Thursday, 31 October 2013

Lucy takes on one of the Big Six

If you thought I was going to do a horrific/creepy/scary/gory Hallowe'en post, then tough titties.

No, I want to celebrate a victory (of sorts) over one of the 'Big Six' power companies, all of whom are very much in the news at the moment for eye-watering electricity and gas price rises. And I wasn't going to be immune. It was a depressing prospect, paying yet more for the same.

The electricity bill was not the problem. It was the gas bill: I use gas for heating and cooking. It's the really big bill.

As it happens, my annual fuel consumption has stabilised at 2,000 units (that's 2,000 kWh) of electricity, and 2,200 units (say about 24,200 kWh) of gas. These figures are not going to change unless I do something radical like improving my existing loft insulation, or having my cavity walls filled. But then that would make my loft unusable for storage; and I've heard of damp problems associated with cavity insulation. For now, I'd prefer to have an attic I can use. As for solar panels, the roofs of my house aren't ideally orientated, and in any case I can't afford to fit them - any more than I can find the cash for a more efficient gas-fired boiler. But being the sole occupant of my house, I can if need be ration my power usage without affecting anybody else. Or turn it up in a what-the-hell, carpe diem spirit. Hot water-bottles I don't mind. I actually quite like 'em. But I refuse to wear mittens in indoors. Nor ghastly thermal underwear. Nor a sleeping-cap in bed.

Southern Electric (part of SSE) supply both my electricity and gas. I suspected that they might now be trying it on a bit with their charges - as company policy, in fact - so that their loyal shareholders could enjoy a Warm, Happy and Festive Christmas, while the rest of us - the loyal customers - turn our thermostats down, and send our children out to beg for alms or forage for firewood.

That said, they have hitherto been pretty reasonable. And I have done several things to chip away at my bills. I have opted for paperless billing, monthly payment by direct debit, and have committed myself to a fixed-rate tariff that doesn't expire until next year. I have also given my date of birth in the online profile - it just might make a difference if they positively know that I'm a vulnerable Old Age Pensioner (over sixty anyway), presumably living alone (they know it's 'Miss'), presumably in fragile health, and entirely at their mercy unless they choose to be kind.

Well, an email yesterday told me that my latest bills (in pdf form) were ready to view (I download and keep them). Did I get a shock?

I had suspected that I'd been paying too much each month for electricity, and lo and behold, the bill showed that they now owed me £108! But the hounds did not offer a refund. They were simply going to carry it forward. They were also going to leave my monthly payment unchanged, when a small reduction would be in order. It was absolutely certain that the £108 would never get used up against future bills, and the credit balance would simply grow. So I wanted that repaid immediately - or offset against my gas bill. Grrrrr.

As for the gas bill, I knew that I'd been paying slightly less than I should each month, and it was no surprise when the bill said I owed them £49. However, they wanted to increase my monthly payments by a staggering £30!

Right. I phoned them up at 8.00am sharp this morning, just as their call centre started up for the day, and got through at once. Hmm, that was unexpected - a good omen! A very nice girl spoke to me. I said I accepted their figures and projections - no problem with those - but could we look at three things: (a) offsetting that £108 overpaid on the electricity account against the gas account; (b) recalculating the gas bill; and (c) renegotiating the monthly direct debits for both fuels. The last item might of course be the tricky one!

But I was wrong. The girl made the offset, and did some figurings. How about (she said) amending your present £31 a month for electricity to £27? A £4 saving each month. In other words, a 13% reduction in my monthly electricity costs. Yes, please!

Now the gas. How about amending the £110 a month proposed on the bill to just £94 a month - a £16 saving on what had been asked for? In other words, a 14% reduction in my forthcoming gas costs. Yes, please!

At the end of the day, I would still of course have to pay more each month than I do now - £121 for both fuels, compared with the £111 I'd been getting away with. That's a 9% increase. But if I'd shrugged my shoulders and hadn't made a fuss, the combined cost would have been £141 per month - plus they'd have kept the £108 owed to me. So this is why I feel that I've got a very good result, just by picking up the phone and talking to that nice person.

I made a point of thanking her for what she'd been able to do for me.

Of course, any of the small suppliers might be able to offer me a distinctly better deal altogether. I'll be looking into that, when my fixed-price deal with Southern Electric comes to an end in a few months' time. (Although there surely must be a snag, such as terms and conditions that lock you in, or transfer problems if the small supplier happens to fold)

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