Electricity Authority’s Consumer Care Guidelines: What you need to know
We explain how the guidelines affect you.
Electricity is an essential service that all Kiwi households should have equal access to. But sometimes, things go wrong. You might struggle to pay your bill, or your electricity might be disconnected unexpectedly. What can you do if this happens to you?
Consumer Care Guidelines
In 2021, the Electricity Authority (EA), the electricity market regulator, released its Consumer Care Guidelines. They operate as a minimum code of conduct for power retailers when working with consumers. They’re meant to guide retailers in providing good customer service.
The guidelines aren’t mandatory. Even though the expectation is that every retailer complies with the guidelines, and most retailers have adopted them, they don’t have to.
Consumer NZ thinks the guidelines should be mandatory. Electricity is crucial to the health and wellbeing of households, and being unable to access electricity can cause serious harm.
The EA is responsible for monitoring compliance with the guidelines. It does this through a self-reporting model, so your retailer rates itself on how compliant it believes it is. Information about which retailers aren’t compliant is not publicly available.
However, even if a retailer hasn’t adopted the guidelines, they’re still used to assess the conduct of all retailers when you make a complaint to Utilities Disputes (UDL). Every electricity retailer is required to be a part of UDL.
A Consumer Care Policy
If your retailer has adopted the guidelines, it should have a Consumer Care Policy. Your retailer’s policy should be easily accessible on its website. If it isn’t, you can request a copy.
You might find it by looking for information about vulnerable or medically dependent consumers. Don’t be fooled – the guidelines are for all consumers.
If you think your retailer isn’t complying with its own consumer care policy, you can complain to the retailer or to UDL. See below for more information on how to lodge a complaint with UDL.
Signing up for electricity with a new retailer
Under the guidelines, information about a retailer and their plans should be easily accessible so you can make the best choice when signing up for electricity.
Retailers should help you understand their plans and should make sure you’re aware of and understand the terms and conditions of their contracts.
They should also explain the risks and benefits of each plan, especially pre-pay plans.
When you sign up, a retailer might turn you down. The guidelines ensure your retailer looks at the right information when it is considering turning you down. This means it has to look at more than just your credit record, for example whether you’re getting support from an agency or if the causes of your poor credit record were historical and no longer affect you.
Your retailer should let you know why it decided not to enter into a contract with you. According to the guidelines, it must provide this information. If it doesn’t, you can request it.
When a retailer refuses to take you on, it should give you information on other retailers’ plans that might be better suited to you. They should also let you know about ways you can access support, such as referring you to the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) or another support agency. And the retailer must tell you about where you can find more information on alternative retailers, like on our Powerswitch service.
If you think you’ve been wrongfully turned down or the retailer won’t give you a reason for doing so, you can complain to UDL even if you’re not a current customer.
Communication and privacy
A retailer should communicate with you in your preferred way. This will depend on what communication options the retailer has available. It should ask you which days of the week and times you prefer to be contacted, and should do its best to accommodate you if you prefer to communicate in a different language.
You’re allowed to nominate an alternate contact person as well as a support person who can advocate on your behalf. You should let your retailer know their details so the retailer can get in touch with your alternate contact or support person. Your retailer will need to make sure your contact or support person is OK with acting in this role and that their details are correct.
Your retailer should communicate with you at least once a year. It should make sure that you’re on the right plan for you and that any information it holds about you is still correct, for example your contact details or billing preferences. And the retailer should remind you about its Consumer Care Policy, if it has one.
Your retailer must follow privacy laws. You have the right to information the retailer holds about you and your electricity usage. You can request this information and the retailer must provide it within five business days.
Each retailer will have different privacy policies that outline which information it collects and how it is stored, so you should become familiar with it.
Billing and fees
When your retailer offers different billing schedules and payment options, it should bill you in the way you prefer.
Your retailer should also be upfront about costs. Information about what and how it is charged should be available in its Consumer Care Policy, but you’ll also likely find it in your contract.
Your bills should be clear and easy to understand. And they should be broken down so it’s easy to tell what each amount is for. Due dates and any overdue balances should be clearly visible.
If you’re a post-pay customer, your bill should be based on actual meter readings. Estimated readings should be used as little as possible.
For pre-pay customers, your retailer should give you advance warning of a low balance. It should be at least 24 hours’ notice.
Your retailer is allowed to charge you fees. Fees are any other costs passed on to you that are not part of the cost of electricity. These might include meter installation or testing fees. Your contract will set out which fees may be charged to you, but the guidelines state that they should still be reasonable and reflect the cost of the service.
For example, if you are charged a late bill or large fee for an issue your retailer should have spotted sooner, you might not have to pay for all of it.
If you think a fee is unreasonable, you can complain about it. See below.
Your retailer might charge you a bond. A bond is usually charged if your retailer is concerned that you might miss a payment. Under the guidelines, bonds should be reasonable and should usually be refunded after 12 months.
When issues arise
You should communicate with your retailer in the first instance if any issues occur, including if you think you’re going to have trouble paying, or if there’s been a change in your circumstances.
Sometimes your power might go out. Your retailer should give you advance notice of any scheduled outages. Typically these outages are to carry out maintenance on the electricity lines and equipment needed to deliver the power to your house.
However, some outages can be unscheduled. These are due to unforeseen circumstances and emergencies.
If your power goes out unexpectedly, you should notify your retailer. The retailer should do its best to sort out the issue as soon as possible. Sometimes this isn’t possible, for example during a severe weather event or another kind of grid or lines disruption. In this case, it’s up to you to make sure you’re safe and able to cope without power while it’s being sorted out.
How long you’ve got to pay a bill will depend on your contract, but the guidelines state that your retailer should give you a reasonable time to pay.
If you’re having difficulties paying your bill, you should let your retailer know. It should do its best to monitor your usage, in order to predict any upcoming difficulties and communicate with you about them.
Under the guidelines, there are a few ways your retailer should support you when you’re having difficulties. The retailer can set up a payment plan with you to make paying the bill easier. It should also make sure you’re on the right plan for your circumstances, to prevent you having to pay more than you should. And if you’re struggling, your retailer can direct you to a support agency.
If you miss a payment, it’s important to stay in contact with your retailer.
If you pay monthly, your retailer should issue you an invoice, giving you a minimum of 14 days to pay. At or after 14 days, it should issue you a late notice.
After 21 days, the retailer should make at least three attempts to contact you. It should do this in your preferred way, or through an alternative contact person or support person, if you’ve nominated one. The retailer should try to contact you at different times of the day, and this should be over a period of more than seven days.
By day 24, your retailer should use its remaining contact attempts to discuss your situation and payment options with you. Unless the retailer has tried all other contact methods, leaving a voicemail isn’t enough.
If you pay a different way, these time frames should be adjusted proportionally.
If the retailer has followed this process and you haven’t contacted it about the situation, it can progress to disconnection.
If your retailer does decide to disconnect your power, it needs to make five contact attempts to let you know you’ll be disconnected; these can include the three contact attempts for non-payment of an invoice and a final notice of disconnection.
If you’re a post-pay customer, your retailer should only disconnect you as a last resort. It should only disconnect you if it has followed the proper process set out in the guidelines.
If you’re a pre-pay customer, disconnection will occur automatically if you’ve run out of credit, but only if it’s safe for your retailer to do so.
Your retailer should never disconnect you if you’re a medically dependent consumer (MDC) or you live with one. An MDC is someone who relies on electricity to live and might suffer serious harm or loss of life when there’s no electricity.
You’ll need to tell your retailer if you or someone you live with is an MDC, and give the retailer a note from your healthcare professional to confirm this. You can find more information on what to do if you’re an MDC on the Electricity Authority’s website.
Additionally, a retailer shouldn’t disconnect you if it would be unreasonably difficult for you to get connected again, or if it poses a risk to you or your family. This means you shouldn’t be disconnected on or before a public holiday or weekend, outside normal business hours or during circumstances that might cause harm, such as during a severe weather event or at night.
Your retailer should reconnect you as soon as possible if it didn’t mean to disconnect you, or it has disconnected you when an MDC is a consumer at your premises.
The retailer should always follow the proper process for disconnection. If it doesn’t, under the guidelines it cannot disconnect you.
Your retailer should not disconnect you for any debt not relating to the supply of electricity.
If your retailer breaches the guidelines
Your first port of call should always be communicating with your retailer about your problem. All retailers should have internal processes available for dispute resolution.
Under the guidelines, your retailer should try to resolve your complaint within a reasonable time and if you’re not happy with the outcome, there are other avenues you can take.
Complain to Utilities Disputes
Utilities Disputes (UDL) is an independent and free disputes resolution service that resolves complaints about utilities providers. Aside from going directly to your retailer, lodging a complaint with UDL is likely your best option.
Your ability to complain depends on what’s wrong. UDL excludes certain complaints, so it’s worth making sure you can complain first.
UDL won’t look at complaints unless you’ve complained to your retailer, and you can’t come to an agreement. UDL also won’t consider your complaint if it is being or has been heard by any other dispute resolution process, for example, the Disputes Tribunal.
Take your claim to the Disputes Tribunal
If you don’t want to take your claim to UDL, or UDL won’t hear it, you can take it to the Disputes Tribunal. You can complain if there’s a dispute between you and your retailer that you can’t resolve. It’s likely that the tribunal will take the EA’s consumer care guidelines into account when considering a claim, but any claim based solely on a breach of those guidelines might not be heard.
Ask our advice line
If you’re a Consumer member, you can use our advice line. Our advisers can help you resolve issues with your retailer.
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