In certain situations, a utility company can legally shut off your water without notice. However, in most states, the law typically requires utility companies to provide at least 10-day notice and make multiple attempts to contact you before disconnecting utilities such as water.
Each year, millions of Americans have their water turned off as a result of unpaid water bills. The organization Food & Water Watch estimates that water was cut off to 15 million people in 2016, based on information provided by utility companies. Shut-offs are most common in Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, and Oklahoma, the organization found.
Each state has its own utility disconnection policy that determines the process utility companies must follow before shutting off utilities. In many states, water companies are permitted to shut off your water without notice in very limited situations, including situations where you are:
If your water has been shut off without notice and one of the above situations does not apply, you should file a complaint with your state's public service commission (also sometimes called public utilities commission), which is the governing body that regulates the rates and services of a public utility.
You may also find it helpful to contact a local attorney who specializes in consumer rights. To find attorneys in your area, see FindLaw's attorney directory.
Many states have special protections in place for people who are ill or who otherwise would be at risk if their water were to be shut off. In these cases, you can avoid water shutoff, at least temporarily, if you cannot afford to pay your bill.
For example, Connecticut law states that households with a person who is seriously ill cannot have their water shut off during the winter months, and households with a person who has a life-threatening illness are protected from shutoff year-round.
In Virginia, public utilities providing water service must allow residential customers with serious medical conditions to delay termination of service for a minimum of 30 days up to two times within a 12-month period.
In Massachusetts, private water companies cannot shut off your service if there is an infant under one-year-old living in your home and you cannot afford to pay your bill. It is also very difficult and rare for water to be shut off in Massachusetts if you and all the adult members of your household are 65 years or older.
Remember, though, it will be up to you to file the necessary paperwork, and proof from a doctor (in some cases), to qualify for these protections. Also, keep in mind that certain utility providers, such as municipal utilities, may be exempt from state disconnection policies.
Most states have strict rules that utility companies must follow before they can shut off utilities, and some have programs in place to help people who cannot afford to pay their utility bills. These programs may offer more lenient payment schedules, payment plans, or even income-based payments.
Make sure to research the utility disconnection policies in your state. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a state-by-state guide that is a great place to start.