Meters plug the cash leak

Paul Gosling reports on the benefits of water awareness

FALLING water costs may be on the cards, following a Government announcement of plans for more competition in the water industry last weekend. But this is unlikely to benefit households in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, however, thousands of households are missing out on savings of as much as pounds 100 a year by not opting for water metering.

While single people and childless couples are likely to cut their bills by installing meters, heavy users who have sprinklers and hosepipes are facing compulsory metering in many parts of the country, and will see their bills shoot up this year.

The inquiry taking place into Yorkshire Water's management of its water supply is to consider the case for more customers becoming metered. Water companies can require properties to have supplies metered, but only if the companies pay the installation costs. Customers can also opt for metering, though in most areas they will have to pay for meters to be fitted.

About 1.6 million households, 8 per cent of the UK total, have water meters, including almost all homes built in the past five years. Other bills are based on homes' rateable values, a form of property valuation based on 1975 house prices and used for calculating local government rates until 1990.

Whether it is worth householders having meters installed depends as much on the rateable value of the home as it does on water usage. A large property in a well-to-do area will have a high rateable value and high bills. If that home has few occupants who do not use sprinklers or hoses, then a water meter should save money.

Water charges are set so that an average consumer will pay the same whether the bill is calculated according to rates or by metering.

"If you are a low user of water, in a high rateable property, it is well worth looking at," said a spokeswoman for Ofwat, the industry regulator. "There is a bonus for the environment because people become more water- aware, and [they] can save up to 30 per cent of their water consumption."

The charge for fitting a water meter varies greatly according to the area, with the worst drought-affected areas generally charging the least. Severn Trent Water, which covers much of the Midlands, fits meters free of charge, and requires all sprinkler users to have meters. For 12 months after a meter is fitted a Severn Trent customer can revert to rates without penalty. North Surrey Water charges pounds 47 for a meter, with the cost spread over two years. Anglian Water has a flat charge of pounds 70, and claims that 96 per cent of single pensioners would benefit from opting for metering. Again, payment can be by instalments at no extra cost.

All Anglian customers who have swimming pools, sprinklers or ornamental garden ponds must have meters, and the company intends to have 95 per cent of its customers on metered supply within 20 years.

Thames Water, which supplies London, will price the installation of a meter only after a survey.

Homeowners can opt to have a plumber install the meter, but parts must conform to water company specifications, and instalation will have to be inspected by the water company, which will charge for doing so.

Most water companies offer their customers a ready reckoner and information pack to help them calculate if meters would save them money.

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