We answer some common questions about electricity supply.
Struck a problem with your power company? Here’s our advice to avoid being left out in the cold.
I’ve got an estimated power bill but it’s much higher than usual. Do I have to pay it?
If you get an estimated bill that’s a lot more than what you normally pay, your electricity retailer should let you provide your own reading and issue a new invoice based on that reading. You should only have to pay for power you’ve actually used.
If your estimated usage is always too high, ask your retailer why. There may be a bug in its system.
I switched companies a couple of months ago but haven't received a bill yet. If I get a big bill, will I have it pay it all at once?
Although you’re obliged to pay your bills, the power company has to ensure they’re sent within a reasonable time. If your invoice has been sent late, the retailer should give you a reasonable period to pay.
The Electricity Authority has developed model terms and conditions for domestic electricity contracts. These terms state if the bill is more than two months late, you should have at least the period of time it covers to pay it off.
If the bill’s more than three months late, the company should negotiate a discount with you as well as give you a reasonable time to pay.
My power company says it’s been undercharging me for five years and has billed me $3000 in back payments. What are my rights?
Back bills – invoices for past electricity use that wasn't correctly charged at the time – are a legitimate cause for complaint.
Power companies may invoice consumers for past underpayments but the Electricity Authority’s model terms state they should do so “only to the extent reasonable”.
This means an electricity retailer can’t make you foot the entire bill for an error it should have discovered much sooner. The company should take into account whether it contributed to the error, or could reasonably have been expected to know about it.
If it caused the problem, we think it should wear the whole bill.
A sales rep from a power company knocked on my door, offering what looked like a good deal. I signed up but I’ve changed my mind. What can I do?
Door-to-door sales are covered by the Fair Trading Act. If you sign up, you’ve got a cooling-off period of five working days to cancel. The sales rep needs to tell you this and information about your cancellation rights must be included in the sale agreement.
If you’re not given this information, you can cancel the deal regardless of whether the cooling-off period is finished. If the sales rep provided incorrect information about the deal, such as misleading you about how much you’d save by switching, you’d also have grounds to cancel the deal.
These rules also apply if a sales rep signs you up over the phone.
I was on a two-year electricity contract and was planning on switching when it ended. But the company put me on another two-year term and didn’t tell me. It says I have to pay a cancellation fee if I want out. Is this fair?
No. If the company didn’t have your consent to roll over the contract, it shouldn’t charge a cancellation fee.
Companies that automatically roll over a fixed-term contract, and then try to lump you with a fee to end the deal, risk breaching the Fair Trading Act. The act bans unfair contract terms. Any term in an electricity contract that allowed the company to charge a fee in this situation is likely to be given short shrift by the courts.
My meter is playing up, and the power company says I have to pay to have it repaired. Is that right?
The party that owns the meter is responsible for maintaining and repairing it. However, ownership isn’t always straightforward. There are four possibilities:
If you’re unsure who owns your meter, ask your electricity retailer.
If you think the meter isn’t accurately measuring your electricity consumption, complain to your retailer. It doesn’t want to know? Take the matter to Utilities Disputes (see “Where can I complain about problems?”).
I’m moving house and want to make sure I only pay for power at my new property from the date I move in. Will my power company accept a meter reading I provide?
Your retailer shouldn’t have any problem accepting your reading.
Read the meters at your new and old properties on the day you move and provide the readings to your retailer.
Keep a record of the readings and compare them with what’s shown on your bill to make sure you’ve been charged correctly. It can be handy to take photos of the meter readings so you’ve got evidence of your usage.
If you’re unsure how to read your meter, check your electricity retailer’s website for information.
A power surge damaged several of my appliances, including a freezer full of food. Some of my neighbours are in the same boat. Do I have any comeback?
The Consumer Guarantees Act requires electricity supplied to domestic consumers to be of acceptable quality. In practice, this means the power supply to your property should be reasonably reliable and safe. When it’s not, your electricity retailer is responsible for providing a remedy.
Where a fault on the network causes a power surge, and your appliances are damaged as a result, you have good grounds to claim compensation from the retailer. Costs aren’t limited to repairing or replacing damaged appliances; you can also claim to replace the spoilt food in your freezer.
Your electricity retailer can’t tell you to sort it out with the lines company. The act is clear that the retailer is responsible for providing a remedy. Even when the lines company caused the problem, the retailer’s responsible for compensating you. It can claim back costs from the lines company where the latter is at fault.
The lines company says I have to pay to clear the trees around the power lines. Is that right?
The lines company owns the lines along the street (whether strung on poles or underground). At your property, there is a point of connection where your cable joins the lines company's cables, usually at the boundary of your property. You own the cable from the point of connection to the meter box, and are responsible for keeping this line properly maintained and safe.
If a tree on your property is encroaching on power lines, don't tackle it yourself. Contact the lines company: it will check the tree and issue a "cut and trim" notice if necessary.
The lines company will pay for the first cut and trim. After that, you have to pay. The company's priority is removing trees or branches that present hazards, so if you want a trim that’s sympathetic to a particular species, you may have to make special arrangements.
If the lines company doesn't own the power lines – if, for example, they're on farmland or a private accessway – then it's the landowner's responsibility to ensure trees are kept clear of the lines.
Work on trees near power lines should always be carried out by a properly equipped and qualified arborist.
If your line develops a fault or is damaged, you can ask the lines company to fix it but it may charge you. You don't have to use the lines company: you can get an electrical contractor to do the job.
Your lines may be covered by your house insurance. Check your policy.
Where can I complain about problems?
If you’ve got a problem with your power company and can’t resolve it, take your case to Utilities Disputes.
Utilities Disputes is a free service that deals with disputes between consumers and their electricity and gas providers. All retailers and distributors must belong to the service and are bound by its decisions.
Utilities Disputes can consider compensation claims up to $50,000 or up to $100,000 if the retailer or distributor agrees.