Are you sat at home shivering because you’re afraid to turn the heating up – or on? Do you worry about your meter readings because they just don’t make any sense? And do you know where to turn if an energy firm just isn’t listening to you? You are most certainly not alone.
The number of readers who have contacted me to say they are afraid about all of these – things and others – is terrifyingly high. I really do understand. We all feel a little lost sometimes and don’t know where to turn or how to seek help. But don’t worry – there are options.
In this article I’m going to show you a few simple tips to help you troubleshoot your bill, then I’ll explain how to take things further and improve your chance of succeeding with your complaint.
Bamboozled by your bill? Here’s how to take on your energy company
Let’s be honest. The way your energy bill is calculated is far too complicated. Even if you understand the breakdown of gas and energy units, the difference between estimated or official meter readings and the mystery of billing periods and tariffs, for most of us, they might as well be in Archaic Latin.
Let’s start by facing down your meter. If you have a meter from the Victorian era like me, then it’s really easy to read the dials wrong as some go forwards and some backwards. Smart meters can also be needlessly complicated too, though spending 10 minutes getting to know the displays and what they mean is time very well spent. I often say this but it bears repeating: Photo your gas and energy meter dials or displays and send those to the firm. Most energy businesses can check pictures for you to see if they match up with the right reading.
Citizens Advice has a great guide on how to read all types of meter here
Millions of people are discovering that their energy supplier has been working off estimated readings for a few years. If that’s the case, then you may be able to appeal the bill even – especially if they take an actual reading and realise that the bill should be much higher. Dig out your last few bills and check when the meter was last read by the firm. There’ll be a code on your bill that explains whether the readings are estimated, officially read or sent by smart meter. This is often ‘E’ for estimates. Smart meters that are struggling to send data – more common than you think – can also lead to estimated readings.
If you or your energy provider suspect the meter might be faulty, they should ask you to provide daily meter readings for seven days to see if there’s an obvious problem. If the readings make no sense, it’s for the energy firm to come up with answers and solutions. This should involve sending out engineers to assess the meter’s performance.
Don’t forget, if all else fails, you can make a formal complaint to the business and go to the Energy Ombudsman if they don’t sort things out.
Assessing your energy bill
Regulator Ofgem has recently tightened the rules that businesses are supposed to follow – from answering the phone to billing you correctly – but don’t assume they are all doing what they are supposed to.
It’s worthwhile getting your head around the concept of ‘back billing’ as this rule is regularly flouted and complaining about it could save you a packet. If an energy firm gets accurate readings and sends you a new bill that covers a period that goes back further than the last year, that’s back billing. They are allowed to back bill you, but they are only allowed to charge you for only for the previous 12 months. So if you get a massive bill suddenly, ask the energy company to explain over what period it’s been calculated.
Some bills just don’t make any sense though. I’ve mentioned before that one reader told me she was charged £12,000 for one year of energy use while another couple who moved in to a new home and were hit with a bill for £6,000 for six weeks of energy use. These bills are clearly errors – and it’s for the business to investigate what’s gone wrong. Instruct them to suspend all debt recovery while the matter is fully investigated and keep pushing back. They are supposed to be the experts – and can write off debts if they want to.
The Energy Ombudsman
I often throw around terms like ‘Ombudsman’ or the mouthful that is ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution Schemes (ADR)’ and then wonder why people are looking blankly at me! In fact, lots of the people I speak to already struggle to make a complaint with businesses, so they often don’t get to the part where they are referred to a free and impartial service that can sort out the problem. So here’s my guide to everything you need to know about the Energy Ombudsman.
The Energy Ombudsman is a free service created by law to help you sort out complaints about your gas or electricity provider. The Ombudsman was introduced so people who had a complaint with an energy provider that they couldn’t sort out don’t have to face the expense and complexity of going to court to resolve a dispute. You can contact them here
The Energy Ombudsman is an independent and impartial service that will work with you and the energy business to see if a resolution to your complaint can be found. Failing that, the Ombudsman – similar to a judge – will write to you with their final decision which is binding on the business but not on you. So if you are still unhappy, you could still go to court.
The best bit is you don’t need to be an energy expert or have a legal background to have a higher chance of winning.
Energy complaints with your energy provider
An energy business has a maximum of eight weeks to resolve your enquiry or complaint from the moment you first seek help. That doesn’t mean they should take the full eight weeks. That’s simply the maximum amount of time they have before you can automatically bring your complaint to the Energy Ombudsman (even if you haven’t heard back from the business).
The clock starts ticking from the moment you say you want to make a complaint, either that on the phone, in writing or even through ‘live chat’ or customer service social media channels (if they’ve acknowledged it).
Some people have reported problems getting through to an energy business in recent months. The current cost-of-living crisis and price of energy bills has resulted in a significant rise in the number of people seeking help from their energy provider, which is having an impact on some telephone helplines. But the new rules from Ofgem have made it clear that failure to answer phones in a timely manner or offer other ways to communicate, like emails, will not be tolerated.
Featured in Mirror – Martyn James