While most Wichitans have been enjoying a brief vacation from winter, the warm temperatures this week are bad news for about 550 local households facing disconnection of their electric and gas service Wednesday.
A couple of days with the low above 35 have opened a rare and narrow one-day window on Wednesday for utilities to disconnect customers who are behind on their bills without running afoul of the state Cold Weather Rule.
That rule generally prohibits shutoffs of heating utilities in winter months when cold temperatures can threaten lives and property.
But the rule allows shutoffs when the temperature is not forecast to dip below 35 degrees for a 48-hour period.
Westar Energy and Kansas Gas Service, the state’s dominant power and gas providers, confirmed they were tagging homes in Wichita on Tuesday for disconnection on Wednesday, the only day they can do it before temperatures are forecast to start coming back down.
The disconnections are underway only in the Wichita area, which has been slightly warmer than other parts of the state.
David Springe, chief consumer counsel for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, said it’s a bad time to be shutting off anybody’s service.
“Technically, it appears they can do it,” he said. “But I don’t think they should. We’re talking about racing the clock for 24 hours.
“It’s poor form when they know it’s going to get cold again. We still have a lot of winter left.”
Black Hills Energy, which provides natural gas service primarily in northwest Wichita, has decided not to pursue disconnections at this time, spokeswoman Monique Pope said.
“We will not be tagging Black Hills Energy customers today for disconnection tomorrow,” Pope said Tuesday.
Representatives for Westar and Kansas Gas emphasized that they will be informing the customers of their right under the Cold Weather Rule to pay one-twelfth of the amount in arrears now and spread the rest in equal installments over the next 11 months.
“We are not going to do anything to endanger anyone,” said Leonard Allen, a spokesman for Westar.
On Tuesday, Westar was putting door tags on 392 customers’ households in the Wichita area, while Kansas Gas was tagging 160, according to the companies.
The other three Cold Weather Rule weather regions – southeast Kansas, the Salina area and the Topeka-Lawrence-Kansas City area – remained protected from disconnections because the forecast lows there have stayed below 35.
Western Kansas is primarily served by unregulated utility co-ops and a few smaller regulated utilities that have opted not to turn customers’ services off during the Cold Weather Rule period, said Jesse Borjon, spokesman for the Kansas Corporation Commission, the agency that administers the rule.
The Cold Weather Rule is in effect from the beginning of November until the end of March.
The rule requires utilities to contact the customer by phone or leave a door hanger informing them that their gas or electricity will be shut off the following day.
The disconnection can occur as long as the temperature is forecast to stay above 35 for another 24 hours.
According to the National Weather Service forecast for Wichita, Tuesday’s overnight low was forecast at 35 degrees – as cold as it can get without triggering the Cold Weather Rule’s ban on disconnections.
The temperature is not forecast to go back below 30 until the overnight low Thursday.
It doesn’t make any difference if the actual temperature falls below 35 before then, because compliance with the Cold Weather Rule is based exclusively on forecasts, Borjon said.