Water meters, water meters everywhere?

Helen Monks explains how to cut your water bills while doing your bit for conservation

Across the UK, water customers are beginning to pay the price for the convergence of a prolonged dry spell and an age seemingly enthralled with the likes of power-showers, wet-rooms and having our own personal Gardens of Eden in our backyards.

Thames Water, the country's largest water company, this week announced that it will next month implement a ban on the use of hosepipes or sprinklers for the watering of private gardens and washing of private cars and caravans.

This follows a shortage of water in the Thames Water region stemming from the fact that, since November 2004 there has been below-average rainfall in every month except one.

It is just the latest company to impose a ban - a string of water providers across the South of England have put similar restrictions in place in recent months, in a bid to ensure supplies do not run short during the summer.

Water prices are also on the increase. Earlier this month Severn Trent Water revealed that water bills across the Midlands were set to go up by 5.7 per cent - nearly three times the rate of inflation, with the average bill rising from £253 to £267 a year.

Couple this with a growing demand for water, fed by the rise of single-occupant households and the increasing popularity of dishwashers and the like, and it is no wonder that punitive measures, including hosepipe bans and the introduction of compulsory metering, are creeping up the agenda.

However, there are steps you can take to reduce water consumption - and save money at the same time. Having a water meter installed could guarantee the most cost-effective billing for your water needs. Alternatively, you could invest a bit of cash in water-saving devices, or simply dedicate some time to overhauling your water-guzzling lifestyle.

A combination of both approaches is the best way for most households to save money. If you only pay for the water you use - and you reduce your consumption - you should be able to enjoy a financial reward with a clean conscience.

There are already signs that some companies are prepared to take even more serious action. The Secretary of State for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently approved "water scarcity status" for Folkestone and Dover Water, which supplies 160,000 customers in Kent, opening the door for the introduction of compulsory metering for its customers.

The company wants 90 per cent of these customers to have meters by 2015, and expects these households to use between 10 per cent and 15 per cent less water as a result.

In most areas of the country, compulsory meters remain some way off. But regardless of your water company, any customer can opt to have their water-supply metered, meaning they are charged according to the amount of water used, rather than bills being based on a flat rate irrespective of how much is actually used by the household.

Some households are more likely than others to benefit from switching from a flat rate to a metered water billing.

"Very roughly speaking, if you have more people than bedrooms in your home, then it's likely you won't benefit from metering," says Tim Wolfenden, the product strategy manager at the utilities and financial services comparison website www.uswitch.com.

"However, if you have more bedrooms than people, then water metering could help bring your bills down."

Before you consider a switch you could ask your water company to help work out whether metering would work out best for your needs, or use a free utility-checking service such as Uswitch.

This involves providing some details about your home, its occupants, water usage and your current bill and receiving an estimate of how much a metered bill might be.

In the vast majority of cases, installing a water meter is free (unless the location or pipework makes it impracticable or uneconomic) and every customer has a year "trial period" in which they can revert back to flat-rate billing if it turns out that they are paying more for water.

But, after this year is up, customers are not permitted to switch back again. So during the first 12 months of metering, you need to monitor your bills carefully to make sure you're saving the money you had hoped. If not, switch back to paying water rates before the deadline expires.

Your water company will read the meter at least once a year and you can read the meter yourself to keep an eye on how much you are using and how much you might end up paying.

With a metered supply, householders are charged for water used plus a standing charge for the upkeep of the meter and the cost of readings. They also pay waste-water charges as a set percentage of the total water used.

As both water and waste charges are based on the amount of water used, then by cutting their water usage, water-metered customers can get a reduction in their water bills, unlike unmetered customers who are powerless to reduce the amount they pay.

Also, remember that metered customers may be eligible for a reduction in charges if they or someone in their household are receiving benefits (such as pension credit or income support) or tax credits, or if someone is their household is responsible for three or more children under 19 in full time education.

Discounts are also available if the household member receiving a benefit or tax credit has a specified medical condition requiring the use of more water than normal. Your local water company can give you more details.

'There are better reasons to save water than money'

Andrew Buley, 47, takes water conservation seriously, without being what he calls a "green fanatic".

He has a metered water supply which, he believes, can help focus any household on saving water. In addition, he has fitted three Interflush devices (www.interflush.co.uk; 0845 045 0276) to reduce the amount of water the family literally flushes down the toilet every day.

Coupled with other water-saving measures, the devices have helped reduce the household's monthly water bill by about £20 to around £40. They work by giving users control over how much water they use when they flush, as opposed to the set amount used in standard toilets.

They cost £19.90 each, including postage and packing (with discounts available for multiple purchases), and are easy to install, says Andrew: "If you can fit a shelf, you can fit one of these."

The semi-retired senior manager from Wiltshire says as well as the chance to save money, there are often deeper motivations leading people to be more water-conscious.

"Having a child makes you think more seriously about the future and the kind of world you want your child to live in."

Tapping into the best advice

Install a hippos

Many water companies will supply a water-saving device, sometimes referred to as a "hippo", free of charge. These can be placed in older (pre-2000) cisterns to reduce their capacities by around one litre. It should have no effect on the efficiency of the flush, but give an instant 10- to 15 per cent water saving on each flush.

Shower and tap flow restrictors

A typical basin tap or shower running at mains pressure can deliver around 20 litres a minute or more. You can save water by fitting flow restrictors, which can cost less than £10 each - try www.greenbuildingstore.co. uk (01484 854898).

Water butts

Make the most of rainwater and take the pressure off your mains supply with a water butt in your garden. Have a look on www.oak-barrel.com or www.gardeningsupplies. co.uk.

Change your behaviour

Turn the tap off while brushing teeth and use a glass to rinse to save around three litres every time.

Water your garden in the evening when less water will evaporate away.

Only use washing machines and dishwashers when they are full.

Wash up using a bowl and save around five litres per wash against a running tap.

The same amount can be saved by cleaning and preparing vegetables in a bowl full of water, rather than under a running tap. When you're done, use the waste to water plants.

Fix leaking taps or pipes as soon as possible as they could be wasting several litres of water each every day.

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