If a power surge fries your television or an outage spoils the food in your refrigerator, your first thought might be to ask the utility to pay.

Think again. Florida Power & Light, like most utilities, decides which claims it will pay, and consumers who disagree with the decisions can't appeal to state regulators.

FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said the utility doesn't keep track of how many claims it receives or pays but it carefully considers them.

The process can be difficult for consumers, said Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, the state advocate for utility customers. "You'd have to show the utility was negligent in some way in order to recover for damaged property such as a refrigerator or microwave," Kelly said. "If lightning strikes and knocks out electricity…I don't see that you're going to be able to hold them liable."

Stephen Georges, an FPL customer who lives in Pembroke Pines, said he lost $200 in food and a power surge damaged his TV during a January 2010 outage. He said he informed FPL by writing a letter and providing a bank statement for the groceries because he didn't have the receipts. "I never heard a word from anybody," he said last month.

More than a dozen customers reported similar problems to the Florida Public Service Commission in comments on FPL's 2009 request for a base rate hike. The complaints included one about a destroyed projector estimated to cost $15,000 to replace.

The PSC has no authority to help customers whose claims are denied, said Cindy Muir, an agency spokeswoman. Neither do regulators in other states. Customers who disagree with the utility would have to file a lawsuit, she said.

FPL says its system is reliable. Its average customer was without power for 81 minutes last year, down from 83 minutes the year before — not including momentary or planned outages, or power failures during severe weather, according to PSC documents.

But this is Florida, with 1.5 million lightning strikes on average each year.

"While FPL makes every effort to mitigate any power outages, no utility can ever be 100 percent interruption proof. Power outages can result from many unpredictable sources beyond the utility's control," Anderson wrote.

So here are a few things you can do to cope with the ups and downs of the electrical supply.

Turn off and unplug sensitive electronics during an outage or thunderstorm, Anderson said. During an outage, avoid opening the fridge or freezer to help keep food from spoiling, she added.

Report claims for damaged equipment or spoiled food by calling the customer service number on your electric bill. "Customers should provide any information they have to support their claim as part of the process. This would include keeping any damaged items, if possible, photographing damaged items and maintaining receipts for any inspections, repairs or replacements," Anderson wrote.

Check your property insurance policy to see if it covers damage. Damage to appliances caused by perils named in an individual's home insurance policy — such as fire, lightning, windstorms, hail and vandalism — is covered under the personal property section of most policies.

"Most policies state that 'sudden and accidental damage from artificially generated electrical current' is covered," but some small parts of appliances are not, according to Lynne McChristian, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute. "So direct damage from a power surge is covered – and it is subject to the deductible, of course."

Damage to air-conditioning units, household appliances, plumbing and heating from freezing also is typically covered, as long as policyholders take reasonable precautions, she said.

"A home insurance policy is not a home maintenance policy, so there are exclusions for faulty, inadequate or defective workmanship, materials and maintenance," she said.

Consider protection devices. FPL Energy Services, an unregulated affiliate of the utility, can install a surge protector at the meter for $9.95 a month. The company also sells other surge protection devices: a $829 plug that routes emergency power from a home's portable generator to critical appliances, without extension cords normally required. The company also sells generators, including "whole home solutions" that start at $25,000.

Hardware stores and others sell similar products.

FPL Energy Services sells some service programs that act like insurance — repairing damaged appliances, electronics or indoor electric wires — but they no longer take new customers.

The fact that a sister company of FPL offers power protection outrages some customers.

Hilary Warner, of Coral Springs, said power surges have destroyed two satellite TV boxes and two commercial-grade thermostats, but she refuses to buy the affiliate's products on principle.

"It's absurd that I should pay FPL to protect my house when it's their power surge," she said.

Anderson said the utility can't discuss details about customers like Georges and Warner due to privacy policies. "While we do not have any record of damage claims from these customers, we have reached out them to understand their situations and see if we can help," she wrote in an email.

jvpatel@tribune.com and 954-356-4667