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At Long Last! Meter Reads are Finally on the Agenda

In many areas of business, estimating makes sense. It’s OK to estimate how long it’ll take, and therefore how much it will cost, to build an extension, fix a car or create a website. Wherever there are variables that could affect quality service provision, estimating is necessary.

Estimating is not OK or necessary when it comes to providing a product like water.

And yet, this is what is happening all of the time, all over the country. It’s been a problem for a long while but the issue of long-unread meters (those that haven’t been read for a year or more) is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Long-unread meters matter. They matter because without meter readings, customers get estimated, rather than accurate, bills. Without accurate bills, customers can’t make informed decisions about effective water management or procurement strategies. They can’t switch suppliers easily. They incur a burden of administration time on raising and resolving complaints with providers. They feel incredibly frustrated and ultimately dis-empowered. All in all, not quite what customers might have hoped the open water market would deliver.

Market operator MOSL recently signalled a step-change in all this. In February 2019, it published a series of charts that outlined the increasing trend of long-unread meters. This report revealed that 15% of the 1.13 million meters in the market had not been read for more than 12 months, with 5% of those not read for 24 months or more. That’s roughly 170,000 estimated bills. And it’s getting worse: the number of long-unread meters has more than doubled since market opening.

As a result, MOSL is making long-unread meters a priority in its Market Performance Operating Plan, which is due for release imminently. Both MOSL and Ofwat have made it clear that improving data quality is critical for customers to get accurate information, make choices between suppliers and services, and switch efficiently if they want to.

So, what’s the problem and why can’t it be fixed?

MOSL’s analysis tells us that problems arise largely because of unreliable information about meter locations; broken meters or damaged surrounding infrastructure; and an inability to access meters on read days.

At Waterscan we’ve conducted our own analysis of the unread meters for which we are responsible on behalf of the self-supply community. We’re delighted that MOSL’s data demonstrated that self-supply licence holders were amongst the highest performing market participants with just 1.9% of meters categorised as long-unread. Our goal is to get this figure to zero for all current self-supply clients within six months and we’re moving fast to achieve this. In just one month since MOSL’s report, we resolved 25% of our problem meter reads and our rapid progress on this matter continues.

While this is extremely positive for our clients, it does unfortunately signal a certain amount of apathy across the industry at large on this issue. Whilst we appreciate we are not dealing with the huge numbers of some of the larger trading parties, the fact that we were able to resolve so many unread meters simply by turning up to take a reading (we did not have to raise any asset issues with wholesalers or access issues with customers), tends to suggest that the issue was purely down to previous suppliers not attempting to do so. As an industry sorely in need of a public opinion boost, this clearly isn’t good enough and customers are right to expect more.

Fixing the problem across the board isn’t rocket science…

In my view it’s simply a matter of taking ownership of the issue, using technology effectively and collaborating more closely – and this is what we do.

We undertake the vast majority of meter readings internally rather than outsourcing it, thus giving us control and responsibility for the process while stringent monitoring of meter-read KPIs drive our continuous improvement. We use technology, deploying smart meters wherever possible which feed into our Waterline system, and beyond this into CMOS for real-time accurate data for industry-wide benefits. And importantly, we promote transparency and collaboration by facilitating user forums where customers have the opportunity to connect with their peers, wholesalers and regulatory bodies to push the issues that matter to them further up the industry agenda.

Our way is not the only way of course. But it’s a way that has proven to work pretty well so far. If, as an industry, we want to remove barriers to switching, improve supply resilience, drive down complaints and take faster, bigger strides towards sustainable water management, then providing customers with accurate, rather than estimated, data is a very good starting point.