How Much Access Do You Have to Give Utility Workers?

How Much Access Do You Have to Give Utility Workers?
Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

There are things about our existence in the modern world we tend to think about constantly, like lunch or whether we can get away with wearing our favourite sweats for a fourth day straight. Other aspects of modern life are almost invisible to us, like the energy that is magically delivered to our homes on a daily basis. You can command light or heat with the touch of a button. Of course, that power comes with a price, which can make some folks a little uncomfortable: The monthly visit from utility workers to read your meters.

Having strangers show up and demand entry to your private space ranges from annoying to disturbing depending on your general anxiety level around strangers, health issues (obviously exacerbated by the pandemic), and privacy. So, what are your options? You own the place, after all.

What’s an easement?

A surprising number of people don’t realise that much of the energy infrastructure on our property is actually owned by the local utility company. Not only does your utility company own stuff like the power and gas lines going into your house and the meters used to track your consumption for billing purposes, they also most likely have an easement, or a legal right to access the property even though they don’t own it. In other words, they can not only enter your property without permission or prior notice as necessary, they can also do stuff like dig up your yard, remove landscaping or structures that obstruct their access (again, without permission), and, to a limited extent, dictate how you can use portions of your property.

It’s important to note that the easement is likely very narrow, covering only the area the utility needs to access its equipment for repairs or other needs. In some cases, it might be a little strip of land in your backyard. Easements are necessary for a number of reasons:

  • They allow utility lines to run in straight lines instead of snaking around property lines
  • They make accessing lines more efficient and less expensive
  • They benefit the community because they prevent single property owners from obstructing utility work to restore, upgrade, or maintain service

Most easements are baked right into your property deed and should have been noted by a title search when you purchased your home. They’re usually perpetual and never expire, and you probably have very little chance of doing anything about them.

Yes, this all includes the meters inside your house. Again, the utility owns those. You may have noticed a padlock on the outer casing and that you very much lack a key. In fact, in some areas, property owners give the utility company keys or combinations to locks on fences and other parts of their property in order to avoid having their fences torn down when the utility needs to do some work.

Your options when it comes to utility worker visits

So, is there anything you can do to stop utility workers from entering your property? It depends.

Reasonableness. What a utility can and can’t do depends a lot on the concept of “reasonableness.” The utility owns their equipment and has a reasonable right to access it, but you still own the land. This means that while the utility has a right to access its equipment, how it goes about that access is determined by the circumstances. That’s why utility workers don’t simply barge into your house to read the meters but request access, and you can almost always schedule your metre readings with the utility if you want to.

On the other hand, if a problem threatens the safety of your community, utilities will act first and request permission later. When the gas line running into my house developed a leak a few years ago, a neighbour called the utility to report they smelled gas and a horde of workers showed up, demanded access to my crawl space at 1 a.m., and spent the next few hours terrorizing my cats — and there was nothing I could do about it and, honestly, nothing I should have been able to do about it because the alternative was possibly blowing up the whole neighbourhood. In other words, accessing the property without permission in an emergency is reasonable.

If you want to really understand your rights and the specific nature of an easement or the question of reasonable access by utilities, your best bet is to consult a legal professional.

Estimated readings. If you refuse to give utility workers access to your property to read the meters, they’re not going to show up with the sheriff and force the issue. What the utility will do is start estimating your metre readings — which will be increasingly inaccurate, and could result in your being overcharged or undercharged significantly. The former is just loaning the utility money at zero per cent interest, and the latter could result in an astronomically ballooned bill in the future, so you might want to re-think this strategy.

In non-emergency situations, utilities will make reasonable accommodations for you by scheduling the work and minimising disruption. While you can’t stop the utility from invading your space when they need to, you can reduce the amount of contact you have.

Try automated meter readings instead

The days of the utility worker showing up on foot to read your meters may be numbered. Like every other sector, technology is changing the way things are done and many utilities now offer smart meters that can be read from outside the house or remotely. Many utilities are replacing old-school mechanical meters with smart meters automatically. Check with your local utility to see if you’re scheduled for a change, which, yes, will probably require access to your property, though you can probably opt-out if you really, really don’t want a smart metre. You can also contact your utility about having smart meters installed proactively.

Alternatively, most utilities allow you to send in metre readings yourself using the Internet. Look to see if your utility has a self-service page; sometimes they allow you to simply upload photos of your meters, but sometimes you’ll need to actually enter the values from your metre. Doing this once a month will keep those pesky utility workers away except in emergency situations.

Metre readers and worker access is just a fact of life if you want to get that sweet power pumped into your home, but you can reduce the irritation and stress with some proactive steps.

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