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Water firms upping direct debits of metered customers due to increased lockdown use – check NOW if you're overpaying

Households with water meters should check their bills as many firms are upping direct debits due to higher use during lockdown. And with usage over the next year likely to drop for many as restrictions ease, you could end up paying a lot more than you need to unless you take action. Energy's slightly different, but it's still worth checking – more on that below.

Water providers regularly review your account (how often depends on the firm) to check your direct debit payments are enough to cover your usage. To do this, they look at your previous usage and estimate you'll use similar going forward, with 15 of the 20 water firms in England and Wales confirming it's likely direct debits of some customers will have increased over lockdown. The direct debit amount will also factor in anything you owe if you’ve used more than had been expected over the last period.

All of the water firms we spoke to told us customers should get in touch with them to get direct debits altered if they feel they will be using less than has been estimated – likely as normal behaviour changed for many during the pandemic. Challenging any changes can pay off, as MSE Guy found. His bill went from £26/mth to £45/mth, so he called and and got it reduced to £30/mth.

If you don't have a water meter, the amount of water you use doesn't matter. Properties without a meter are billed according to the 'rateable value' of the house, a charge loosely based on the rental value of the property.

How to ensure you're not overpaying and to get your direct debit changed

If you've spent more time at home during lockdown, your water use has likely increased, so your direct debit will likely have increased if your use has been reviewed. Here's how to find out if you're overpaying:

  • Check your correspondence from the company to see if your direct debit has changed. When a change has been made, you should receive notification from the supplier, so look out for it.

  • If your direct debit has gone up but you'll be using less water going forward, call your supplier. All the water firms we spoke to said they'd adjust estimated direct debits if people know they will use less. But remember, only do this if you know you will be using less than you have been, or you could end up owing the firm money.

  • Keep submitting regular meter readings. That way you'll pay for what you are actually using.

It's worth noting that this is all about cash-flow, as if you don't amend your direct debit, you will ultimately pay the same amount over time. It's just firms may be taking more than they need to now, some of which you might have to claim back – and it's better to have the cash in your pocket, rather than the supplier's. 

For more information on how you can reduce your water costs, see our Cut your water bills guide.

You can claim the money back if you've overpaid 

If your direct debit was upped and you've paid for more than you've used, all the major firms have confirmed that you can immediately claim this back in cash by calling or emailing them. If you don't want to claim it in cash or don't take any action, it will be used as credit for future bills.

If you're in credit, it should appear on your bill or your online account. If you're unsure, ring your provider and ask.

How are water bills calculated? 

If you have a water meter and pay by direct debit, water companies estimate your bill based on your previous consumption. Some, such as Northumbrian Water, will use the last 12 months and base your direct debit on that. Others, such as Thames Water, will use the last six months.

If you have used more than the company has estimated, which has likely been the case for many over lockdown, you could owe it money, meaning your direct debit would increase to make up any shortfall, and to cover what it estimates will be a higher usage level going forward. If you've used less than expected, your account could be in credit and your direct debit would be reduced.

Your bill will also be affected by any changes to water rates, with rates across England and Wales falling by an average of 0.5% in April 2021.

Without a water meter, your bill will be based on your home's 'rateable value'. The amount of water used is irrelevant. Check if you could save £100s with a water meter.

What can I do if I'm struggling to pay bills? 

All companies offer some sort of help if you're in a tough financial situation. Schemes can range from discounts and repayment plans, to caps and even charity assistance. See how to get help if you're struggling for more.

What have the water companies told us?

We contacted all firms and, so far, 15 of them (Anglian Water, Bournemouth Water, Cambridge Water, Essex and Suffolk Water, Hafren Dyfrdwy, Northumbrian Water, SES Water, Severn Trent, Southern Water, South Staffs Water, South West Water, Thames Water, United Utilities, Welsh Water and Yorkshire Water) have confirmed that direct debits have increased for some customers due to higher usage, with the same number saying customers can get direct debits amended.

What has Water UK said? 

Water UK is a trade body representing water companies in the UK. A spokesperson for the organisation said: "Covid-19 has impacted all aspects of how we live our lives, including how we use water at home. Many customers will have seen their water usage increase over the past year as they have spent more time at home, and for customers with a water meter their bills will reflect the extra water they've used during this period.

"Water companies understand it's been a challenging year and for those worried about paying their bills, we urge them to contact their supplier. There is a lot of help and assistance available to households to save water and reduce their water bills, while schemes like the industry's WaterSure, which is available for certain customers to cap their bills, can also offer a helping hand."

It's not as simple with energy – but it's worth checking

It's less clear-cut with energy due to seasonal variations, but it's still worth checking. To set direct debits most firms take the expected annual cost, which is often based on past use, and divide it by 12, smoothing out your annual usage, so you avoid huge cost hikes in the high-use winter period.

We asked a cross-section of major firms if – after reviewing a customer's use – they're raising demands where usage has been high over recent months. Of the seven that replied, all confirmed they will do so.

Of course, a hike may be because you were previously underpaying, or you had your heating on more during the cold spell. But if you believe your firm is overestimating what you'll use going forward as you likely won't use as much as restrictions ease (you may need to ask how it's been calculated), you've a right to get your direct debit lowered.

So check if your supplier has written to you to raise your direct debit – see energy bill hike help for more. To see how the energy direct debit cycle works, read Martin's How to reclaim £100s from your energy firm blog.

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