Will a water meter save you money?

With less water available per head in south-east England than there is in Egypt, water conservation is becoming a serious business. One proposal is for eveyone to fit water meters. But will a meter mean higher or lower bills? Ruth Jackson investigates.

Water supplies are more abundant in Egypt than they are in parts of England.

In the south east, there are already at least ten million people who have less water available per head than the average Egyptian. So we need to drastically cut the amount of water we use, says the Environment Agency. It wants water meters to become compulsory in southern England within six years, and for the rest of England and Wales to have them within 25 years.

As well as encouraging people to cut their water usage, meters can also save people money. Sounds like a no-brainer. But don't rush to the phone yet it's not quite that straightforward.

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Will a water meter save you money?

For one thing, if you live in Scotland, fitting a water meter is quite expensive, so you're best off to wait until they become compulsory there.

In England and Wales, the meters are free to fit, but that still doesn't mean you should rush out and get one. Unmetered water rates are averaged out to cover the cost of everyone's usage. So if you don't use very much water, you could save money by getting a meter but if you use a lot you could get a nasty surprise from a metered bill.

There are several calculators online that will help you work out what your usage would save or cost you if you got a meter. The simplest one is available at Uswitch.com or, for a more detailed comparison, try Ofwat.gov.uk.

The rough rule of thumb is that if there are more bedrooms in your house than people you will probably save money with a water meter. If, after you have one fitted you find that your usage means your water bills are higher with a meter than without, you have 12-months or until the month after your second metered water bill - to switch back to unmetered billing.

But the cost isn't the only thing to worry about. If you do decide to go ahead, be aware that there are some big administrative problems with water meters too.

Last year CCWater, the consumer watchdog for water companies, recorded 12,163 water meter-related complaints. And that figure doesn't include telephone complaints, so the real figure is a lot higher.

The problem is that the meters aren't always being fitted correctly. They are frequently fitted to shared pipes, meaning that bill payers are finding themselves paying for their neighbour's water as well as their own. Louise Morton told The Guardian how her bills doubled after she got a meter. It took her a year to convince her water company to check her meter at which point they conceded that it was fitted to a shared pipe.

A quick scan of internet chat rooms confirms that Morton is not alone. One person posting on BBC Watchdog's internet discussion describes how his bills shot from £17 a month to a three-month bill of £1,400. It turned out his meter had been recording the usage of himself, his three neighbours, and a water leak.

It is up to the water company to decide where your meter is fitted so there is little you can do to prevent it being fitted onto the wrong pipe by mistake. But watch your bills very carefully. If you think that your bill is too high contact your supplier straight away to get them to check your meter is fitted correctly.

How else can you cut your water bill?

If you do decide to have a water meter fitted or move into a home which already has one in that scenario you have no choice but to be metered then it's definitely time to brush up on your water saving skills.

If you really want to cut your bills, perhaps the most drastic method relates to your toilet habits. "If it's yellow, let it mellow," is a well-known saying in Australia, where droughts are frequent.

But if you're not quite that desperate to cut your water usage, a simpler method is to check that you aren't overpaying on the sewerage element of the bill. Water companies work on the principle that what goes in must come out. So your sewerage bill assumes that 90-95% of the water you get from the water company goes into the sewerage system. But this isn't always the case.

If you have a 'soakaway' a large underground pit of gravel that collects water from your roof or drive you are entitled to an annual rebate on your sewerage bill which is usually between £20 and £40. This can be claimed whether you have a water meter or not. You can find out whether you have a soakaway by checking your property deeds. Then just contact your water company to get a rebate form.

If you live in an area with no connection to mains sewerage, you will have a cesspit or septic tank, in which case you don't have to pay any sewerage charges at all. That's a saving of between £110 and £220 a year, so make sure the water board isn't charging you.

And don't forget the easiest way to save money on water: leave the bottled water on the supermarket shelf.

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Ruth Jackson-Kirby

Ruth Jackson-Kirby is a freelance personal finance journalist with 17 years’ experience, writing about everything from savings and credit cards to pensions, property and pet insurance. 

Ruth started her career at MoneyWeek after graduating with an MA from the University of St Andrews, and she continues to contribute regular articles to our personal finance section. After leaving MoneyWeek she went on to become deputy editor of Moneywise before becoming a freelance journalist.

Ruth writes regularly for national publications including The Sunday Times, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and Good Housekeeping among many other titles both online and offline.