Power companies: your rights
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 that’s much higher than usual. Do I have to pay it?
Estimated bills are based on several factors, including past use and seasonal variations. However, they’re not guaranteed to be completely accurate, and they should only be used when your retailer can’t take a true reading. If you think it’s too high, you can take your own meter reading. Your retailer should accept it and re-issue the bill to reflect the actual usage.
If your meter reading comes back higher than the estimated bill, you’ll likely have to pay the higher bill.
I switched companies a couple of months ago but haven't received a bill yet. If I get a big bill, will I have to pay it all at once?
Get in touch with your retailer. It should do its best to get a bill to you as soon as possible. Once the bill is issued, your retailer must give you a reasonable time to pay it. We think this should be at least the amount of time it took to get the bill to you in the first place. You might also be able to pay it in instalments – just ask your retailer.
My retailer says it’s been undercharging me for five years and has billed me $3000 in back payments. What are my rights?
If your retailer hasn’t picked up on a mistake it should have noticed much earlier, you shouldn’t have to foot the entire bill. While we think retailers should cover it all, at the very least, your retailer should give you plenty of time to pay and should also discount the bill to reflect its mistake.
I’m having trouble paying my power bill. Can the retailer disconnect me?
Your retailer is allowed to disconnect you for non-payment of a bill. However, this is only as a last resort and there are steps your retailer should take before it progresses to disconnection.
As soon as you expect payment difficulties, you should let your retailer know. It should help you sort out a payment plan that’s right for you, double check you’re on the best plan, and it can even refer you to support agencies.
As long as you do your best to follow any payment plan and communicate transparently about your situation with your retailer, it should work with you to keep your power on.
Your retailer should never disconnect you if you’re a medically dependent consumer or if it’s a weekend, at night, a public holiday, during a storm or other severe weather, or any other time where it would be unreasonably difficult to reconnect you promptly or it poses a danger to your well-being.
My retailer disconnected me but only sent one notice of disconnection. It never tried to contact me in any other way. Is it allowed to do this?
No, your retailer must follow the proper process.
Your retailer should give you a reasonable time to pay your bill, at least 14 days. After the time allocated to pay your bill has passed, your retailer can issue a late payment or reminder notice.
If you still haven’t paid after 21 days, your retailer needs to make three separate attempts to contact you about the missed payment. These should be at different times of the day and over a period of more than seven days.
After 24 days, any remaining contact attempts should be used to discuss your situation and payment options. After day 28, your retailer should attempt to contact you at least two more times.
After day 44, your retailer should issue you with a final notice of disconnection no less than 24 hours and no more than 10 days before the disconnection is scheduled.
Unless your retailer has followed this process, it can’t disconnect you.
Switching and signing up
When I sign up, what am I actually signing? Which terms and conditions should I look out for?
You sign a contract for electricity when you sign up to a retailer’s plan. The contract sets out your relationship with the retailer, and it outlines your rights and obligations. Consumer contracts for electricity tend to be standard form. This means they’re offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and you usually can’t negotiate them.
Every contract for electricity will set out that in exchange for payment (whether pre-payment or post-payment) you have the right for electricity to be supplied to your home. The retailer is obliged to provide this electricity, subject to reasonable exceptions. Exceptions might include when power is out because of severe weather, traffic accidents or other events outside of your retailer’s control that disrupt your electricity supply.
Contracts for electricity have other terms and conditions that will change depending on your retailer and your plan. Things to note include how your retailer will measure your electricity usage, how it’ll bill you, and what fees it may charge.
Your contract could also include terms about cancellation. If your contract is fixed term, you might have to pay a cancellation fee. If your contract isn’t fixed term, you can cancel at any time. Make sure you’re familiar with any notice provisions as you may have to give notice before you cancel.
A sales rep from a retailer knocked on my door, offering what looked like a good deal. I signed up but I’ve changed my mind. What can I do?
Uninvited direct sales (where the trader approaches you uninvited either at home, your workplace or over the phone and offers you goods or services) are covered by the Fair Trading Act (FTA). If you sign up, you’ve got five working days after you receive a copy of the agreement 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.
I signed up to a new retailer online but didn’t know I would have to pay a cancellation fee with my old retailer. Can I cancel the new contract?
It’s up to you to make sure there aren’t any break fees or unfinished contract terms, and we suggest you double-check with your current retailer before you switch.
Generally, your contract should allow you to cancel, subject only to reasonable conditions, like providing notice or paying a reasonable fee. Check your contract’s cancellation terms.
I was on a two-year electricity contract and was planning on switching when it ended. But the retailer 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?
You shouldn’t have to pay a cancellation fee if your retailer extended your contract without your consent. 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 FTA. The act bans unfair contract terms. Any term in an electricity contract that allowed the retailer to charge a fee in this situation is likely to be given short shrift by the courts.
I want to move power companies but some of the other companies say they won’t take me because I have an old/incompatible meter and they only take customers who have smart meters. How can I get my old/incompatible meter replaced? Can they charge me for this?
There’s no legal requirement for you to have a smart meter, but a retailer is allowed to require that you have one in order to sign up. However, it shouldn’t refuse you just because you’ve got an analogue meter and should work with you to upgrade to a smart meter if you want one. You might have to pay an installation fee, and a fee if additional work is required at installation. Ask your retailer for a cost breakdown.
I tried to join a new retailer, but it says it wants me to pay a bond first. Can it do this?
A retailer might charge you a bond when you sign up so that if you don’t pay your bill, it can use the bond to cover the charge. Under the Electricity Authority’s voluntary minimum good contracting principles, your contract should oblige your retailer to tell you exactly why it has asked for a bond, how long it’ll keep it for, and how it’ll pay it back to you.
Under the Electricity Authority’s Consumer Care Guidelines, bonds must be reasonable. Remember, if you don’t want to pay a bond and you haven’t yet signed up, you don’t have to use that retailer.
If you pay a bond, it should be refunded after 12 months of paying all invoices on time.
My retailer switched me to a different retailer without my permission. Can it do this?
When a retailer switches you to another retailer without your permission, also called unauthorised switching, it’s usually a mistake. Nevertheless, your retailer is obliged to remedy the situation. You’re entitled to be switched back, and you shouldn’t have to pay any break fees with the new retailer. Any back bills should be discounted if you’ve been paying less at the new retailer, or you should be compensated if you’ve been paying more.
My retailer also provides me with internet and gas. If I switch to a different retailer for electricity, will this affect my other utilities?
There are two possibilities here. If your utilities are provided on separate plans, switching from one retailer to another for a single utility shouldn’t affect the supply of the others. If your retailer refuses to supply the remaining utilities because you’ve switched to a different retailer for one of them, it’s in the wrong.
The second possibility is that your utilities are provided on a bundled plan. This means the supply and costs of the separate utilities are all rolled into one. If you switch to a different retailer, you won’t be able to only cancel the electricity, you’ll have to cancel the whole plan.
Utilities Disputes (see ‘Where can I complain?’) looks at disputes about gas in addition to electricity. For disputes about broadband, you can complain to Telecommunications Dispute Resolution (TDR) if your retailer is a member of the scheme. You can find out here.
My meter is playing up, and the retailer says I must pay to have it repaired. Is that right?
The party that owns the meter is usually responsible for maintaining and repairing it. Unless you bought and installed the meter yourself, your meter will likely be owned by your retailer, your lines company, or meter equipment providers. 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?’).
If it turns out there’s nothing wrong with the meter, you might have to pay for the inspection costs.
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 retailer 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.
For more info on smart meters, see our list of pros and cons.
Power surges and outages
A power surge damaged several of my appliances, including a freezer full of food. Some of my neighbours are in the same boat. Who’s responsible and do I have any comeback?
Under the Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA), you have the right to electricity that is of an acceptable quality. This means it must be as safe and as reliable as a reasonable consumer would expect it to be. If there’s an unexpected and unsafe power surge, and you haven’t done anything to contribute to any damage, you’re entitled to compensation.
You can claim for the cost of replacing your fridge or anything else that was damaged directly in the surge, such as a laptop that was plugged in. You can also claim damages for any loss that occurred as a result of the direct damage, including the food in your fridge. This loss must be reasonably foreseeable, however.
You should direct any claim for damages to your retailer. It can’t tell you to take it up with the lines company. Even if the surge was the lines company’s fault, your retailer should remedy the damage. It then has a statutory right to claim against the lines company under the CGA.
If you lose power because of an emergency, you likely won’t be entitled to compensation, unless you’re covered by your contents insurance.
My retailer had a planned power outage for maintenance, but it didn’t tell me. What are my rights?
Planned outages for maintenance are usually done by your lines company. You can ask your retailer which lines company is the distributor in your area, or you can check here. If there’s an outage, you should be able to find out by visiting your lines company’s website or calling it. It should endeavour to give you reasonable notice of any planned outage.
If it hasn’t, it’s up to you to keep yourself safe during an outage. If you’re a medically dependent consumer, in the event of an unexpected outage you should follow the emergency plan set up by your doctor.
You can’t claim for any loss suffered during a planned power outage, but you can if the lines company didn’t tell you. However, it won’t be enough if you just didn’t know. For instance, if your lines company letter drops and posts about the outage on their website and you didn’t see the notice yourself, you won’t be able to claim for any losses.
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 has an obligation to work with you to keep the lines clear.
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 which 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.
Your lines may be covered by your home insurance. Check your policy documents to find out.
I asked my retailer for a copy of the recording of a phone conversation I had with its customer service, but it says it isn’t its policy to give out recordings. Can it deny me the recording?
You’re entitled to the recording under the Privacy Act. Under the act, you’re entitled to personal information held about you, including recordings of phone conversations. Retailers’ main concerns when it comes to releasing recordings tend to be of the agent that took your call, and any breach of their privacy, but it’s unlikely the act will allow it to withhold the recording.
If your retailer still refuses to release the recording, you can complain to the Privacy Commissioner.
Where can I complain about problems?
You should always complain first to your electricity retailer. It’ll have a process available for dispute resolution. If it can’t sort out your problem or you don’t agree with the resolution, then there are other avenues available.
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.
However, 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.
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.
If you’re a Consumer member, you can use our advice line. Our advisers can help you resolve issues with your retailer.