If we think there's a problem with our energy bill, we should check it against our readings and expected usage.
Equally, if we're not receiving bills or not paying enough, we should take steps to avoid being hit with bigger bills later.
Energy suppliers are ultimately responsible for issuing accurate bills and cannot demand payment for energy used more than 12 months ago.
Problems with energy bills
Accurate energy bills are crucial to ensure that we're paying the right amount for our energy and that we won't get hit with high bills when we can least afford them.
We look at some common energy bill issues below, but one of the most important things to remember is that we should keep an eye on them to check they're accurate.
Even if we have a smart meter, things occasionally go wrong and we may need to contact our energy supplier or raise a complaint.
No bills arriving
One of the most frustrating energy problems that may arise is if a customer is not receiving their energy bills.
This can lead to non-payment of bills or delayed payments, leaving customers uncertain what energy they're using and what they're being charged for.
For many customers, this problem has been reduced by the implementation of e-billing and Direct Debits, but there are still some reasons why households might not receive bills:
- Confusion over who is liable to pay the energy bill
- Uncertainty over who the energy supplier is (after a house move, for example)
- Technical glitches on the energy supplier's part
If a household isn't receiving energy bills or paying for energy, it's vital to find out who your energy supplier is and bring the account up to date.
It might be tempting to wait for an energy supplier to get in touch with you to clear up any misunderstandings about what is owed, but this is a risky strategy and can lead to huge bills.
As we explain below, suppliers can issue back-bills to recoup money owed, and this can lead to problems for customers struggling to pay.
Find your energy supplier
Moving into a new property often means customers aren't sure who their energy supplier is.
If you don't know who your supplier is, try these methods:
- Check to see if the previous owner left a letter from the supplier
- Check recent post to see if a welcome letter arrived
- See if there is a supplier named on the meter (bear in mind this might be an old supplier)
- Contact the Distribution Network Operator (DNO) or Meter Number Helpline
There's more information on this last point in our guide to finding out who your energy supplier is, but you'll need your full address and postcode to hand.
Energy bills can be incorrect for a variety of reasons, so it's important to check them over when they arrive.
Here are five things to look out for on your energy bills and see our guide on how to read your energy bill for more detail on that.
1. Too high
If an energy bill looks too high, it's worth looking closely at the detail to find out what's going on.
Ask the following questions:
- Is the bill based on estimated usage rather than an actual reading?
- How many months does the energy use cover?
- Does the meter number on the bill definitely belong to your address?
- Is the meter faulty?
However, there are legitimate reasons why bills that seem too high at first glance might be genuine.
Energy companies will write to us or email when this is about to happen, but if we've missed the notification then a jump in monthly bills can be alarming.
Other genuine reasons for bills that seem too high could be:
- Increased energy usage over the winter
- New appliances or additions to the household
- Catch-up bill (also called a back-bill - see below for more on this)
- Estimated usage is wrong or smart meter isn't working correctly
On this last point, it's worth checking the actual readings on the meter and compare them with the bill (and the smart meter, if you have one).
If the estimated usage varies dramatically from the actual meter readings, get in touch with the energy supplier to explain the problem. They should be willing to issue a revised bill.
This can also happen if a smart meter isn't working correctly and customers have been asked to provide meter readings, so check whether this is the case.
2. Too low
An energy bill that is too low may seem like cause for celebration, but it could store up trouble for later in the form of higher bills.
For a surprisingly low energy bill, we should ask the same questions as we would for an overly high energy bill and check that we're being billed for all the energy we're using.
If the meter usage and the bill match up but you're still concerned the meter might be faulty because the bills are so low, contact your energy provider and point out your concerns.
It would be useful to have previous bills to hand to directly compare usage - and remember that high winter usage doesn't easily compare to summer usage.
3. Usage seems wrong
If the recorded usage on the energy bill seems too high or too low, it's important to double-check if it's accurate.
The first way to do this is to check the bill's figure with the figure on the electricity and gas meters themselves, even if they have been sent to the supplier via a smart meter.
These won't be exact matches because we will have used more energy since the bill was calculated. However, they should give an indication whether the readings are in the right ballpark or not.
As we mentioned above, if we're still not happy that the readings are accurate, it's worth asking whether the meter itself could be faulty.
4. Unexpected tariff
Our bill will list the tariff we are on and, if it isn't the tariff we're expecting to be on, we should query it.
If we've come to the end of a fixed energy deal, we may get moved on to the supplier's standard variable tariff (SVT). Providers should inform us about this, yet it might slip through the net.
Different tariffs will have different costs per kWh, and these may vary substantially. So, be sure to contact the supplier directly and ask why you're on a tariff you don't recognise.
5. Bills for previous owner
For customers moving into a new home or renting a new property, the energy bill transition may not be seamless.
We do not have to pay for energy that was used before we moved in or took possession of the keys, so we should make sure we have a few things to hand to prove when we speak to the supplier:
- Details of when we moved in including proof such as a tenancy agreement or mortgage contract
- A meter reading from the day we moved in (and a current meter reading)
It's important to remember we cannot be made to pay for bills that we don't owe when we move into a new home, but we need to let a supplier know what's going on as soon as possible.
Back bills or catch-up bills are issued by energy suppliers when we haven't been correctly billed for our energy usage.
As we've discussed above, we can pay close attention to our energy bills, but errors may still be missed and our suppliers may need to issue a catch-up bill for reasons including:
- Mistakes with Direct Debits
- Supplier glitches
- Being billed under the wrong meter number (being billed for another property)
Thanks to Ofgem rules brought in back in 2018, energy suppliers are banned from sending us back bills for energy that was used more than 12 months ago.
This has been put into the terms and conditions for our energy supply, and it's based on the principle that it's unreasonable for a supplier to issue corrected bills for energy used more than a year ago.
When do back billing rules apply?
Under the catch-up bills rule, if we receive a bill that includes energy used more than 12 months ago, we can refuse to pay it.
These rules apply in situations such as:
- If a customer has been receiving bills based on estimated energy usage and a supplier takes a meter reading which details more than 12 months of under-estimated, the back bill can only bill a customer for the 12 months and not the time prior to that.
- If a customer hasn't received an energy bill for more than 12 months and queries this with their energy supplier, the supplier can only charge them for a year's energy and must write off any amount from before that.
- If a supplier has charged a customer for the wrong meter and the customer was unaware of this, a back bill can apply for up to 12 months of energy usage.
While these are specific examples, other scenarios exist. The basic principle of Ofgem's back billing regulations is that customers should be issued any form of catch-up bill for energy used more than 12 months earlier.
However, it's worth pointing out there are certain circumstances where a supplier can issue back bills that include usage beyond 12 months. These are rare, but it's still important to highlight them.
When don't the rules apply?
Ofgem's back billing rules do not apply when customers have been wilfully obstructive or have displayed unreasonable behaviour.
If a customer is at fault, the supplier can pursue their debts with a back bill. The supplier needs to demonstrate the customer was unreasonable and provide evidence of it.
There are two distinct scenarios mentioned by Ofgem where the customer would be fault:
- The customer behaves unlawfully by deliberately stealing energy.
- The customer denies a supplier physical access to check the meter without good reason.
Energy providers raised concerns during Ofgem's consultation into back billing that customers' failing to provide meter readings either deliberately or through their own inaction could make it difficult for suppliers to bill accurately.
Ofgem responded to this by saying their expected suppliers to work proactively with customers to obtain meter readings, with the backstop being that suppliers should engage with the customer to gain physical access to the property. If a customer obstructs that, they would be behaving unreasonably as per the guidance above.
Repaying previous debts
The back billing rules don't stop suppliers chasing up previous requests for payment, as long as those requests were compliant with back billing procedures.
So, customers can't avoid paying a bill for 12 months and then say the bill isn't compliant as it was a legitimate bill at the time.
Equally, if a customer has a payment plan in place to repay an outstanding debt (for example, extra payments added to monthly direct debits), these aren't affected by the rules. This protects the energy supplier, but also the customer as they retain the ability to pay off outstanding debts in instalments when an outright payment could be financially crippling.
High Direct Debits
There's another situation where we may feel our energy bills are wrong: if we're paying high Direct Debits every month and building up credit balances.
The monthly payment system for energy is designed to help us make regular payments on our energy bills and avoid huge bills at more expensive times of year. Essentially, we pay equal amounts each month and build up credit to pay for our winter bills during the summer.
However, customers have been complaining that suppliers are keeping their credit balances unreasonably high and using that money to help manage their own business interests.
Ofgem wrote to energy suppliers in June 2022 detailing the changes they want to make to rules on credit balances to ensure Direct Debits are being set correctly.
In the meantime, customers who think their Direct Debits are too high for their usage should contact their supplier to request they are brought down as we explore in our guide to reclaiming energy bill credit.
If the supplier is unreasonable, submit a formal complaint.
Find out more about your rights as an energy customer.
Summary: Pay attention to bills
Energy suppliers have a responsibility to provide accurate bills to customers and they should respond effectively if we have an issue with our bill.
But it's also up to us to keep track of how bills and raising the alarm is we think something is wrong - especially if we're not paying bills or our bills seem artificially low.
If our energy bill is going up or there's something else odd about our bills, we should:
- Check the bill against our meter readings to see if it could be accurate
- Look at our energy usage to see how much we're using
- Contact the supplier to discuss the issue
Remember that energy suppliers can't bill you for usage more than 12 months previously unless you're deliberately obstructive.
However, if a supplier is billing you for energy used within the last year and they can prove the money is owed, we're obliged to pay it.
If you're struggling to pay your energy bills during the winter, learn what fuel bill schemes are available.