30/11/2011

Phil Wright, Head of RM Water Services

When it comes to some bills, for example staff expenses, we pore over every detail and calculate every penny to check that we are paying the correct amount. Others we just glance at and pay, assuming they are correct.

Water bills tend to be one of the latter because we feel we’ve little or no control over what the amount is, and struggle to understand the charging system so we don’t know what to look for.

Unfortunately this apathy is something that water companies have, to an extent, used to their advantage and come to rely upon. All water companies actively encourage their customers to contact them if they suspect their bills are incorrect. However the lack of understanding about the make up of the bills makes it difficult for businesses to do so and creates the potential for businesses to be overcharged hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.

So how easy is it to actually get to grips with your water bills?

Unlike electricity providers, it is impossible to change your water services provider unless you have extremely high water consumption so, for most businesses, their water charges are very much a postcode lottery.

There are 26 different water companies across the UK, each with their own complex, individual pricing structure — some of which are fairer for businesses than others.

Some use measured bills, where the bill is based on water consumption, and some use unmeasured bills, where charges are based on the rateable value of the business premises. There are usually other charges in addition to this.

To add to the confusion, some businesses are served by more than one water company, one dealing water supply, the other dealing with removal and processing of wastewater, both of which will have different pricing structures.

This makes it difficult to identify how your water company’s pricing structure affects your business and its individual water needs, and whether you are being charged appropriately.

It takes an experienced professional to fully audit a business’s water needs and to calculate the correct tariff it should be charged with. However, it would be prohibitively expensive for water companies to fully investigate what these are for every business. Water companies must therefore base their bills predominantly on water meter readings, but also on other assumptions they can make about your business, which often equates to guesswork.

So how do you know if your water bills are unnecessarily bleeding your business dry? One simple check that most businesses can do is review their water bills for consistency. This is especially important for businesses with metered water.

If an underground leak occurs on your business’s pipework, it is unlikely you will be able spot it above ground, as gravity encourages underground running water to permeate into the earth, leaving no obvious sign of a problem. This can lead to businesses being overcharged thousands of pounds for the supply of drinking water which is leaking away and for as long as the problem exists.

And if your wastewater charges are directly linked to the amount of water you use, that could lead to you being charged not only for water you haven’t used, but to carry that water away down the drains when it is, in fact, simply leaking into the ground beneath your premises.

By checking your water bills on a monthly basis and comparing them to those from previous years you should be able to see when a problem, such as leaking pipework occurs, as there will be an inexplicable increase.

By checking your bill each month, you should also be able to see when any peaks in usage occur. If you can identify why they are happening, often you can take steps to reduce them, for example by installing flow restrictors or regulators or by using underground leakage detection techniques.

When checking your bills, you should also look at what types of charge they include to see what assumptions, if any, your water company is making about your business.

One of the most contentious charging issues is ‘surface water drainage’, whereby water companies assume that all rainwater on the business’s premises goes down the drain and must be processed by them at sewerage treatment works, before being returned to the aquatic environment.. However, many business premises have areas of natural drainage whereby rainwater simply runs onto gardens or into local rivers or streams and is therefore never processed by the water company.

If your water bills include a surface water charge, think about how much rainwater water goes into public drain or sewers and how much is absorbed into the soil or local rivers. If your car park has a permeable surface, this may also mean you are being overcharged.

Another of the assumptions water companies make is that all of the water supplied to a business goes down the drain, and therefore it must be charged as assumed sewerage discharge from the site.

Many businesses are charged for waste water based on a percentage of the water used but don’t have equal water supply and wastewater processing requirements. Garden centres and food manufacturers, for example, use large volumes of water for irrigation or food processing, but as little of it goes down the drain, their wastewater processing costs need to be adjusted accordingly.

Check your bills for your charging tariff, as there are numerous different ones for business users, depending on factors like the size of their business or their water consumption levels.

Water companies assume that their business users are on the correct tariff and won’t check or advise you of this unless prompted.

The Consumer Council for Water’s website offers information about some business tariffs and information about individual water companies which can be helpful when checking your bills.

However, as water charges and tariffs can be so difficult to understand, many businesses are now turning to water services consultants to do it for them

A water services consultant can advise you if your water charges are fair by calculating your business’s individual water supply and wastewater processing needs.

Most can also advise businesses, not just those with high water consumption, whether there are any simple steps they can take to reduce their charges, such as installing soakaways, recycling rainwater, installing flow restrictors or checking for underground leakage.. Some can also help with claiming rebates for inaccurate water and waste water charges.

If your business is considering using a water services consultancy, following some simple checks can make sure you don’t get a flood of subsequent problems:

Look for those who work on a ‘no saving, no fee’ basis: Many consultants will work on a results-related basis, so you lose nothing by getting them to check over your bills for you, and many businesses have saved thousands of pounds in backdated charges or bill reductions.

Check for the right specialist: Some consultancies specialise in just one field, for example bill verification or water conservation. This may be what you need but, if not, can lead to a skewed approach and miss key cost savings.

Do they work on a holistic basis: Look for a consultant who will not only audit your bills, but undertake a site visit and give you a range of cost-cutting and water-saving recommendations as well.

Can they deal with my water provider? When speaking to water services consultancies, check their industry credentials and track record. Some will have lots of experience with one or two water companies, but none with others so it’s important to find someone who fully understands each of the 26 water companies’ scheme of charges, or at the least has lots of experience with dealing with your water company.

Most of all, don’t assume nothing can be done. With the right advice, there’s every chance your business’s expensive water bills could dry up. Ignore the problem, and you’ll never know whether you are literally pouring money down the drain.


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