Contributed By: Eddie Spencer, Head of Water Services, Schneider Electric Energy & Sustainability
Like most organizations, water retailers are continually monitoring the situation and following government advice to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect staff and the wider community. You should have received communication from your retailer(s) regarding the steps both they and the industry are taking, however, please note the following market developments in response to the pandemic.
Temporary site closures
In England and Wales, the industry has agreed to change the status of any properties closing as a result of COVID-19 to “Temporarily Vacant” to avoid over estimated consumption during this period of reduced demand. This means that billing will be suspended beginning 23rd March 2020 for affected organizations, with normal charging to resume once customers return to their respective businesses. The policy is provisionally in place until 30th June 2020 but is subject to review. Organizations should contact their retailer to agree on the suspension of all billing activity for any closed sites, referencing the changes announced by the economic regulator of the water sector in England and Wales (Ofwat). As of the date of this communication, the regulator for Scotland, WICS, has yet to announce the introduction of equivalent policy north of the border.
Difficulty paying your bills
Some retailers have already taken their own steps to support customers during the pandemic. However, in appreciation of the economic challenges facing many organizations, Ofwat has implemented urgent changes to the Customer Protection Code of Practice (CPCoP) to prevent retailers from disconnecting water services for non-payment and to ensure that customers continue to receive water at this vital time. These steps are widened to ensure both that interest and late payment charges are not imposed, and enforcement action is not taken for non-payment. The restrictions, effective from 1st March to 31st May 2020, do not lessen the responsibility of customers to pay bills on time where they are able to do so, and retailers will be able to revert their contractual rights to normal once lockdown has been lifted and Ofwat removes all temporary restrictions.
Other events that may affect your organization
- Meter reading services are understandably on hold due to restrictions around travel and site access. Retailers will accept reads submitted by customers directly for the purposes of billing, however, where actual reads are not available, charges will be based upon estimated usage.
- All retailers are offering home working to their employees to maintain open communication channels. Although waiting times may be affected, retailers can still be contacted by web chat, email and phone during normal opening hours.
- Wholesalers are limiting all non-essential activity to focus on protecting the continued delivery of water and wastewater services. Any queries that require a wholesaler response, particularly if involving site activity, are likely to be delayed.
- Most retailers now offer organizations who normally receive their bill through the post the ability to access bills and manage their accounts online.
- During periods of cold weather, water can freeze inside pipes, causing them to burst. If you are unaware of a burst pipe, the results can be disastrous, causing damage to infrastructure and in some cases significant financial loss. Note that the customer is responsible for the maintenance and repair of all water infrastructure within the boundaries of their premises from the point of the meter.
- Retailers are required to notify customers of any changes, including the clear communication of helpful information, on their website. If you are unsure as to what the changes mean for your business, visit your retailer’s website or contact them directly.
- Contact your retailer if any of your sites have closed as a direct result of the pandemic and request that they mark them as temporarily vacant and place your account on hold.
- Where safe to do so, consider taking your own meter reads and submitting to your retailer in order to help improve the accuracy of your bill
- If your premises are still open but you are using less water because of changes to your operations, notify your retailer to enable them to re-calculate your estimated charges.
- If not already registered, sign up to your retailer’s online area to securely view and pay your bills online.
- Consider spreading your costs in equal monthly installments by moving to Direct Debit.
- Unless your water supply has been isolated, then usage may continue even if you are no longer continuing to trade. Turning off your stop tap, if safe to do so, may protect you against leakage during periods of closure.