Utility Watchdog in San Diego

At UCAN we advise many consumers disputing their energy bills.  One question that we often get is, “If I am disputing the validity of my bill, should I pay it or should I risk having my power shut off?”

There are several factors to weigh when asking this question.  Not only are power shut-offs debilitating and inconvenient; they also require extra payments and deposits to restore service.  On the other hand, you will be hard pressed to receive any back payments from SDG&E after you’ve turned over your cash to them.

Our answer is this: if you are careful, you can refrain from paying your disputed bill without fear of being shut off.  However, to accomplish this you need to understand the rules governing power shut offs and how the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) regulates utilities.  Here’s what you need to know about SDG&E shut-offs:

You need to know when your power will be shut off.

  • SDG&E customers are entitled to a 15-day notice of shut-off and a 48 hour notice.  You must receive an explanation for the proposed shut-off and the options you have to prevent it (such as payment plans and an appeal to the CPUC).
  • If you have a medical baseline or are a life support customer, a SDG&E representative must make an in-person visit before they can shut off your power.

You need to understand how SDG&E payment plans affect shut off.

  • If you agree to an installment plan and miss even a single payment, the entire amount may become due immediately and service may be terminated after 48 hours notice.

 You need to know your time window for opening a SDG&E investigation.

  • If you question the accuracy of your bill and contact SDG&E within 5 days of the mailing date, SDG&E will conduct an investigation and you won’t be required to pay the bill until after the investigation is complete.

You need to understand the CPUC investigation process.

  • If you question the accuracy of your bill, you can deposit the disputed amount with the CPUC.  Once a CPUC investigation has been opened, SDG&E cannot shut you off until it is complete.  Once the CPUC issues a decision they will send the deposit to either the SDG&E or they will return it to you.  
  • If you are dissatisfied with the decision the CPUC issues, you may appeal it to the Consumer Affairs Branch Manager in writing up to 15 days after the mailing of the original decision.  If you are still dissatisfied after the manager’s review, you may file a formal complaint (all complaints are considered informal up to this point).

Now that we have some background on what rules SDG&E and the CPUC must abide by, here are UCAN’s practical steps for managing a disputed bill:

  1. Call SDG&E immediately.  The clock starts to tick as soon as you receive a possibly erroneous bill.
  2. Don’t agree to an installment plan that you’re not comfortable with or that you can’t afford.  You limit your options by doing so and it could result is a quicker shut off.
  3. If SDG&E cannot resolve the issue to your satisfaction, file a complaint with the CPUC right away.  You can use their online complaint form.
  4. Call UCAN.  We can often escalate your complaint and get it the attention that it deserves from SDG&E.
  5. If possible, pay the amount of the disputed bill to the CPUC rather than SDG&E.  This ensures that you will avoid shut-off during the dispute process.
  6. Continue to pay your other monthly SDG&E bills during the dispute process.

If you act quickly and complain to the right people, you can dispute your bill and keep your power on.

More information regarding SDG&E’s procedures and the CPUC dispute process can be found at:
SDG&E's Guide to Customer Rights
The CPUC Informal and Formal Complaint procedures

Posted February 4th, 2011