More than 8,800 Philadelphia-area households - about 25 percent more than last year - are entering winter without central heat after having utility service terminated this year, Peco Energy Co. and Philadelphia Gas Works reported yesterday.

Peco said its annual Cold Weather Survey identified 2,563 such households in the city and suburbs, about 70 percent more than a year ago, when it found about 1,500 dwellings without heat. PGW said it found 6,285 city households that lacked service, up 13 percent from 5,552 a year ago.

The utilities reported their survey results to the state Public Utility Commission, as required by state law. The PUC is expected to release statewide data later this week.

Separately yesterday, the PUC said most Pennsylvania utilities - though not Peco or PGW - had sharply increased utility shutoffs in the three years after lawmakers loosened consumer protections to give the companies more leverage over nonpaying customers.

In a report on the effect of a law that imposed the changes in December 2004, the commission noted that PGW, in particular, did not fit the pattern.

Although PGW said yesterday that its shutoffs rose 16 percent this year, the PUC report said that from 2004 to 2007, the city-owned utility dramatically improved its collections while reducing its terminations 21 percent.

By contrast, Pennsylvania's electrical utilities as a whole increased terminations 60 percent from 2004 to 2007 without cutting the percentage of customers behind in their bills. But Peco did not fit that pattern, either.

Although Peco's 2008 terminations were up 41 percent through October, its shutoffs fell 2.5 percent from 2004 to 2007, the PUC said. The number of Peco customers behind on their bills rose 6 percent during that period, twice the overall average for electric utilities.

The 2004 law required the PUC to review its impact every two years and report its findings to the legislature and governor. In yesterday's report, the PUC raised questions about the strategies utilities are using to meet the law's goals of increasing collections and reducing the need for paying customers to subsidize those who fall behind.

Among its other findings:

Since December 2004, when the new law took effect and reduced its ability to intervene, the PUC's Bureau of Consumer Services has turned away more than 71,500 utility customers who sought help in working out payment arrangements with a utility.

The state's electric and gas utilities have increased spending on customer-assistance programs, which subsidize bills for low-income customers, by more than 50 percent since 2004, to a statewide total of $330.4 million in 2007. Last year, about 397,000 customers received an average subsidy of $833, according to PUC data.

Informal complaints to the Bureau of Consumer Services last year identified 147 possible violations of the 2004 law's provisions on terminations, security deposits, and other points of conflict.

The report said such violations raised questions about how well utilities were following the new law, known as Chapter 14.

"The Commission is concerned that failure of utilities to fully implement Chapter 14 leads to unlawful or erroneous terminations, which present serious issues of health and safety for both the individuals directly involved and the surrounding community," the report concluded.

PUC officials say they cannot tell how often deaths occur in homes where utility service has been terminated - a key point of contention among advocates for the poor who say the law has put more Pennsylvanians at risk.

Yesterday's report did not include data from records kept informally by the commission showing deaths in such households over the last two decades. Obtained last week by The Inquirer through an open-records request, the records count 10 deaths in the four years before the 2004 law's passage and 29 in the four years after it.

However, the report noted that the PUC has proposed new rules that would require utilities to report any such deaths they learn of - a proposal the utilities have resisted.

"It's something that the commission has felt should be tracked," said PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles

at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.