The Basics of Chicago Utility Services for Renters

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We've covered Chicago's many utilities in a piecemeal fashion over the past few years but we've never dedicated an entire article to them. In last week's article about city evacuations I mentioned the three nuclear plants within 100 miles of the city as something that might become a cause for such an event, but stated that the chances of a meltdown occurring were slim.

However, on the day that the article went live a gas line explosion in the Boston area caused an enormous amount of death and destruction in three Massachusetts towns. Now, I'm not one to place to much stock in happenstance but hey, if the world wants to drop a topic in my lap I won't ignore it. So let's talk about utility services in Chicago from the viewpoint of your average renter.

Locals probably know a lot of this information already, so I've tossed in some trivia for you that might be new information. If you know of someone who's moving to Chicago you might want to send this their way.

Electricity

Coverage: 100%. There is no building in Chicago that is unable to be electrified. While some homeowners may choose to voluntarily live "off the grid," their properties can be easily hooked in to the city's electrical mains should they change hands.

Usages: Lighting, electricity, air conditioning, and in some types of housing, Heat.

Supplier: Commonwealth Edison (Delivery), Multiple (Supply). Prior to 2002, ComEd (not to be confused with New York's Consolidated Edison, or ConEd) handled both sourcing and delivery of electricity to the city of Chicago. Between 1997 and 2002 there was a stark change in the power structure, pun intended. The Illinois legislature forced deregulation of the electricity market in response to extremely high monopoly-driven prices statewide. As a result of this deregulation, consumers gained the ability to choose their suppliers, who submit their usage costs to ComEd to be bundled together with their own delivery costs on a monthly bill. Consumers can still choose to use ComEd's supply. Many of them do. Many are still unaware that deregulation is a thing in Chicago, although they probably have been visited by the many door-to-door electricity sales teams, some of them legitimate and some of them not.

Energy sources: For consumers who use ComEd for both supply and delivery, your power in from April 2017 to March 2018 came from the following sources.

  • Nuclear: 36%
  • Coal: 32%
  • Natural Gas: 27%
  • Wind: 3%
  • Hydro: 1%
  • Biomass, Oil, Solar: 0%
  • Other, non-specified: 1%

Billing: Usually tenant-paid. ComEd's infrastructure allows for individual meters for every dwelling unit. Most smaller walk-up buildings have individual meters per apartment, with the exception of a few very old buildings and some high rises. Larger buildings can leverage their size in order to get bulk rates and then bill usage back to the tenants as a separate line item on their monthly accounts. If your apartment has electric heat that you pay for, the landlord must provide a disclosure of previous heating costs to you when you sign your lease.

Water and Sewer

Coverage: 100%. According to the most recent American Community Survey there are about 2700 occupied homes in Chicago without complete plumbing facilities but they all have access to running water.

Supplier: Water is Chicago's only public utility. It is also Chicago's cheapest utility, a fact with often shocks newcomers. All water in the city is supplied by the city and sourced from Lake Michigan. Those big buildings you can see on the horizon on the lake are called water cribs. They draw in the water, which is then sent through several basins, filters and tunnels for purification before distribution throughout the city. Chicago uses a combination of chlorine, aluminum sulfate, alum, blended polyphosphate and activated carbon to purify the lake water and seal pipes. However, even after treatment it is still some of the hardest water in the country.

The sewer system is maintained by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. This group is separate from the Chicago government, and tasked with maintaining the sewage treatment plants and storm drains. MWRD has 7 of these sewage plants, including the largest one in the world, the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in Cicero.

Billing: Usually landlord-paid. Chicago installs one water meter and issues one bill per lot. This means that with the sole exception of rented single family homes, there is no way for a landlord to know which tenants are using which water, and therefore they include an even share of the water bill in the monthly rent. This is one of the reasons why water-hogging appliances such as dishwashers and in-unit laundry are so scarce in older Chicago apartment buildings. Property owners are billed for water, sewer and city trash pickup on one bill, sent out every two or six months. Sewer costs are usually identical to water costs, so your standard city utility bill will be 2x the cost of water, plus the cost of trash pickup.

Garbage and Recycling

Coverage: Due to the privatized nature of trash pickup for large buildings there's no way to tell how many do not have commercial waste hauling contracts. The amusing and useful site "My Building Doesn't Recycle" has nearly 4000 reports of multifamily buildings without recycling options on site.

Supplier: Mixed. Chicago has divides its buildings into two separate classes when it comes to trash pickup. Buildings of four units or less are serviced by the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation for trash (black cart) pickup. For recycling, the city is divided into six zones. Four of these zones are serviced by private businesses and two by Streets & San.

Landfills: Trash trucks drop their loads at one of 11 transfer stations. From these stations they are hauled by larger trucks to one of four landfills. All four are more than 100 miles from the city, two in Illinois and two in Indiana. Most of the recycling goes to a single facility in Forest View, where it is sorted by a combination of magnets, gears, cameras, weights and manual labor. They are then bundled into huge bales and sent to other locations for the actual reconversion to raw materials.

Billing: Usually landlord-paid. For small buildings, trash collection is bundled in the water bill at $9.50 per unit. All other buildings must contract directly with hauling companies. Landlords with large properties are required to provide separate bins for recycling, along with educational signs and training for tenants as to which items can be recycled. Failure to provide recycling service can result in fines of up to $5000 for landlords. Failure to provide sufficiently large dumpsters is also risky, as tickets are also handed out for overflowing bins. (Sidenote: If you work in Chicago property management I can guarantee you will at some point be asked to climb into a dumpster to pack it down, most often after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and moving days. Plan your wardrobe accordingly.)

Natural Gas

Coverage: 100% of Chicago homes could be connected to gas service if needed. According to the 2017 American Community Survey, about 76% of occupied Chicago homes used gas for heating fuel.

Usage: Most Steam boilers, forced air furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers and many stoves.

Supplier: People's Energy (Delivery), Multiple (Supply). Awareness of Chicago's deregulated electricity is pretty widespread at this point. Far fewer residents are aware that gas is also deregulated in much the same way. People's Energy owns and maintains the delivery framework, but consumers can choose their gas supplier from 13 different businesses or from People's Energy itself. Most natural gas is delivered in liquid form from the southern half of the country through long pipelines. People's Energy buys most of its gas in the summer when costs are lower, storing much of it in an enormous reservoir down in Champaign County called Manlove Field.

Billing: Mixed. If you thought that ComEd was a bit over the top with their separate smart meters in every apartment, they have nothing on People's Energy. Your standard vintage apartment building with steam heat could have a meter for the boiler, a separate meter for the dryers and individual meters for the stoves in each apartment. If your apartment has steam heat the landlord is probably paying for most of the gas, with you only paying a small cooking gas bill if you have a gas stove. If your apartment has its own forced air furnace and thermostat that you control, you will probably have to pay for your heat directly to People's Energy. As with electric heat, if you pay for your own heat your landlord must disclose to you the costs paid in the previous year at the time when you sign your lease.

TV, Phone and Internet

Coverage: According to the 2017 ACS, about 66% of Chicago homes had wired broadband internet access, 5% had satellite internet and 16% had no internet access at all - not even smartphones. 98% had available telephone service although it can be certain that not all of them still have landline phones. The census does not provide any information on cable TV coverage, but given the bundling offered by most ISPs one can guess it will be a little higher than the numbers for wired broadband.

Supplier: Many. When it comes to cable TV, Chicago has five different geographic zones. The rights to provide cable in each zone are leased exclusively to either one or two companies. Comcast has rights to the entire city. RCN has rights in one slender zone on the east side, stopping at the north branch of the Chicago river the west and 51st street on the south. WOW has the rights to one zone on the southeast side. For those who don't want terrestrial cable, both Dish Network and DirecTV are available satellite options.

Individual large buildings may contract with other cable and internet providers, even if they don't have a city lease in the building's immediate vicinity. We did an in-depth article on bulk cable for Chicago apartment buildings and condos about a year ago.

For broadband internet the city has four wired ISPs, one wireless ISP and two satellite ISPs. The three cable companies all offer broadband internet and are joined by DSL and Fiber optic options from AT&T. All of these ISPs also offer landline phone service.

Billing: Usually paid by the tenant. If a high rise building has negotiated a deal for bulk cable and internet it may fold the cost of these services into the rent. But for the most part cable TV and broadband internet are still seen as luxuries by landlords. It's up to individual tenants to choose if they want to subscribe to any media services.

Landlords and condo associations are permitted to restrict the installation of satellite dishes and cables as nearly all of these installations must puncture the surface of the building and they can be seen as an eyesore. If your apartment is not yet cable ready or you want a dish, make sure to check your lease and speak with your landlord first. Note that all satellite dishes in Chicago will point to the southwest, so if your view of the sky is blocked in that direction you will be out of luck.


If you have complaints about utility companies in Chicago, you should first determine who is paying the bill. If the bill is in your landlord's name, it's up to them to solve the problem and there is nothing you can do about it. If the bill is in your name, first try to work directly with the utility company. If you fail to resolve the problem that way, you can also file an informal complaint with the Illinois Commerce Commission. If the informal complaint still doesn't sort matters out you can move on to a formal complaint.

Renters should be aware that Chicago landlords are required to equip their buildings to sufficiently provide heat, water, hot water, power, gas and sewer services to their tenants. While you may still have to pay for these utilities yourself, the facilities must be present in the building or in your apartment to make use of them. If any shutoffs are planned your landlord must warn you in advance in writing. If your landlord fails to provide any of these life essential services they have only 72 hours from the time you report the problem to them in writing to restore them.

If any of these services are absent you can obtain stopgap replacements such as space heaters or bottled water and deduct the cost from your rent. You may temporarily decamp to a hotel and deduct that cost if you prefer. If a utility has been shut off because the landlord didn't pay the bill you can pay it on their behalf and deduct that from your rent as well. If service is not restored within 72 hours you may provide notice to your landlord in writing that you are terminating your lease. If you suspect that the landlord has cut off your utilities in an attempt to force you out of the building, call the cops and get yourself an attorney, because they just broke the law in a big, big way.

It is unknown how this law would be interpreted should a massive natural disaster knock out utility services to the Chicago area for longer than 3 days, as such an event has not occurred since the CRLTO was enacted in 1986. As the landlords would not actually be at fault in this sort of "Act of God" situation it's possible that they would be off the hook for rent deductions. However, it's also possible that the current law would still be enforced and that landlords would have to take up the rent deductions with their insurance providers.

If you could change anything about Chicago's utility services, what would you do? Would you bring in Google Fiber? Convert Lincoln Park to a wind farm? Let us know in the comments!

Published by

Kay Cleaves