Are you pouring your money away over water?

Published by Matthew Sharp on 12 December 2007.
Last updated on 24 August 2011

Child filling a paddling pool with a hosepipe

It's not an expense we often think about - but since the privatisation of water in 1989, the price we pay to have our morning shower, give the garden a drink and get our clothes washed has risen by 40%, according to the water regulator, Ofwat. And last year prices rose by a typical 7% in England and Wales, bringing the average bill to £312 a year.

Some suppliers have even been given the green light to raise prices by as much as 10%. One such company is South West Water, which continues to be the most expensive water company in the UK. Its customers are now paying an average £483 a year, some £208 more than Thames Water, the cheapest supplier.

With the average family now forking out £26 a month on water, this isn't an expense to be sniffed at. Especially given that millions of households don't have free use of their supply when the weather hots up and hosepipe bans come into force.

The main reason we don't think about our water bills is that, unlike gas and electricity, we can't switch to a rival supplier if prices rise or service is poor. But perhaps more frustrating is the fact that even though we are constantly being encouraged to conserve water, any action you take to reduce your consumption won't affect your bill since rates are set according to your house and not your individual usage.

Save money

The unmeasured system is based on a rateable value of a home; the water companies calculate an assessed charge on either the number of occupants, the type of property or the number of bedrooms. It was first created in the 1970s and hasn't been re-evaluated since the 1980s.

However, there is a way you can only pay for what you use and that's to opt out of the rates system and ask your water company to install a water meter instead.

According to price comparison site, water meters are only being used by approximately 30% of households, but customers that switch to a meter could potentially save £125 a year.

Whether or not you stand to save depends on the number of people in your house and how much water you use. As a general rule, if you have less people living in your house than there are bedrooms the chances are you'll save. This means it often makes sense to make the switch if you live alone, or once the kids have flown the nest. However, if you are a large family that loves baths and has a huge garden that needs a lot of watering, you will be better off sticking with the unmeasured system, otherwise you could see your bills go up.

Water meters

But getting a water meter is not just about saving money. The less water you use, the less you pay, so there's a financial incentive to reduce your water consumption and do your bit for the environment too.

Uswitch says that water consumption typically reduces by between 5% and 15% after the installation of a water meter. Paying for every drop you use focuses the mind, so you're more likely to make use of a water butt than reach for the hosepipe when the garden needs watering.

The installation of a water meter is normally a simple process that would require your water supply to be disconnected for a short period of time. Most meters are installed externally but can on occasion be located near the stop valve under the kitchen sink and be read from a small outside unit. Your water company can arrange this for you free of charge.

Once you switch you can expect to receive a different style bill with your water usage listed along with the charges per cubic meter (1,000 litres or 220 gallons), sewerage services for those that apply and standing charges covering the extra cost to the company of maintaining and reading the meter.

Although a water meter can be good for your pocket - and the environment - there are some drawbacks. Once the meter is installed you only have 12 months in which you can have it removed - for example, if your bills rise. After that time you and all future owners of the property will be stuck with it, so it could potentially affect the saleability of your home.

Another grey area is that once you have a water meter you become legally responsible for the cost of repairs, such as leaks. However, according to the Consumer Council for Water, in practice repairs will usually be done for free unless there are difficult circumstances or there's a very persistent issue.

If you are not sure as to whether or not you would benefit from switching to a meter it's worth speaking to your water company, which will be able to help you compare their measured and unmeasured tariffs with your households water consumption.

Alternatively, you could check out the online water calculators that are available at or at the Consumer Council for Water's website,

10 top tips to cut your water wastage

1. Turn off the tap when you brush your teeth: if every adult in the UK did this, we'd save enough water to supply 500,000 homes

2. Fix any leaks: a dripping tap losing one drop a second will waste 15 litres a day

3. Drop a hippo in your loo: a quarter of all our water is flushed down the toilet. Ask your water company for a hippo or 'bog hog' to reduce the amount of water your toilet uses

4. Take a shower: baths can take up to 100 litres to fill, while showers use only a third of that amount

5. Fill your appliances: never run a cycle on your washing machine or dishwasher unless its full

6. Wash fruit and veg in a bowl: don't run food under the tap and use the remainder to water your houseplants

7. Keep rubbish in the bin: don't flush items like cotton wool or make-up tissues down the loo, put them in the bin

8. Collect rain water: set up a water butt in your garden and use that to water your plants rather than water straight from the tap

9. Water your garden in the evening: this will dramatically reduce the amount of water that evaporates away

10. Prepare for burst pipes: check out where your main stop valve is. Check that you can turn it on and off to minimise wastage and damage if pipes burst

Source: The Consumer Council for Water/ Waterwise

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