Are you paying too much for gas?
We're sorry to say that since the making of this film Brian Green has passed away. When Nicky and the Watchdog team met him, at his house they noted that he was a real gentleman. The main reason he'd wanted to talk to us was to make sure that what happened to him wouldn't happen to anyone else. Hopefully, it's some comfort to his family to know that this is very much the case.
For some parts of Britain, it's been the coldest winter for 17 years, with temperatures plummeting to as low as -12 Celsius. That, coupled with record gas and electricity bills, means plenty of people are paying more for their energy than they can afford.
There is information about how to check your meter at the bottom of this page.
Some people's bills have been going up more than most. In one case, by an incredible 548 per cent, but no one could say why.
Into the red
When pensioners Vivienne and Brian Green's monthly direct debit payments to British Gas reached £311, they decided to turn off the boiler, because their bank balance was going into the red for the first time in their lives.
Vivienne told us: "I was worried about my husband being poorly as well, lying in bed in a cold room." (Brian had been suffering from bouts of pneumonia.)
"We thought we were paying for the street. So I rang them and told them I can't afford to pay it. It didn't seem to bother them. They don't realise how much it hurts."
It took ten months for British Gas to come up with an explanation for the problem. The Greens were being charged as if they had an old imperial gas meter, when in fact they'd been changed to a metric one when they were with another supplier several years earlier. Because of this error, British Gas was mistakenly converting the readings from the new meter, meaning the Green's were being charged roughly three times what they should've been paying.
Energy expert John Hall was surprised the error hadn't been spotted earlier: "It's incredible that a new meter is installed and the supplier doesn't know about it." Hall said their unusually high energy usage should have rung alarm bells. "That's comparable to an office building of about 6,500 square feet, housing 50 to 60 people, working five days a week, with the heating left on at the weekend, so it's totally unrealistic to expect a domestic building to consume that level of gas."
British Gas issued a refund of £2,768 to the Greens just before Christmas, along with a £200 gesture of goodwill. The energy company said the couple was affected by an industry-wide data problem: "This began with a meter exchange which took place when they were with another supplier. The exchange wasn't recorded on the industry database, making all subsequent bills incorrect for any supplier. While rare, we acknowledge these cases are distressing. We're sorry that we did not rectify the problem sooner."
Watchdog has heard from customers of other energy companies who've had similar problems. Dave and Annette Rushworth's gas bills with Npower became so high, they couldn't afford to run their central heating either, and again, it was because the company hadn't realised they now had a metric meter.
Dave and Annette switched to another supplier, Utility Warehouse, hoping for lower bills, but they encountered the same problem. This time the company did spot that something wasn't quite right and wrote to the couple, but it was a casual chat with a delivery man from the Post Office that gave Dave the answer. The postman had heard of the problem and got Dave to check his meter and bills. They soon saw that they'd been charged as if the meter was imperial when it was metric.
Annette is angry that it wasn't sorted out sooner: "It's extremely annoying because we've had this problem for over three years. There was no need for it."
Npower says it is going to recalculate Dave and Annette's bills and send them £50 as a gesture of good will. However, it says that the error lies with their previous supplier.
Utility Warehouse, their current supplier, has offered a full refund for any overpayment that occurred since Dave and Annette switched to them. However, it insists that it wasn't actually at fault because it wasn't given the correct meter details from the gas industry database.
How to check your meter
We've heard of dozens of similar cases involving almost all of the big energy companies, and there could be plenty more, because one million meters are changed from imperial to metric every year.
If yours is one of them, here's how you can check you're being billed correctly:
If your gas meter has the letters fton the front, it's one of the old imperial ones. That means your reading needs to be converted, and the small print of your bill should show this. It'll probably be called a metric conversion factor. But if your meter has the letter M, it's a new metric meter, and your bill shouldn't have a metric conversion factor on it. If it does, you too could be paying too much.