If a person does not pay a bill for a utility service, the service provider usually stops delivering service to the individual's home. However, some services, such as heat provided by utility companies during the winter, can mean the difference between life and death. For this reason, some states have laws that forbid electric companies from turning off power for unpaid bills when the weather is particularly cold and residents need it for survival.
Most customers are billed for heat on a monthly basis. If the customer fails to pay the bill on time, the company may choose to assess the customer additional fees. If the bill is extremely delinquent, the company often severs service. From the company's point of view, not paying a bill is a bad example for other customers who may act in kind – leading to a loss in revenue for the utility company.
All utility companies that provide electricity and heat to customers are regulated by various state laws. In many cases, utility companies are granted a monopoly within a particular market in exchange for agreeing to restrictions set by the local government. These restrictions may apply to the rates that the utility companies can charge, as well as how they provide power. Restrictions might also cover delinquent payment protocol.
Many states have laws in place that protect citizens from having their power shut off during months in which the temperature is coldest. Generally, these laws do not provide blanket protection against a shutoff to all customers; rather, utility companies may not shut off power to certain customers, such as the elderly, disabled or those with a low income. In some states, such as Georgia, utility companies cannot shut off the power in winter months to customers who agree to payment plans that help them get caught up on their delinquent accounts.
In some warmer regions of the country, such as Florida and Hawaii, utility companies may shut off power at will at any time of the year. This is because in these states, the temperature does not usually drop to levels that pose a health risk to people who lack power. Also, while some states do not mandate that utility companies refrain from shutting off power during winter months, certain utility companies make it a company policy not to do so. This ensures that the most vulnerable customers are not left without essential utilities.