Identifying the Fair Share: Metering and Billing for District Heating – Research into Social Landlords’ Experiences of District Heating

Author:
Organisation:
Changeworks Resources for Life Ltd
Date: 2015
Location:

Rationale

The introduction of the Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations 2014 meant that owners of properties operating district heating schemes were subject to new obligations. It has been assumed that such schemes deliver benefits to residents through reduced energy consumption and lower bills, thus helping to alleviate fuel poverty, but the actual dynamics of tenants’ awareness, knowledge and engagement with the practical and financial aspects of these systems are not fully understood. An improved understanding would enable other such schemes (both extant and future) to be better prepared to respond to the challenges and develop suitable mechanisms for responding.





Key research Question

The study aimed to gather rich data on the experiences of residents living in social housing properties operating district heating systems in order to understand if the potential benefits (in terms of both energy efficiency and monetary savings) were being maximised and what barriers existed to achieving this. It also sought to investigate how these obstacles may be addressed in order to inform the way such schemes are managed.



Summary of activity

The research involved a structured survey and semi-structured interviews with social housing landlords and residents, plus a series of semi-structured interviews with staff at metering and billing companies. Phone interviews were completed with 12 social landlords. These were supplemented by a further 30 online surveys received from organisations across the UK. Data from tenants were collected via 143 surveys returned from tenants of five social housing associations in Scotland and 20 in-depth phone interviews with a sample of tenants. Three interviews took place with staff working for metering and/or billing agencies. In addition to the survey and interview data, a statistical analysis of actual vs. modelled consumption data for district heating projects was undertaken.

The data from the surveys, interviews and technical monitoring were analysed to understand the range of processes that existed with regard to initial and ongoing consultation and engagement; installation, maintenance and repair; metering and billing; and payment, knowledge and usage.





Findings

Overall, the study reported that while residents did see district heating as an improvement on previous schemes (in terms of both reduced bills and warmer homes), the installation, maintenance and management had often thrown up problems for both landlords and tenants. ‘Teething problems’ (including those with meters) were common in the early stages, but the situation invariably improved over time.

A variety of billing options were in use, and customers’ payment preferences also varied, although prepayment was broadly unpopular. The evidence did not indicate conclusively whether there was a causal link between billing type and heating behaviour. In general, residents’ understanding of the district heating systems was limited. This applied to both their technical operation and the billing/payment options. Only a minority of social housing associations had undertaken formal consultations with residents prior to installing district heating systems.



Recommendations

The design and maintenance of new schemes should take account of a number of core issues, including the need to learn from previous projects, the value of piloting work and the role of effective communication between all parties involved in installation. Information supplied to residents must start early, be prompt, responsive, accessible and ongoing and have regular updates.

Approaches to billing and tariffs should be developed, and there is a need for clear information, regular review and suitable feedback mechanisms to be placed at the heart of the process. Payment options should be as flexible as possible. When thinking about whether to manage billing in-house or outsource the process, the key consideration should be the social housing agency’s own capacity to do so.

Where new equipment (e.g. heat meters) is installed, landlords should prioritise quality and ease of use in their choice.

Given the rapid change occurring in the domestic energy sector, research must be undertaken regularly to review and reassess tenants’ experiences of meters, bills and tariffs and social landlords’ approaches to resident engagement/advice provision. The relative costs of different billing and administration formats should be monitored. Further study is also needed on whether householders’ behaviour is influenced by a particular billing or tariff option and how that compares with other influences.



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