Worried you might run out of credit on your prepayment meter...?

November 22

Prepayment meters measure your use of gas or electricity and require you to pay in advance using a token that you can pay for credit from a local outlet. Energy suppliers usually ask you to have one installed if you have been unable to keep payments on a payment plan – that's because you can generally not get into further debt. The meter can also be set to collect debt from the money that you put in. However, although it is argued that prepayment meters give you greater control of your debt, they also carry risks – many people end up "self-rationing" or "self-disconnecting" from their supply when a meter has been fitted. Because of this, energy companies are required (but often don't) to follow certain safeguards before moving to fit a prepayment meter and, in addition to this, offer support when they are contacted by a customer who cannot afford to top their meter up. 

Your supplier can only make you move to prepayment if it is safe and practical. This means you can refuse to move to prepayment if an illness or disability means your welfare would be at risk if your gas or electricity was cut off. 

You can also refuse to move to prepayment if you wouldn't be able to either:

  • get to your meter
  • top it up - either because you can't afford it or you can't get to a shop

Your supplier must also follow the rules of Ofgem, the energy regulator. These rules mean your supplier can't make you move to prepayment if:

You disagree that you owe them money, and you've told them this - for example, if the debt came from a previous tenant

  • They haven't offered you other ways to repay money you owe - for example, a repayment plan or payments through your benefits
  • They come to your home to install a prepayment meter without giving you notice - at least 7 days for gas and 7 working days for electricity 
  • they haven't given you at least 28 days to repay your debt before writing to you to say they want to move you to prepayment 

If you're disabled or ill

Your supplier can't make you move to prepayment if you:

  • are disabled in a way that makes it hard to get to, read or use the meter
  • have a mental health condition that makes it hard to get to, read or use the meter
  • have an illness that affects your breathing, such as asthma
  • have an illness that's made worse by the cold, such as arthritis
  • use medical equipment that needs electricity - for example, a stairlift or dialysis machine

You should also ask to be put on your supplier's priority services register - you could get extra help with your energy supply. 

You must be asked if you want a prepayment meter before your supplier takes action to disconnect your supply. If your supplier fits a meter rather than disconnecting your supply, they should not charge more than £150.

If you do not think that it is safe for you to use a prepayment meter for whatever reason: such as your health, disability, or where the meter is located, tell your supplier. 

Your supplier must not force you to have a prepayment meter to recover the debt if doing so would be severely traumatic for you due to your mental or psychological state. 

If your condition or vulnerability has prevented you from sorting out your energy debt with your supplier, they should not charge you for fitting a prepayment meter as a way of sorting out your debt.

Smart meter topping up

Smart meters measure your energy use and can send this information to your supplier electronically. You may not have to give manual readings as well. Smart meters can be set up as prepayment meters and have a wider range of options for topping them up, including: by phone, by internet or with an app. This can mean that they are easier to use than traditional prepayment meters. Just as with prepayment meters being installed, switching the meter to prepayment mode, which can be done remotely by the energy company, should only happen with certain safeguards being observed. Yet there is evidence that this is only sometimes the case. If this has happened to you, take independent advice from a local advice agency such as Citizens Advice. 

Self-disconnection and self-rationing

As stated earlier, you could become self-disconnected if you have a prepayment meter. This is where you are left without gas or electricity until you can afford to top up your prepayment meter. There are various reasons this could happen, for example, forgetting to top up the meter or not realising that the meter needed to be higher on credit. If you are in this situation, suppliers are required to provide you with either:

  • an Emergency Credit to top up your meter; or
  • a Friendly-hours Credit at times, top-up points may be closed. This is usually overnight, at weekends and on public holidays.

These types of credit may be built into your prepayment meter already. Contact your supplier if you need this support but need help accessing it.

Even if you can keep your prepayment meter topped up, you may find you can only do this by self-rationing. This is where you limit your energy use to save money or spend less on other goods or services to have an energy supply.

If you are vulnerable, your supplier can provide you with an Additional Support Credit to ensure you have a supply of energy. There are many reasons you could be in a vulnerable situation, for example, living with a physical or mental health issue, experiencing a bereavement, or having a drop in your income. Your supplier may offer you Additional Support Credit if they know you:

  • have self-disconnected;
  • are at risk of self-disconnecting;
  • have self-rationed; or
  • are self-rationing

Call your supplier if you need this support. Explain your situation and ask them to provide you with Additional Support Credit. 

Other support available

Because it is known that people on prepayment meters are likely to be at particular risk, various local and national schemes have been set up, mainly to help during the cost of living crisis.

If you pay for energy by topping up and you're on a traditional (non-smart) meter, you should've received at least one £66 government energy support voucher by now. Here's what you can do if you haven't got yours or are having problems redeeming it.

Households in England, Scotland and Wales with a domestic electricity account are getting a non-repayable grant of £400 between October 2022 and March 2023. This should have been paid £66 in October and November, then £67 from December to March.

Similarly, if you're still waiting for your voucher, check below for more on what you do next.

You might have yet to get your voucher because it was sent to an out-of-date phone number or email address. Ensure your energy supplier has your latest details to minimise the risk of delays with your future vouchers. You should be able to do this in your online account (if you have one) or by contacting your supplier directly.

All eligible prepay users should have received their first £66 voucher by now (and some will be getting their second). These will have been sent from your energy supplier by post, email or text message.

If you are still to receive yours, or if you did but have since lost it, contact your energy supplier, and it should be able to resend it.

If it was initially sent by post, ask your supplier if it can send it by email or text. 

The government says suppliers must make all reasonable efforts to ensure you get your discount.

Local Schemes

Even with this support, many customers on prepayment meters will need help. For this reason, local councils, often working in partnership with local charities, are able to distribute personalised funding support through the government's national "Household Support Fund". The type of support varies from area to area, as does other support available from national charities, trusts and foundations. A good place to start, if you think you might need this support or are struggling to access vouchers from the national scheme, or just if you have concerns about how your energy supplier is responding to you, is to make contact with a local, independent advice agency such as a Citizens Advice office.

The information on this website is for general guidance on your rights and responsibilities and is not financial or legal advice. We have endeavoured to ensure that the information on this website is accurate. However, we will not accept liability for any loss, damage or inconvenience arising as a consequence of any use of or the inability to use any information on this website. We cannot guarantee that our service will be uninterrupted or error-free. We are not responsible for claims brought by third parties arising from your use of this site.

We assume no responsibility for the contents of linked websites. The inclusion of any link should not be taken as an endorsement by us or of any association with its operators.

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