Your Right to Obtain Service

Produced by Jen Bosco
Reviewed May 2017

When you move into an apartment, you have the right to receive gas and electric service upon request, although special rules apply if you owe the utility company money from a prior address. Most companies will allow you to request new service by telephone.

Some companies may require you to sign an application form.Some companies refuse to serve people under 18 years old, even if they are living in their own home. There is no legal basis for refusing service to a minor. If a company refuses you service for this reason, call the DPU.4

Tenants also have the right to water service and a landlord is required by law to keep the water systems for a rental unit in good working order.5

1. Who Pays for Utilities

The following chart tells you when you are responsible for paying utilities and when your landlord is responsible.

Type of Utility

Who Pays

Water

Landlord is usually required to pay. For more information see When Can a Tenant Be Billed for Water.6

Fuel for
Hot Water

Landlord must pay unless a written lease says the tenant must pay.7

Fuel for Heat

Landlord must pay unless a written lease says the tenant must pay.8

Electricity
and Gas

Landlord must pay unless there is a meter that separately calculates the tenant's electricity or gas use and a written document says the tenant must pay.9

2. If You Owe Money from a Previous Address

a. Electric and Gas

If you owe an electric or gas company money from a previous address, the company may say that it will not set up an account at your new address unless you pay the full amount owed (the arrearage ) or arrange a payment plan satisfactory to the company. The companies often require payment of at least half the arrearage up-front, and sometimes much more than half. However, if you never failed to pay two or more bills in a row at your prior address, you have a legal right to set up a new account so long as you agree to pay off the total amount owed within three months.10

If you did go two or more months at your prior address without paying your bill, the company may still have to set up a new account for you as long as you do the following:

  • Agree that the company may add the arrearage from your old address to your new account,
  • Set up a reasonable payment plan to pay it off, and
  • Give the company permission to terminate your new account if you fail to keep to the payment plan.

To make this agreement and set up a new account, ask to sign a "Cromwell Waiver." This is a document that gives the electric or gas company the permission to add the old arrearage to your new account and to terminate your new account if you do not pay it off, which the company would not otherwise be able to do.

You should only sign a Cromwell Waiver if you have an old arrearage that is causing the utility company to deny you service at your new address.

Once you sign the Cromwell Waiver, you need to set up a payment plan. The company must agree to a payment plan that is reasonable, taking your income level into consideration. For tips on setting up a plan, see the section in this chapter on Getting Help Paying Your Bills. If you qualify for a special protection, you should tell this to the utility company. See the section in this chapter on Special Protections Against Shut-offs.

If the gas or electric company refuses to let you sign a Cromwell Waiver and set up a reasonable payment plan to dispose of your old arrearage, call the DPU consumer line for assistance.11

b. Wireline Telephone

Wireline telephone companies are more resistant to setting up new accounts for customers who owe money on old accounts. There are no rules specifically addressing the situation of customers seeking new service who owe the phone company money from a prior address. You also may be able to set up a new account by negotiating a payment plan with the telephone company to pay off what you owe. If the company will not agree to a payment plan that is reasonable based on your income, call the DTC consumer line, 800-392-6066. A DTC consumer advocate may be able to help you negotiate a better plan.

3. Deposits

a. Electric and Gas

A company cannot charge you a deposit for residential electric and gas when you first receive service.12

b. Wireline Telephone

A wireline telephone company may charge you a deposit of up to $50 if you owe them money from an old address and if you do not dispute the old bill. The telephone company may also require a deposit if you were previously shut off for failing to pay your bills. If you do pay a deposit and then pay your bills on time for six months, the telephone company must return your deposit, with interest, upon your request.13

4. Installation Fees

a. Electric and Gas

Electric and gas companies generally do not charge installation fees to connect your services.14

b. Wireline Telephone

The telephone company routinely charges fees to connect a wireline telephone (as opposed to wireless) in your house to the central office. They also routinely charge for any requests you make for service, home wiring, or additional jacks. For a list of these charges, contact the phone company.

Note that if you receive TAFDC, EAEDC, SSI, MassHealth Basic or Standard, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), LIHEAP (fuel assistance), free school lunch, Head Start, Veteran's assistance or federal housing assistance, you may qualify for "Lifeline," which provides a monthly discount of approximately $18 per month on the cost of basic wireline phone service. If not, you may be able to get a free wireless phone with a limited number of free minutes each month.

See more information about the Lifeline program.

Endnotes

4. While G.L. c. 231, §§85O, 85P say that if you are 18 or older, you have reached the age of maturity and have the full legal capacity to contract, there is no statute which provides a legal basis for denying services to someone under the age of 18.

5. 105 C.M.R. §410.180 requires the property owner to provide occupants with potable water. 105 C.M.R. §410.190 requires the property owner to provide and maintain facilities in good operating condition which are capable of heating water. 105 C.M.R. §§410.350 and 410.351 require the property owner to have proper plumbing connections and to maintain plumbing and water systems so that they are free from leaks.

6. In certain limited circumstances the property owner could require the tenants to pay the water bills. G.L. c. 186, §22 and 105 C.M.R §410.354(D). Very few property owners have been willing to comply with the conditions that must be met to shift to tenants the burden of paying for utility bills. Therefore, very few tenants in Massachusetts are actually responsible for paying for water. For more information about the water sub-meter law go to: www.MassLegalHelp.org/housing/water-law.

7. 105 C.M.R. §§410.190, 410.201. If no such written agreement exists, the landlord is legally responsible for the cost of heat and hot water even if the tenant has adopted the practice of paying for them. Young v. Patukonis, 24 Mass. App. Ct. 907 (1987). See also 105 C.M.R. §410.354 (property owner must pay for the electric and gas bills unless there is a separate meter which measures only the tenant's own usage and there is a written letting agreement requiring the tenant to pay).

8. 105 C.M.R. §§410.200, 410.201, 410.355. If no such written agreement exists, the landlord is legally responsible for the cost of heat and hot water even if the tenant has adopted the practice of paying for them. Young v. Patukonis, 24 Mass. App. Ct. 907 (1987). See also 105 C.M.R. §410.354 (property owner must pay for the electric and gas bills unless there is a separate meter which measures only the tenant's own usage and there is a written letting agreement requiring the tenant to pay).

9. 105 C.M.R. §410.354.

10. 220 C.M.R. §27.00.

11. The process of using "Cromwell Waivers" to get service at a new address is not required or even described anywhere in the DPU's regulations. 

12. 220 C.M.R. §27.00. This prohibition on deposits applies to the privately owned utilities, such as NSTAR and National Grid, which provide electricity and gas to 90% of the households in Massachusetts. Municipally owned utilities—for example, the Groton Electric Light Department—can charge deposits. G.L. c. 164, §58A.

13. DPU 18448, Rule 4.5.

14. Gas service is not available except where your company has existing distribution lines. Electric companies may not readily agree to provide service to a particularly remote rural customer unless the customer contributes to the cost of bringing a power line to the house.

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