EWON Insights Oct-Dec 2020
In our October-December 2020 issue of EWON Insights we focus on the ‘core’ issue of a customer’s complaint - what initially went wrong for them. This approach helps us to accurately understand the key problems affecting customers and the actions required to reduce future complaints.
We also look at complaints about credit, transfers to new retailers without customer consent, and bulk hot water systems. Finally we also outline our internal review process, including how our Quality Team drives continuous improvement in our complaint-handling procedures.
Welcome to our first EWON Insights for 2021. EWON has had a positive start to the year with the completion of our first outreach trip to North West NSW since COVID-19 prevented us travelling 10 months ago.
We took an innovative approach to ensuring outreach continued during the pandemic by delivering our signature Bring Your Bills Days online in partnership with Hunter Water, but it was rewarding to see our Outreach Team finally get back out on the road this month. Our new partnership with the Service NSW Mobile Bus took us to Tabulam, Deepwater, Drake and Ashford to assist customers in a region particularly hard hit by bushfires, drought and floods. Keeping EWON, member and partner organisation staff safe at external events is our top priority and our COVID-safe plan ensures we manage any potential risks.
Member Engagement Survey
I’d like to thank our members who took part in the 2020 Member Engagement Survey. We had a good response rate and feedback was consistent with the Independent Review outcomes and actions included in our 2020/2021 business plan. Significant improvements compared with the 2016 survey included, EWON’s overall effectiveness as an external dispute resolution scheme (up 10% from 59% to 69%) and overall effectiveness of working with members (up 8% from 57% to 65%). Full survey results are available on EWONLink.
Complaints to EWON this quarter
An annual seasonal trend, as well as the Australian Energy Regulator’s Statement of Expectations (SoE) requirements have resulted in a slight drop in complaints. EWON Insights focus this quarter is on the ‘core’ issue of a customer’s complaint, i.e., what initially went wrong for the customer. This approach will help us, and our members, accurately understand the key problems affecting customers and the actions required to reduce future complaints.
We also look at complaints about credit, transfers to new retailers without customer consent, and complaints arising from a lack of consumer protections associated with bulk hot water. We also outline our internal review process, including how our Quality Team drives continuous improvement in our complaint-handling procedures.
Maximising efficiency and effectiveness – a joint approach
Often, EWON, EWOV, EWOSA and EWOQ, as members of the Australian and New Zealand Energy and Water Ombudsman Network, capture our shared experiences in joint submissions to regulatory bodies and government agencies. Our recent joint submissions were in response to AEMC’s rule change on bill contents and to the Energy Security Board’s consultation on data strategy.
Feedback about our quarterly Insights Reports is always welcome. Please contact our Manager Policy & Research Rory Campbell.
Energy & Water Ombudsman NSW
Complaints received this quarter decreased by 6.4% to 4,092 (down from 4,373 last quarter), owing to decreased complaints from electricity and gas customers. We believe this was partly due to the reintroduction of a partial COVID-19 lockdown in December, combined with the holiday period. The restrictions on various credit activities by the AER in its Statement of Expectations remained in place and this perhaps explains the decline of complaints compared to last year.
Electricity: Total electricity complaints of 3,184 fell by 7.8% compared to the previous quarter. The 2,875 electricity retail complaints we received during the period represents an 8.7% decrease on last quarter’s 3,149 complaints. Network complaints increased by 6.4%, with 267 complaints compared to 251 in the previous quarter.
Gas: At 725, overall gas complaints were 1.9% lower compared to 739 complaints received last quarter. The number of gas retail complaints received during the quarter (680) increased by 1.0% compared with the previous quarter (673). The number of gas network complaints (30) decreased by 20 from the last quarter.
Water: We received 157 water complaints this quarter, just one more than last quarter.
The graph below shows complaints in Oct-Dec 2020 compared with Jul-Sep 2020. An accessible version of this information is provided in the table below.
Table 1 - Complaint activity for previous two quarters (Oct-Dec 2020 and Jul-Sep 2020)
Complaint category Oct-Dec 2020 Jul-Sep 2020 Electricity retail 2,875 3,149 Electricity network 267 251 Gas retail 680 673 Gas network 30 50 Water 157 156 Exempt energy retailers 10 21 General enquiries 47 49 Total 4,092 4,373
Tables 2 to 5 provide detailed information about the number of complaints received from October to December 2020 compared to the previous four quarters.
Table 2: Electricity complaints opened Oct to Dec 2020, including previous quarters Case subject Provider type Oct-Dec 2020 Jul – Sep 2020 Apr – Jun 2020 Jan – Mar 2020 Oct – Dec 2019 Electricity Exempt retailer 10 21 12 14 18 Electricity Network 267 251 259 368 235 Electricity Retailer 2,875 3,149 2,658 3,457 3,764 Electricity Not allocated 32 33 63 101 80 Electricity Total 3,184 3,454 2,992 3,940 4,097 Table 3: Gas complaints opened Oct to Dec 2020, including previous quarters Case subject Provider type Oct - Dec 2020 Jul– Sep 2020 Apr – Jun 2020 Jan – Mar 2020 Oct – Dec 2019 Gas Exempt retailer 0 0 0 0 1 Gas Network 30 50 21 31 42 Gas Retailer 680 673 520 658 755 Gas Not allocated 15 16 10 8 12 Gas Total 725 739 551 697 810 Table 4: Non energy/water complaints opened Oct to Dec 2020, including previous quarters Case subject Provider type Oct - Dec 2020 Jul – Sep 2020 Apr – Jun 2020 Jan – Mar 2020 Oct – Dec 2019 Non-energy/non-water Not allocated 26 24 15 22 20 Non-energy/non-water Total 26 24 15 22 20 Table 5: Water complaints opened Oct to Dec 2020, including previous quarters Case subject Provider type Oct - Dec 2020 Jul – Sep 2020 Apr – Jun 2020 Jan – Mar 2020 Oct – Dec 2019 Water Network 47 44 74 85 65 Water Retailer 80 92 99 129 118 Water Not Allocated 30 20 18 24 17 Water Total 157 156 191 238 200
Customer complaint issues
Customers identified 7,943 different issues associated with the 4,092 complaints opened in the quarter. This was an increase of 1.0% on the previous quarter when 7,868 issues were identified.
There were 1,600 disputed high bill complaints, a decrease of 6.8% from the 1,717 received in the previous quarter. High bills continued to be the most significant billing issue, representing 20.1% of all issues raised this quarter.
After two quarters of decreasing complaints about customer service, this quarter saw an increase in each of the three customer service issues. Despite this increase, the decline in these complaints compared to last year is still significant, showing a 32.1% drop in customers service issues and a 39.3% decrease in complaints about incorrect advice and or information. These numbers continue to reflect well on retailers and their commitment to customers through difficult times.
We have been monitoring complaints relating to payment difficulties, to gauge the impact of the AER Statement of Expectations. We received 193 complaints about payment difficulties, a decrease of 14 complaints compared to the last quarter, however it was a drop of 52.6% compared to the same quarter in 2019. Retailers’ commitment to supporting customers has been extremely positive, however with government income support reducing and rent and mortgage relief coming to an end, it is expected that payment difficulties will increase over the course of this year.
Table 6 - Top 10 issues Oct to Dec 2020, including previous four quarters Primary issue Secondary > Tertiary issue Oct - Dec 20 Jul - Sep 20 Apr – Jun 20 Jan – Mar 20 Oct – Dec 19 Billing High > disputed 1,600 (20.1%) 1,717 (21.8%) 1,285 (17.7%) 1,455 (16.9%) 1,862 (18.4%) Customer service Poor service 733 (9.2%) 634 (8%) 604 (8.3%) 726 (8.4%) 1,079 (10.6%) Billing Opening / closing account 425 (5.4%) 397 (5%) 395 (5.4%) 385 (4.5%) 466 (4.6%) Billing Estimation > Meter access / not read 405 (5.1%) 428 (5.4%) 437 (6%) 434 (5%) 513 (5.1%) Customer service Failure to respond 382 (4,8%) 344 (4.4%) 348 (4.8%) 309 (3.6%) 415 (4.1%) Customer service Incorrect advice / information 232 (2.9%) 217 (2.8%) 263 (3.6%) 305 (3.5%) 382 (3.8%) Credit Payment difficulties > current / arrears 193 (2.4%) 207 (2.6%) 190 (2.6%) 387 (4.5%) 407 (4%) Billing Backbill 183 (2.3%) 140 (1.8%) 122 (1.7%) 205 (2.4%) 192 (1.9%) Billing Meter > Fault 176 (2.2%) 170 (2.2%) 115 (1.6%) 114 (1.3%) 167 (1.7%) General Energy / water 148 (1.9%) 180 (2.3%) 139 (1.9%) 207 (2.4%) 189 (1.9%) Total number of issues per quarter 7,943 7,868 7,256 8,618 10,138
One core issue in a complaint
In July 2020, we began a new data collection process which identifies the core issue in a customer’s complaint. In each complaint we receive, there may be more than one issue but there can be only one core issue. In this quarter we received 4,092 complaints which had 7,943 issues.
There is a discrepancy in the number of cases received (4,092) and the number of core issues (4,105). This is because core issues are only assigned when a case is finalised.
This new approach will, for the first time, provide information on the key issues driving customer complaints. For example, in relation to payment difficulties, of the 193 complaints where this was an issue, it was identified as a core issue in only 74 complaints. Payment difficulties are often associated with complaints where the core issue is a disputed high bill, an estimated bill or where backbilling has occurred.
Table 7 - Top 10 core issues
Primary issues Secondary issues Tertiary issues Oct - Dec 2020 Billing High Disputed 1,215 Billing Opening/closing account 204 Billing Estimation Meter access/not read 163 General Energy / water 142 Credit Collection Credit rating 114 Billing Refund or credit Delay / error/ form 100 Billing Backbill 90 Billing Error Payment / deduction 86 Credit Payment difficulties current /arrears 74 Billing Error Wrong meter 69
Note: The total number of issues recorded may be greater than the number of matters selected.
The graph below shows the breakdown of electricity and gas complaints by category, received in Oct-Dec 2020. An accessible version of this information is included in the table below.
Table 5 – Complaint breakdown – Energy
Complaint type Number of complaints % Total energy complaints General enquiry 33 0.8% Complaint enquiry 1,523 38.7% Refer to Higher Level 1,558 39.6% Investigated 821 20.9% Total 3,935 100%
General water complaints are the biggest category of issue for water customers who contact us. These complaints are usually about things such the behaviour of contractors or legislative requirements. Other complaints about water providers relate to high bills and customer service issues such as failure to respond and poor service, as seen below.
Table 9 — Water top 5 issues Oct to Dec 2020, including previous quarters
Primary and secondary issue Oct-Dec 2020 Jul-Sep 20 Apr-Jun 20 Jan-Mar 20 Oct-Dec 19 Billing > High > Disputed 27 34 40 44 42 General > Energy/water 37 32 30 32 30 Customer service > Failure to respond 18 20 26 28 33 Customer service > poor service 17 13 25 33 38 Land > network assets > maintenance 11 12 17 14 27
The highest number of complaints were complaint enquiries, as seen in the table below.
Table 10 - Complaint breakdown - Water - Oct-Dec 2020
Complaint type Number of complaints Total % General enquiry 6 3.8% Complaint enquiry 92 58.6% Refer to Higher Level 37 23.6% Investigated 22 14% Total 157 100%
Calculation and application of rebates
The calculation and application of rebates may be difficult for customers to understand. This difficulty is often exacerbated when customers are experiencing personal difficulties and financial distress.
Pensioner unclear on rebate eligibility after death of husband
A customer told us that she was an age pensioner and her late husband was also an age pensioner. She said that they previously received the full pensioner rebate on water bills. She considered that after her husband died, the rebate was removed from the water account.
She contacted the water provider which advised it could only apply 50% of the rebate because her son, who was not a pensioner, was also listed as an account holder. She said that her son did not live at the supply address and that her name was incorrectly changed to “The Estate Of” on the bills. Further, the bills were putting her under financial distress, noting that there were increased costs due to COVID-19. She said that she had contacted the water provider on multiple occasions and was not happy with the customer service she received.
We contacted the water provider about the complaint. Following a review of the available information, we advised the customer that the water provider had appropriately applied 50% of the pensioner concession to the billing of the account, in accordance with the eligibility criteria, and that the account holder names had been corrected. We also provided general information about the pensioner rebate. In response to the customer’s financial concerns We also referred the customer to the water provider’s customer assistance team to discuss flexible payment options and the Payment Assistance Scheme (PAS).
Similar complaints from customers
We received similar complaints from customers regarding the calculation and application of rebates, including where there are multiple people living at the premises. This highlights the need for rebate information to be available to customers, which can assist them to understand the eligibility requirements, the calculation method and application process.
Customers may incur costs due to water related problems. Limited access to, or knowledge of, claim processes can create difficulties for customers.
Customer engages private plumber, when provider would have fixed the problem for free
A customer told us that blocked sewerage drains had caused flooding in her yard. She engaged a plumber to clear the drains. The plumber fixed the problem and charged $220 for the works. The customer said that her water provider sent a letter confirming it was responsible for the blockage and advised it could have repaired the issue without any cost to her. The provider also said it would review whether the customer could be reimbursed for the plumber’s costs.
The customer was then told that if she had contacted the water provider before engaging a private plumber, it would have arranged the work without any cost to her. The provider said that because she engaged a private plumber, they would not reimburse the costs.
We referred the customer back to the water provider at a higher level, with the customer’s agreement, knowing she could return to us if the matter was not resolved satisfactorily.
Similar complaints from customers
We received other similar complaints about claims declined by water providers. The costs incurred by customers may create significant financial difficulties. Providing information to customers about claim requirements may assist customers to make decisions about repairs.
Embedded network complaints
In the October to December 2020 quarter we opened 79 complaints from embedded network customers. These complaints were from the following categories:
- Authorised energy retailers: 59
- Exempt electricity sellers: 9
- Authorised gas retailers: 8
- Licenced Electricity Network: 2
- Electricity (Not Allocated): 1
Table 8 - Top issues for embedded network complaints closed this quarter
Complaint issues Cases Billing > High > Disputed 31 Billing > Opening/closing account 13 Customer service > poor service 12 Billing > Tariff > rate 11 Customer service > failture to respond 10 Billing > Backbill 7 Credit > payment difficulties > current/arrears 5 Billing > period 5 Customer service . incorrect advice/information 4 Billing > other 4
Some customers in embedded networks are not aware of which entity is responsible for dealing with energy and water matters, which may lead to difficulty in resolving disputes.
Advocate unclear about who bills customer
An advocate advised us that a customer has been at the supply address since October 2018. He received quarterly bills from September 2019 for $196, $2,609 and $2,463. The advocate considered that the customer had been incorrectly charged a business tariff instead of a residential tariff.
The advocate told us that after numerous calls, the retailer reviewed the matter in July 2020. However, three months later the retailer said that the building’s body corporate was responsible for the issue. The advocate said that he then contacted the building’s body corporate which told him that the retailer was responsible for the issue.
With the advocates agreement, we referred him back to the retailer at higher level, knowing he could return to us if the matter was not resolved satisfactorily.
Customers in embedded networks do not have the same consumer protections that other customers have. This may lead to confusion about which protections apply within embedded networks.
Customer unsure of her rights
An advocate contacted us as she thought the retailer was charging more than the standard retail contract prices. The advocate advised that the customer was being billed for peak charges regardless of the time of the day. The advocate also considered that the bills contained errors such as adding late payment fees, incorrect disconnection notices and low solar credits.
The advocate said she contacted the retailer and it explained how to leave the embedded network, however she was unable to find a retailer which was willing to take over the meter and the billing rights. She said that the retailer told her they cannot assist further regarding the pricing and would investigate the issues about the billing agent.
We referred this case back to the retailer at a higher level, but the customer returned to us. She told us that the retailer informed her that the exempt selling guidelines did not apply, and she may be at risk of disconnection if she did not agree to the contract offered. She also said that the service availability charges had increased.
We advised the customer that the retailer is an authorised retailer, and provided information about what this means. Specifically, the National Energy Retail Law (NERL) and the National Energy Retail Rules (NERR) apply to the authorised retailer’s electricity accounts or bills. Further, the retailer is not required to comply with the provisions of the Residential (Land Lease) Communities Act 2013 or the Regulation. We reviewed the standing offer for the area and advised the customer that the retailer was not charging more than the standing offer.
Credit complaints and the AER Expectations
Retailers have continued their responsible approach to credit issues this quarter. Backed by the AER Statement of Expectations, only one credit issue appeared in the top ten issues. No other credit issue was significant this quarter.
The AER has requested that Ombudsman schemes report on any customer complaints that appear to breach the Statement of Expectations. During this quarter EWON has reported 17 cases where there was a possible breach. In all these cases the retailers immediately resolved the customer’s complaint and provided the necessary support to rectify the initial problem. These cases are the exception to a positive and thorough response by retailers to vulnerable customers during COVID-19.
Debt collection activity
A customer had moved out of the supply address in September 2020. She arranged a payment plan with her retailer to pay $77 per fortnight for her previous supply address. She said that she had missed payments and by the time she started paying again, a debt collection agency was making contact requesting a payment of $1,100. The customer said she asked the debt collection agent for an explanation of how much she had paid and how much was owing so she could understand her account status, but the agency insisted on payment. The customer said she had health issues and was experiencing financial stress, so she could not pay more than she was paying before.
The retailer responded to us with an offer to place a six-month hold on the account which would allow the customer to pay the debt at a rate she could afford. We then asked the retailer about the role of the debt collection agency. The retailer responded that the debt remained with them and the collection agency was acting on its behalf. It also said the collection agency was only trying to get the customer on a payment plan and denied it had requested a lump sum payment. We pointed out that the customer knew she had been contacted by the collection agency and knew its business name. The retailer agreed that the debt collection agency would not contact the customer again.
No payment plan offered
A customer received a bill that was nearly double her normal bill. She contacted the retailer to advise she was in financial hardship. It responded that the bill was accurate and payable, and granted an extension but not a payment plan. She obtained $400 EAPA but could not afford to pay the remaining arrears in a lump sum. The customer said that she was extremely stressed by having a debt that she could not pay.
The retailer said the bill was for $1,076 but would only be $776 if paid on time. It immediately offered to apply the discount and waive the remaining balance. The customer was pleased with this outcome.
Transfer without consent
The following case studies show how accounts can be transferred without a customer’s clear and informed consent. This sometimes occurs as a result of marketing by third party sales companies. Customers often do not understand how their account transferred to another retailer when they did not agree to a transfer. Customers often tell us that they only agreed to have information provided to them but did not agree to a new contract.
We are also seeing complaints from customers that have not fully understood the information provided by a marketer and how this can result in their account being transferred to a different retailer. This highlights the need for retailers to ensure that customers understand the information provided. Customers should not feel pressured into agreeing to a transfer unless they fully understand the information provided to them.
Customer did not agree to transfer
A customer was contacted by her preferred retailer to advise that her electricity and gas accounts were transferring to a new retailer. She could not understand how the new retailer had obtained her details. She said she did not consent to an account with the new retailer either verbally or through an online application.
When she spoke to the new retailer, she was told that it had received an online application for the transfer of her accounts. She thought she may have made an enquiry, but not consent for a transfer. She said she found the new retailer unhelpful. She was also concerned about her personal information being obtained by the retailer as she had recently received an email from another service provider indicating that they received her details from the new retailer.
When we asked about the transfer, the retailer advised that both accounts were established online through a third party sales company. The retailer confirmed that the customer’s transfer was cancelled, and it deleted the customer’s private information, retaining only minimal information.
Customer accepted rates offered by third party marketer
A customer received a telemarketing call from a third party agency on behalf of a retailer. The agency offered to review her current energy rates. The customer said she did not want to change retailers and the agency assured her that it only intended to check if she was on the correct rates. She agreed to proceed with the call on this basis.
The agency obtained her details and discussed the rates it considered she needed to be billed on. She accepted the rates, however reinforced that she did not want to change providers. The agency repeatedly assured her that their only purpose was to check her current rates and that it would liaise with the retailer to make sure that she received the correct rates. Soon after she received a bill from the new retailer for over $2,000. She called that retailer and disputed the basis of the account and the bill. The retailer told her the account was correct and payable. The debt was then referred to a debt collection agency. The customer said she did not agree to be billed by the retailer.
We referred the matter back to the retailer, for resolution at a higher level with the customer’s acceptance knowing she could return to us if she was unhappy with the outcome.
Hot water embedded networks
What are common hot water systems?
In many residential buildings across NSW, owner occupiers and tenants are supplied hot water through a centralised common hot water system, rather than each apartment having its own water heater. These systems are frequently referred to as ‘common hot water systems’, ‘bulk hot water services’, or ‘centralised hot water services’.
Common hot water systems are usually gas powered but may also be heated by electricity. A typical gas common hot water system contains the following parts:
- master water meter - where water from the local water provider enters the system
- master gas or electricity meter - where energy from the local network enters the system
- a central hot water heater (or multiple central heaters)
- central piping throughout the building to each apartment
- hot water meters at each apartment.
Traditionally, the gas network provider has supported the growth of common hot water systems by taking ownership of the individual hot water meters for each apartment, providing maintenance, meter reading, and billing the hot water usage for each meter directly to the customer’s preferred retailer. Jemena allocates each hot water meter with a Delivery Point Identifier (DPI) or Meter Installation Registration Number (MIRN). Customers are billed by recording how much hot water runs through the hot water meter at each apartment, and then using this data to calculate how much gas or electricity was consumed by the system when heating the water that the customer used.
What are hot water embedded networks?
A hot water embedded network is any apartment building with a common hot water system where the hot water meters for each individual apartment are owned, maintained and read by a third-party and not network providers.
The individual hot water meters in an embedded network are not allocated with a DPI or MIRN. This means that authorised energy retailers do not have access to the meter data from the hot water meters and customers do not have access to retail market competition.
There are a variety of business models that currently exist for operating a hot water embedded network. However, most hot water embedded networks are designed to combine a centralised hot water service with an unmetered gas supply to each apartment, sold as a ‘gas cooktop’ service.
Embedded network hot water customers are not covered by the energy specific protections contained in the National Energy Consumer Framework (NECF).
Backbill leads to high bill
A customer that holds the account for the common hot water service provided to his apartment, advised us that he had received notification from his energy retailer that the charges on his account would be adjusted to recover 12 months of undercharges. They contacted the energy retailer about the higher than expected backbill. The retailer advised the customer that there was no limit to the period of time that can be backbilled. The customer complained to us that he considers the billing issue was caused by the retailer’s billing system upgrade and lack of customer service over the issue. The customer considered it to be unfair to recover 12 months of charges due to a retailer error.
We explained that the retailer was able to backbill for twelve months as the usual nine month limitation only applies to electricity and gas bills, not hot water. We then referred the matter to the retailer for resolution at a higher level and advised the customer that he could return to us if an agreed outcome could not be reached.
Customer not informed of embedded network when purchasing property
A customer purchased an apartment off the plan in August 2020. The customer told us that the sales agent did not inform him that the apartment was part of an embedded network and no information about the network was included in the contract. The customer objected to living in an embedded network because he considered it to be monopoly and he could not choose his own energy provider. The customer complained that the fees and charges were significantly higher than the gas and electricity offers he could see from the retail market. The customer also complained that his gas bill is separated into hot water usage and a daily gas cooktop charge. The customer noted that the hot water is charged in cents per litres and the charges did not reflect his actual gas usage.
We provided advice about making a complaint to his energy retailer in the first instance. We also referred the customer to Fair Trading NSW for advice about the sale of the property.
Customer given conflicting information
A customer recently moved into a new apartment and noted that the residential tenancy agreement she signed, stipulated that the building was not part of an embedded network. The customer then tried to open a gas account with the energy retailer of her choice but she was told that the apartment was in an embedded network. So, the customer opened a gas account with the energy retailer providing services to the embedded network. The customer noted that she was being charged for hot water usage and a daily charge for a gas cooktop service and complained that her first gas bill was higher than expected.
The customer also told us that the hot water service took a long time to heat up after turning the tap on and therefore the bill did not reflect her actual usage of gas. The customer had checked and not found any leaks from the hot water service. The customer contacted the retailer to obtain an explanation of how the charges were calculated but did not ask for the bill to be reviewed.
We provided the customer with advice about common hot water systems and a fact sheet. We asked the customer to make a complaint to her energy retailer in the first instance and told her she could return to us if the complaint was not resolved. We also referred the customer to the Tenants Union of NSW for advice about her residential tenancy agreement.
Customer unhappy with hot water heating
A customer living in an apartment with an embedded network complained to us about the charges he receives for the common hot water service. The customer said it was taking one minute to receive hot water after turning on the hot water tap and he considered it should take no longer than 15 to 30 seconds. The customer complained that he was being charged for significant amounts of cold water due to a poorly designed and inefficient common hot water system. The customer complained to the energy retailer that services the embedded network and he was told that there were no regulations that set standards for the delivery of hot water.
We advised the customer that, as his complaint relates to the efficiency of the hot water network in his building, we did not have jurisdiction to investigate his complaint further.
Customer experiences poor service when seeking to clarify bill
A customer purchased an apartment off the plan in 2018. The apartment was serviced by a common hot water system that was managed and billed as an embedded network by an energy retailer. The customer told us that he had not received regular bills from his retailer, based on the agreed billing frequency, for a period of 12 months. The customer noted that he had received a delayed hot water bill of $1,100 for a period of six-months and then a subsequent bill for $531 for a one-month period.
The customer complained to the retailer about the delays and the inconsistent billing. The retailer told the customer that it would investigate the billing and provide a response. The customer did not receive a response for over a month, so he sent a follow up email to the retailer, but again, did not receive a reply. The customer then received a new hot water bill, so he tried calling the energy retailer but he could only leave a phone message.
The customer complained to us about the poor customer service he received when attempting to resolve his complaint. We referred the matter to the retailer for resolution at a higher level and advised the customer he could return to us if a satisfactory outcome could not be reached. The customer returned to us because he was not contacted by the retailer at all.
We contacted the retailer to obtain the outcome of its investigation and was told that the billing delay was caused by data migration to a new billing system. The retailer also noted that the customer’s meter was incorrectly connected and crossed with another apartment. The retailer corrected the error and reissued the customer’s hot water bill. The retailer offered to waive six-months of charges as a customer service gesture. The retailer confirmed the new billing cycle for the customer would be bi-monthly and provided a further credit of $100 as a goodwill gesture. The customer accepted this outcome as resolution to the complaint.
This report also includes our regular sections on internal reviews, behind the meter issues, embedded networks and water, including case studies.
Behind the meter
The rollout of digital meters continues to be a factor in the complaints we receive from customers with behind the meter products, such as rooftop solar systems and battery storage. While the number of complaints about meter installation delays have now significantly reduced, customers still complain to us about other metering issues affecting their behind the meter product. The problems experienced by customers include errors during the installation of the meter, such as incorrectly programming the network tariffs, or technical problems, like black spots in mobile phone coverage.
Table 6 - Behind the meter (solar and storage batteries) quarterly complaints to EWON 2018-2020
Table 7 - Behind the meter (solar and storage batteries) complaints to EWON 2017-2020
Lack of mobile phone reception leads to estimated bills
A customer installed a rooftop solar system at her property and requested a digital meter. The customer told us that since the digital meter was installed, bills issued by her retailer were based on estimated readings. The estimated bills she received did not reflect the electricity generated by her rooftop solar system and she was not receiving credits for solar exported to the grid.
The customer contacted her retailer to complain on multiple occasions. The customer was advised by the retailer that the technician who installed the digital meter failed to inform the retailer that there was no mobile phone coverage at their property. The customer noted that the issue remained unresolved and the retailer had not provided her with any information on what options were available to resolve the issue.
We referred the matter to the retailer for resolution at a higher level and advised the customer that she could return to us if an agreed outcome could not be reached.
Complaints about solar installations
Behind the meter products are a significant investment with long term benefits. It is understandable that solar and battery installers offer financing arrangements to help a wide range of customers access more affordable energy. However, it is critical for consumers to clearly understand the financing arrangements being offered by solar companies and energy retailers. With any long-term agreement, it is difficult for a customer to anticipate all future changes to their personal circumstances. Therefore, consumers should be aware of the terms and conditions that apply to ending the agreement early. The following case study also highlights the importance of providing consumers with behind the meter products, access to independent external dispute resolution.
Confusion over solar contract balance after customer moves out of property
A customer arranged for the installation of a rooftop solar system with his energy retailer. The retailer’s solar contract required the customer to make repayments of $76 per month for 15 years. Five years after the rooftop system was installed, the customer needed to move out of the property due to a change in personal circumstances. The retailer notified the customer that the contract was cancelled after the sale of the property was completed. The retailer also advised that the customer would be asked to pay the balance of the solar contract via a payout clause. The customer then received an invoice for $4,045.
The customer complained to the retailer that the final amount was incorrect and after the payments he had already made, it should be just over $2,500. The customer did not receive a response for several weeks and continued to be debited for the monthly repayment of $76. The retailer finally responded to the customer’s complaint with a reduced amount to pay of $3,000. The customer asked the retailer to provide him with a breakdown of how the amount was calculated. The customer complained to us that he had received no response to his final request.
We referred the matter to the retailer for resolution at a higher level and advised the customer that he could return to us if an agreed outcome could not be reached.
Complaints about variations in retailer feed-in tariffs
Complaints about electricity price increases have always been a seasonal driver of complaints. Complaints about reductions of the solar feed-in tariff offered by retailers, or changes to the structure of a retailer’s solar energy plans, are now also common complaints received by us at the beginning of each financial year.
Each year, there can be significant changes to the feed-in tariffs offered by retailers and customers often have high expectations of the benefits they should be receiving from rooftop solar systems. These complaints can be more difficult to resolve if the customer considers they were not provided with appropriate information about how feed-in tariffs work when making the decision to invest in a rooftop solar system.
Better feed-in tariff leads to loss of discount
A customer purchased a rooftop solar system directly from her energy retailer. At the time she purchased the system, the retailer quoted her a solar feed-in tariff of $0.23 per kWh for a period of two years. When she received her first bill after installation, the feed-in tariff was only $0.07 per kWh.
When the customer contacted the retailer to complain, it explained that to obtain a feed-in tariff of $0.23 she needed to agree to a new two-year contract. The retailer also noted that the new contract would not include the 29% discount that she currently received off her electricity usage.
The retailer had never mentioned she would lose the benefits from her current contract before she could receive a higher feed-in tariff. We referred the matter to the retailer for resolution at a higher level and told the customer that she could return to us if an agreed outcome could not be reached.
The customer returned to us because the complaint remained unresolved. The customer noted that the retailer had explained that it only had two available solar contracts, a contract with a $0.07 feed-in tariff and a two-year contract with a $0.23 feed-in tariff, but that contract did not come with a 29% discount. The retailer did not address her complaint and she was given misleading information about the available energy plans when she was purchasing the rooftop solar system. The customer stated she had phone recordings which demonstrated that the retailer did not provide all the relevant information.
We contacted the retailer to obtain further information about the complaint. The retailer acknowledged the customer’s concerns and apologised for the inconvenience caused to the customer. The retailer confirmed that it could not offer a contract based on the customer’s expectations, however, offered to provide her with a $100 credit as a customer service gesture to resolve the complaint which the customer accepted.
Quality assurance - our internal review process
We have a comprehensive internal Quality Assurance Framework. Separate from our Investigations Team, our Quality Team undertakes in-depth, fair assessments of our complaint work including adherence to our complaint-handling and investigations policies and procedures. This includes being accountable, transparent, timely and fair.
When a customer asks for a review of their case, it give us an opportunity to identify potential improvements in our decision-making processes. It also gives us a chance to reconsider the complaint in light of further information or an alternative interpretation of available information.
While most internal reviews find that the review grounds are not upheld, in this case study the information provided by the customer substantiated one or more of the grounds for review.
Customers claim for compensation accepted after EWON review
A customer told EWON that a distributor’s tree trimming sub-contractor attended her rural property to complete vegetation management works. She and two others witnessed the sub-contractor’s truck stop outside her house to trim trees before driving up a narrow driveway to the top of the hill to be able to turn around and leave.
Shortly after she noticed a private pole on the property was leaning, so engaged an electrician to inspect the pole which was initially identified as sagging due to rotting underground. On replacement, it was then identified as being structurally sound. Her electrician advised her that the damage to the pole appeared consistent with something snagging the wire connecting it to the high voltage pole. The customer considered the tree trimmer's truck snagged the wire as no other vehicle of sufficient height had been on the property. On this basis she made a claim to the distributor for the pole replacement costs of $3,336, however the claim was denied.
The distributor noted that GPS tracking only showed the tree trimmer's vehicle going as far as the first building on the property, therefore it maintained the truck could not have clipped the wires. The customer noted it was physically impossible for a truck to turn around at the point where the GPS records showed. She also noted GPS devices have a start-up lag time and a truck could drive up the hill and loop back down without the GPS showing this.
Our original investigation concluded that, while it could not be ruled out the tree trimmer's truck had driven up the hill and clipped the wires, there was insufficient supporting information to substantiate this and so the denial of the claim was upheld. The customer then requested a review.
Our Internal Review noted the photography of the terrain appeared to support the customer's statement that it was impossible for a truck to turn around where the GPS records indicated. Also, a review of GPS device information supported the customer's advice that GPS devices could have a start up lag of up to five minutes while it searched for satellite signals. This supported the idea that a truck could drive up the hill and loop around before a signal was established.
The important question was how a standard-sized truck could have clipped the wire if it had adequate clearance from the ground. The high voltage wire to the private pole was noted as being the distributor’s responsibility to maintain. This issue had not been identified in our investigation and feedback was provided to the Investigations Team. The pole maintenance records on the property indicated numerous reported defects about the clearance height of high and low voltage wires. A work order on the distributor’s database to rectify the issue appeared to be open since it was initially reported in 2016. This additional relevant information formed the basis for upholding the grounds for review.
Following our advice that this information and the questions around the wire clearance defects merited further investigation, the distributor agreed to pay the customer's claim of $3,336.