parties of its final resolution of the complaint.


Municipal Water Suppliers


Most New York State resi­dents are served by municipal water systems, operated by cities, towns, counties or villages. These are not regulated by the Public Service Commission (PSC), and there is no independent regulatory body to which consumers can turn for help. The courts are the only remedy for municipal water consumers to obtain relief from unreasonable or arbitrary actions of municipal water systems, after appeal to the municipal water provider itself. Federal and State constitutional protections and principles of administrative law must be relied upon in challenging unreasonable or arbi­trary acts and practices of municipal water providers. While establishing some minimum due process protections, constitutional challenges are not a complete substitute for comprehensive consumer service regulation.

Low-income tenants face a number of problems in obtain­ing and maintaining water service.  Municipal water providers often fail to notify tenants of an impending shut-off and sometimes demand that tenants pay the unpaid bill of the landlord or of a previous occupant before service is restored. These types of problems have been success­fully resolved through the federal courts (although actions in New York State courts are available as well), generally on constitutional grounds. A more peculiar problem in some upstate areas is the refusal of the municipal water supplier to accept applications for service from tenants under any circumstances, due to local rules limiting water service to building owners.

This section answers questions regarding various constitutional principles that have been relied on to challenge municipal water system actions.


Getting Service


Q. The water department refused my application for water service because a previous tenant didn’t pay their water bill and my landlord refuses to pay for it. Can they do that?

A. A common problem faced by low-income water consumers is the refusal of the municipal water supplier to accept applications for service from tenants due to a landlord's failure to pay a prior bill for service. Sometimes arrears are owed by the landlord and other times they are owed by a previous tenant. The practice of municipal water suppliers refusing applications for service due to the arrears of third parties may be challenged on equal protection grounds. The courts have held that such practices are unconstitutional because they create two classes of applicants -   those whose address is encumbered with pre-existing debt that is not their own and those whose residence is not so burdened.

Q. The water department refused my application for water service because they don’t allow tenants to apply for water service in their own names. Can they do that?

A. In several jurisdictions, municipal water authorities have established rules that don’t allow tenants to apply for water service in their own names. These rules can be challenged on several grounds. These grounds include:

  • It isn’t rational to deny service to the tenant of a landlord when the municipality could place a lien on the landlord’s property to recoup any of the tenant’s unpaid water bills;
  • The rules do not "serve important governmental objectives" or are not "substantially related to achievement of those objectives";
  • The rules affect a fundamental right in which state has a compelling interest because water is essential to life and good health. It may be argued that individuals have the fundamental right to contract and purchase essential water service, a necessity of life, from a governmental body which has taken for itself monopoly control over the provision of that service; and
  • Such rules violate due process requirements that guaranty against arbitrary legislation, demanding that laws not be unreasonable. For example by refusing water ser­vice to all but building owners in a desire to reduce uncol­lected bills. By this reasoning, since some tenants may not pay their water bills, all should be prohibited from obtaining service except through their landlords.

Possible strategies for legal redress depend on the facts and circumstances of the particular case.


Preventing Termination (Shut Offs)


Q. I rent my apartment and the landlord includes water service from a municipal water department in the rent. He hasn’t paid the water bill and the water department is threatening to terminate service to the whole building. What can I do?

A. Most courts have found that not only must a municipal water service customer be provided with notice of an impending shut-off and opportunity for a hearing, but also that a tenant whose landlord has failed to make payments for water service is entitled to advance notice before water service is terminated.

The practices of a municipality, village, town or county that provides water service constitute "state action" under the Fourteenth Amendment, and may be challenged in state or federal court against the employ­ees, officers or trustees of the municipal system if the acts and practices complained of deprive the water consumer of a constitutionally protected right.

In addition, some courts have found a statutory basis for tenant consumers who are not customers of the municipal water system to be entitled to water service, and thus have a protectable property interest in the continuation of service.

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