Energy bill problems: what to do about them
EVERYONE experiences a problem with their energy bill at one point or another, even the most conscientious among us.
It shouldn't be that surprising, seeing as how complicated bills can be, and not to mention how complicated the energy market is, with its constant price rises and its sometimes dizzying range of tariffs.
However, in order to cut through the confusion, we've put together a guide on the most common kinds of problem an energy customer is most likely to face, as well as what he or she can do to begin resolving them.
While it may not cover every single problem ever encountered in the history of domestic energy consumption, it shares general principles for dealing with the vast majority of them, and shows that they don't have to be suffered in silence.
When bills are too high
Perhaps the most worrying and urgent problem an energy customer can face is being sent a bill that seems far too expensive. There's also the possibility that a bill can be too low, and while this might seem like something to celebrate, it's a mistake that also needs correcting, since providers will sooner or later charge customers for the difference.
Infrequent meter readings
Either way, a too-high or too-low bill can arise for a variety of reasons, yet perhaps the most common is that their meter hasn't been read recently enough. Because of this, their energy consumption has been merely estimated on the basis of averages taken from previous, perhaps quite distant readings.
If this is the case, and the customer is aware that a reading hasn't been given in a while, then they should:
- Take a reading themselves and send it to their supplier, so that the latter can send them an updated, more accurate bill.
- Failing that, they can ask the supplier to send an engineer to read the meter
- Better yet, they can ask the supplier to have a smart meter installed. This will provide much more accurate bills, and it's something that energy companies are obliged to do for their customers free of charge
Unusual usage or changed tariffs
However, while this will sort out most meter-related issues, there are a couple of other reasons as to why a bill might be more expensive than usual.
For one, it's possible that either the customer has begun consuming more energy than they usually use, or that their tariff has changed or been increased, as can happen for a variety of reasons.
They should therefore check with their supplier to ask about the tariff they're on, and about whether it may have changed recently.
If it hasn't, then they might want to cast their mind back to their recent energy usage, and to the possibility of it having risen recently, perhaps because of a change in circumstance or an event that might have caused them to use more electricity or gas than normal.
But if even a change in tariff or usage doesn't apply, and a customer has provided a recent reading, then there might simply be an error with the reading itself or with how the supplier has processed the bill.
Customers who suspect that something like this might have happened should do the following:
- Read their meters and compare their latest reading against the one that's on their bills.
- Check for the Meter Point Administration or Reference Number (MPAN, or MPRN) on their bills, and confirm whether it's the same as the one on their meter.
And once again, if there is a discrepancy, customers need to contact their provider as soon as possible and inform them of the mistake. Their provider will then take things from there.
When bills aren't even sent
Another problem that can strike energy customers is that their suppliers can fail to even send them a bill, which are usually paid on either a quarterly or monthly basis.
As with charges that are too low, the absence of any bill might initially seem like a turn of good luck, yet the possibility that a supplier will end up charging a customer for as much as a year's worth of energy in one go highlights the need to act if he or she doesn't receive anything.
Once again, if a monthly Direct Debit isn't taken or a quarterly bill isn't sent out, customers should contact their provider as soon as possible.
However, if they don't realise that they're missing a bill (or several), and their energy company suddenly hits them with a "back bill" for six, seven or even twelve months of energy, then there are a couple of things they can do if they can't afford to pay everything at once.
- Firstly, their supplier is obliged to allow the repayment of the back bill to spread over time in the same way as their usual bills. For example, if they usually pay on a monthly basis and their provider sends them a back bill for 10 months, then they're entitled to repay the late bill across the full 10 months.
- Secondly, customers don't have to pay for any billing period that is more than 12 months old. This is because of guidelines set down by the energy regulator Ofgem, which state that energy companies can charge customers only for a year's worth of energy at the most.
Because of this, customers are perfectly entitled to complain to suppliers who attempt to charge them for two years' worth of energy, for example. They can simply contact their suppliers and inform them that the back billing code protects them from having to pay for more than 12 months' of electricity or gas.
However, it's important to note that this applies only if a customer has made an attempt to contact her provider and to ask them to send an outstanding bill. If she hasn't made any attempt to contact them, for example by moving into a property and not registering with the provider, then she may end up being liable for more than 12 months of energy consumption after all.
When you're owed money by your supplier
As we've covered in more depth in a previous article, one thing that can happen every once in a while is that they build up "credit" with their supplier.
In other words, their supplier can end up owing them money. This can happen because of the Direct Debit charge they pay every month, since this charge is based on an estimate of consumption.
Because it's an estimate, it can on occasion be higher than the value of the energy they use each month, and in turn overestimation can rack up month by month. As a result, customers may be owed more than £100 by their supplier.
If this happens, customers can respond by in one of two ways:
- Wait for the end of the year, when certain providers will automatically refund any credit they're owed.
- Or, if they don't receive an automatic refund or proportionate reductions on subsequent Direct Debits, then they can contact the supplier directly and claim back the money themselves.
The supplier is likely to ask for an up-to-date meter reading, which is perfectly normal. However, they might also ask the customer to consider leaving the credit on their account.
This is also perfectly normal, since customers often fall into credit during summer months, only to use up much of their credit in the more energy-intensive winter months that follow. Because winter can often be more costly for customers, it is in fact a good idea to contemplate leaving credit in their accounts.
That said, if they've racked up a considerable amount of credit and are confident that they'll be able to afford later energy bills even after having claimed back what they're owed, then they should feel perfectly comfortable with having their supplier pay them back.
When you're struggling to pay bills
While not quite a problem or "mistake" in the same sense as the above entries, the inability to pay a bill is unsurprisingly the most serious problem a customer can face.
If a customer is having difficulties affording their energy and has built up debts with their supplier, the first thing they should do is contact the supplier in question and discuss the issue with them.
In many cases, the customer will be able to agree to a payment plan with their provider, who will allow them to repay debts and future energy costs according to a schedule that's more accommodating to what they can actually afford.
For a payment plan to be agreed, however, the customer must do the following:
- Make it clear that they aren't able to pay their energy costs normally
- Provide their supplier with details on their income, expenses, debts and personal situation.
Once their inability to pay normally has been established though, the provider should then agree to a plan that will see outstanding debts repaid in instalments. If the plan still isn't especially affordable, customers can try negotiating with their supplier for a second time.
One possibility for those who can't negotiate a repayment plan involves applying to one of the energy trust or energy funds that most of the major suppliers have established.
These are often open even to customers of other providers, and offer grants to help people pay off their debts.
Of course, everything is means tested, so applicants will have to go through a relatively involved process to fill in their forms and be awarded a grant. However, the process is definitely worth it, since successful applicants will generally have their debts cleared in full.
Added to this, many trusts and funds also offer to pay for energy efficient white goods, so that customers will be able to use less energy and pay less in the long term.
Fuel Direct Scheme
A final option for customers who are also on benefits is to have their debts repaid via the Fuel Direct Scheme.
This works by taking a portion of a person's benefits each month to repay an outstanding debt, and it can be organised by contacting the nearest local Jobcentre.
Once the Jobcentre have been contacted, they'll contact the customer's supplier on her behalf, letting the supplier know that she wants to repay via the Scheme. Having been contacted by the Jobcentre like this, the supplier will be unable to refuse.
For people on benefits, it's undoubtedly the best way of catching up with energy debts. That said, it's available only to people who are claiming the following benefits:
- Income-Based Jobseeker's Allowance
- Income Support
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- Pension Credit
- Universal Credit (but only if you're not working)
That about covers the major kinds of problem energy customers are likely to face with their bills.
However, if a customer ever has a problem that isn't really dealt with by the above, the guide has hopefully still managed to get across what should always be done in times of difficulty: communicate.
Namely, customers should contact their providers as soon as a problem arises. That's because, despite their often bad reputations, they will in fact do everything within their means to help their customers.
Failing that, they should contact one of the UK's numerous advice agencies, including the Energy Saving Trust and Citizens Advice.
Such organisations will provide embattled customers with invaluable advice, which they'll usually be able to use to manage their problems, and continue heating their homes all year round.