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James Daley: We need to learn to read our meters

When was the last time you checked your gas or electricity meter? It might sound like a bit of a boring question, but, when you consider the size of the average energy bill these days (around £1,000 a year for both gas and electricity), and how much it can cost if you don't keep your meter readings up to date, it starts to become somewhat clearer why it's important.

Let me explain. An increasingly common complaint to arrive in the Save & Spend letters bag over the past year will go something like this:

"I changed over to a new energy supplier about a year ago, and agreed to set up a standing order for £50 a month – based on their estimate for how much my annual bills would come to. I didn't have any contact from the supplier after that – apart from quarterly bills confirming how much I had paid, along with estimates of my usage.

"Then, a few weeks ago, someone turned up to read the meter. Some days later, I received a bill saying that I had underpaid my supplier by around £500 – and that payment was due within the month."

Such shocks have become increasingly common over the last few years for two reasons – firstly due to the sharp rise in energy prices, and secondly because of the totally inadequate system which most gas and electricity companies use to keep on top of how much their customers owe them.

While your supplier may have been correct to advise you to set up a standing order for £50 a month in 2005 (an estimate that was probably based on an average usage for a household of your size across their customer base at the time), such a figure soon becomes meaningless as energy prices begin to rise.

Hence, customers who have not got into the habit of regularly phoning in an updated reading from their gas and electricity meter are much more likely to find themselves exposed to a nasty financial shock later down the line.

It's just as easy to get caught out in the same way if your working patterns change, or if Britain suffers a colder winter than the last – anything that might mean that you're using more energy than you were before. And of course, very occasionally, it can work the other way round – with the energy provider forced to concede that you've paid them far too much money.

I have every sympathy with customers who find themselves suddenly overwhelmed by these bills. In my experience, most meter readers pass by once every six to 12 months, during the day, when the average homeowner is at work. Although they might stick a note through the door asking the customer to phone, or use the web, to update their own meter reading, it's understandable that people forget.

Although a supplier can go months or even years without realising you owe it more money than you have paid, it's nevertheless likely to want immediate payment from you as soon as it realises its mistake.

Surely it's time for the regulator to step in and put a stop to this – firmly putting the onus on suppliers to keep their records up to date. If it takes them more than six months to work out that they have been seriously undercollecting, they should be forced to write off some, or even most, of the excess.

In the 21st century, it surely can't be beyond the pale to expect that all energy meters are fitted with the technology to automatically update suppliers with accurate readings.

If the utility suppliers can't be bothered to invest in their own equipment – even after the bumper profits that they have made over the past few years – then they should be forced to suffer the financial penalty for their apathy, rather than leaving their customers to pay for their mistakes instead.