The state's Cold Weather Rule goes into effect today, placing tight restrictions on utilities disconnecting service from people who fall behind in their bills.
"It's a really valuable resource," said Steve Rarrick, a lawyer for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, the state agency that represents residential utility customers and fought to create and maintain the rule.
"If they (customers) lose their job or something, they can at least keep their house warm during these cold weather months," Rarrick said.
The Cold Weather Rule requires utilities to set up 12-month payment plans for customers who can't afford to pay their full bill when the temperature drops and home energy use for heating goes up.
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The rule also restricts utilities from initiating disconnection when the low temperature is expected to fall below 35 degrees in a 48-hour period.
And it requires utilities to give the customer 10 days' notice of intent to disconnect electric or gas service. The utility must also give a second, final disconnect notification at least 24 hours before cutting service. That notification must be by phone, personal contact or a door note at the affected home.
Customers who can't pay their winter bills do need to contact their utilities to go on a payment plan, said Jesse Borjon, spokesman for the Kansas Corporation Commission.
The customer can pay one-twelfth of his or her outstanding balance, with the rest spread out equally over the next 11 months.
Ideally, customers will pay their regular monthly bill plus the deferred amount until they can catch up.
Utilities also can help consumers apply for federal, state and local programs that provide assistance with utility bills.
"Hopefully it keeps people from freezing during the winter months," Rarrick said. "It also cuts down on people doing things like starting unsafe fires in their house like a little campfire, or using appliances that aren't approved for use indoors to heat their homes."
For more information on the Cold Weather Rule, contact your electric or gas company directly, or call the Kansas Corporation Commission consumer affairs office at 800-662-0027.