NEW BILLING TECHNOLOGIES ARE MUST-HAVES WITH HEAT NETWORKS

Energy efficiency, customer service, and data protection all benefit from new metering, billing and payment technologies. Anthony Coates-Smith, business development director of Insite Energy tells how. 

With ever-increasing numbers of people in the UK living in high-density housing, the adoption of heat networks in residential buildings is also rising. Centralised heating (and cooling) systems are generally more energy efficient and cost effective than single-dwelling heat sources, but communal and district heat networks can only achieve financial economies of scale if there’s efficient cost-recovery from residents. This means it’s important to install the most capable metering, billing and payment systems, and these are advancing in ways worth knowing about.

Here I’ll share insight into three particularly advantageous metering and billing technologies. One is significantly more useful than alternatives, the other two are initiatives Insite Energy is proud to be pioneering in the UK heat network market. These technologies benefit almost everyone involved in supplying or using a heat network: housing associations, building managers, heat network operators, and residents. They can also help compliance with the Data Protection Act, which is getting more difficult now that the Heat Network Regulations are resulting in so much information-gathering.

Meters and data provision 

It’s true that the basic purpose of heat meters is to record energy consumption for billing purposes and to provide end-users with access to data which can help them control their consumption, just as the Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations demand. But meters can and should be used for so much more than this. Building-level and user-level meters also give access to data whose analysis can identify sources of heat loss or inefficient operating practices, leading to further reductions in energy use and costs.

It’s worth bearing in mind that if a meter costs less than others, it will almost certainly do less, and that will mean missing out on pay back through data-lead energy savings. It’s worth remembering, too, that much of the installation cost of user-level meters is labour-related, so the additional capital outlay required for more sophisticated meters is relatively modest. Despite this, too often at Insite Energy we have had to replace other installers’ metering systems which, though fairly new, have proved unfit for purpose. In our experience providing metering, billing and payment services to 170 communal heating schemes across the UK, the most advanced option, suited to all requirements is the Guru Hub. Where this is installed, tariffs can be reduced from about seven pence per kilowatt of heat to as little as three pence.

Guru gives residents real-time information on energy use, costs and carbon emissions through an easy-to-operate touch-screen interface. Better still, the Hub is the only system that can transfer data real-time via broadband to the heat metering and billing provider, enabling energy reporting, heating system efficiency and heat loss analysis.  What’s more, the Hub’s capability for remote fault diagnosis means that heat supply anomalies can be flagged-up, diagnosed and resolved remotely. This proactively prevents end-user complaints, engineer call-outs, and prolonged energy waste.

Billing and CRM software

Insite Energy recently became the first adopter in the UK of Gentrack Velocity data management software for heat network metering, billing and payment services, though this is proven in the British water utility sector. With powerful workflow, customer payment and customer relationship management (CRM) capabilities, this software seamlessly manages all forms of customer engagement, invoicing, and payment collections. The system has the ability to handle a multitude of price and tariff variables for accurately calculating heat usage and losses.

For residents, this software takes the heat supplier’s customer service to a whole new level, enabling prompt and well-informed responses to customer enquiries and, if the heat supplier wishes, making possible a range of flexible payment options. For the metering and billing services provider, the software speeds up and centralises access to vital information about the heat network, at the same time as introducing a cost-efficient level of automation which frees-up staff to focus on other tasks. And for the heat network operator, this software gives 24-hour access via an online portal to system data and customer energy-usage data, helps to more quickly identify faults in the heating system, can give insights into the customer base, and eliminates the involvement of third-parties in data storing or handling which would complicate compliance with data protection laws.

IVR for safer bill payments

 The other payment technology Insite Energy is introducing to heat networks is initiated voice recognition (IVR), which makes it easier for residents and safer for heat suppliers when bills are paid over the phone. With IVR, residents’ calls are answered by a computerised system which recognises the caller’s voice and responds by offering options based on the caller’s previous transactions. Though this might sound inhuman, users love it: their call gets answered instantly, at any time of the day or night; they are less likely to suffer the inconvenience of errors made in taking payment; and they are less likely to unintentionally miss payment-due dates because the system has a complementary text reminder service. They feel much more comfortable stating personal account details to a computer than a call handler. Heat network operators and housing associations also welcome IVR: in addition to cutting call-centre costs, its elimination of human involvement in the payment process is good for data protection accreditation.

Between them, these three technologies bring a wide-range of benefits that we can expect to see rolled out over the coming years.