This information should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice. Read the disclaimer.
Water meters are devices that measure how much water is used at a property and allow customers to be charged for water based on their consumption (metered charging).
This page considers some common constituency case work questions relating to water meters. This is a devolved area. This page relates to England only unless specified. Links to information specific to each of the devolved administrations can be found below.
How are domestic customers charged for their water?
The current charging system for domestic customers in England and Wales is either metered charging or unmetered fixed charges based on the rateable value of the property being charged. Environment Agency figures from March 2017 showed that 50% of households in England had a water meter fitted.
Customers can check their water bills to see how they are being charged for water.
Can a domestic customer choose to have a water meter?
Domestic customers who currently pay on an unmeasured (unmetered) basis have the legal right at any time to give their water company a notice requiring them to fix charges by reference to the volume of water supplied (i.e. on a metered basis). Customers can do this by contacting their water company directly.
Tenants also have a right to ask for a meter but it is recommended that they ask permission from their landlord first. If a tenancy agreement is for less than 6 months a tenant must ask permission from their landlord.
The installation of the water meter should be free of charge unless changes to the customer’s plumbing are required. The installation should happen within 3 months from the date of the request.
A water company is not obliged to give effect to the customer’s notice if it is not reasonably practicable to do so, or if it is unreasonably expensive. In these cases, a water company may put the customer on a tariff known as an assessed charge. This is an estimate of what the water bill would have been had the customer switched to a meter.
Can a domestic customer change their mind?
A customer generally has 12 months in which to change their mind and revert to how they paid their bill before they asked for a meter (provided it is the first time the customer has asked to be charged by volume at that premises).
Customers should contact their water company to inform them if they change their mind in this period. The meter will be left place in place.
The right to switch back does not apply:
- if a customer has moved into a property which already has a meter;
- if the water meter has been installed by the water company in circumstances set out under the following question.
Can a water company insist on the installation of a water meter?
A water company in England can install a water meter and charge on that basis in the following circumstances:
- if the area has been classified by the Secretary of State as an area of serious water stress (see more below);
- if a customer is a new occupier of a property and has not yet been sent an unmetered bill;
- if the water is used for watering a garden, other than by hand;
- if the water is used to replenish a pond or swimming pool of more than 10,000 litres;
- if the water is used in a bath with a capacity of more than 230 litres;
- if the water is used in certain types of shower unit (e.g. a power shower);
- if the water is used in a water softening unit that incorporates reverse osmosis; and/or
- if the premises are not used solely as a person’s home and the other use is the principal use of the premises.
These circumstances are set out in the Water Industry Act 1991 (as amended) (section 144B) and the Water Industry (Prescribed Conditions) Regulations 1999.
Can a domestic customer refuse to have a meter installed?
If one of the circumstances outlined above applies to a customer, the water company can install a meter and charge on that basis. A customer cannot refuse a meter in these circumstances.
An Ofwat leaflet, Water meters – your questions answered (PDF) provides more information for customers in these circumstances.
Can a domestic customer refuse to have a smart meter?
A water smart meter is a device that records water meter readings automatically, usually hourly, and then relays them to the supplier. Traditional meter readings are taken manually, at most a few times a year.
It is at the discretion of the water company to decide which type of meter it proposes to use, such as whether it is a smart meter. Therefore, if a smart meter is installed in one of the above circumstances, the customer cannot refuse to have a smart meter.
Which areas are classified as in serious water stress?
The following water company areas were classified as areas of serious water stress by the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales in July 2013:
- Affinity Water
- Anglian Water
- Essex and Suffolk Water
- South East Water
- Southern Water
- Sutton and East Surrey Water
- Thames Water
The Secretary of State may revoke or modify any determination at any time. More information and the full list of classifications for all water company areas is available on GOV.UK, Policy paper on water stressed areas (2013 classifications).
Is there compulsory metering in some parts of the country?
Water companies have powers to require a meter to be installed but no water company is required to introduce compulsory metering. The legislation simply gives water companies the power to choose to use metering as a way of managing water resources in their area.
What are the pros and cons of having a water meter?
Some households may save money on a water meter, but others may see higher bills. According to Ofwat, the extent of any savings arising from having a meter installed are likely to depend on:
- how much a customer currently pays;
- the number of people living in the property;
- how much water each person in the property uses; and
- how much a customer can reduce their overall water use.
There is a water meter calculator on the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) website which customers can use to see if they might be able to save money. Customers can also contact their water company to discuss whether a water meter would be beneficial.
A water meter is more likely to save money in houses with high rateable values, or if only a relatively small amount of water is used. Single occupiers are most likely to benefit.
However, high volume water users such as large families may have higher bills with a water meter.
If a customer’s bill does go up there are some options available to help. Customers should contact their water company to discuss options in the first instance. More information on water affordability options for consumers is set out in the Library briefing, Water Bills: Affordability and support for customers (9 August 2016).
Can a water meter be removed by a new occupier?
A customer moving into a property that already has a water meter cannot have the meter removed. The water company is entitled to charge the new occupier on a metered basis (so long as no unmetered charges have already been billed to that customer).
Water companies are required to set out the approach they will take to charging new occupiers and this information should be readily available.
Where else can constituents go for advice?
A customer’s first port of call for further information should be their water company. If they have a complaint, they should try to resolve it through the company’s complaints procedure (which should be detailed on their website).
The Consumer Council for Water can be contacted for independent information and advice on how to resolve any water or sewerage related problems. CCWater is an independent organisation that represents customers’ interests. Its services are free. CCWater can be contacted by telephoning 0300 034 2222 (England) or 0300 034 3333 (Wales) or through their online complaints form.
The Water Redress Scheme (WATRS) is an independent adjudication service which has been set up to resolve disputes between customers and water companies. It should only be contacted if a complaint or dispute has not been resolved through the company’s customer service team or by referring the matter to CCWater. WATRS can be contacted by telephone: 0207 520 3801, by email: email@example.com, or by their online form.
Northern Ireland: please refer to the NI Water statement on water meters (November 2014) and the CCWater for Northern Ireland page on water charging.
- Library briefing paper: Water meters: the rights of customers and water companies, 27 June 2019
- Library briefing paper: Water bills: affordability and support for household customers, 9 August 2016
The Commons Library does not intend the information in this article to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. We have published it to support the work of MPs. You should not rely upon it as legal or professional advice, or as a substitute for it. We do not accept any liability whatsoever for any errors, omissions or misstatements contained herein. You should consult a suitably qualified professional if you require specific advice or information. Read our briefing for information about sources of legal advice and help.