The heat network metering and billing regulations require heat suppliers to charge customers based on actual consumption wherever a heat meter is installed.

For many building owners and operators, especially social housing providers and local authorities, the easiest way to meet this requirement, while also managing debt risk, is to specify the installation of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) hardware across their dwellings.

But while there are several PAYG systems to choose from, not all systems are the same. As you might expect, lower upfront costs often mean fewer features, but worryingly, some devices don’t include features that many clients consider fundamental, such as the ability to capture data from more than one utility.

In this article we share the questions you should be asking when choosing a PAYG system for your development to ensure that all stakeholders are happy with the solution. These are:

Is the system only able to function with specific HIUs or meters?

We often come across PAYG systems that end up bundled in with other hardware. As well as limiting your choices (which can impact on quality), bundled pricing makes it harder to break down costs and work out if you’re getting value for money on each part.

In contrast, the Guru Hub II is almost completely HIU, valve and meter agnostic – making it compatible with a huge range of quality hardware.

Am I tied in to one metering and billing provider when I choose this PAYG device?

Just like with hardware, we often find that clients expect PAYG devices to be tied to a specific metering and billing provider. Many PAYG devices come bundled with lengthy metering and billing contracts, meaning that if the quality of service to customers drops, there’s no way to hold that supplier to account.

Future regulation is expected to mandate a more flexible approach in order to protect customers from poor quality service, where the data captured by PAYG devices can be processed by any metering and billing agent.

Guru has always taken this approach. The meter data we capture can be viewed and accessed directly on any client system via our open API. This gives you the freedom to swap to more competitive metering and billing service providers without changing your infrastructure or disturbing customers.

Is this PAYG device a sealed unit?

We often hear contractors breathe a sigh of relief when they find out the Guru Hub II comes in two parts – a base part that can be installed by a certified electrician, and a top part (including the touch screen) which can be installed and commissioned by Guru or one of our partners later. This significantly reduces the chance of the device getting damaged when construction sites are at their busiest, or safe site storage is an issue.

Two part installation is not always the case, and some devices exist as sealed units. These might be marginally cheaper, but once you add a few inevitable replacements into the equation, a sealed unit isn’t always the cheaper option. Breakages happen, but reducing time and cost of replacements ultimately saves money and inconvenience later.

How many utilities does this PAYG system support?

PAYG devices should support more than one utility, but some don’t. Often it just comes down to cost. A PAYG device that can only support one utility may be cheaper, but increasingly we are seeing requests from customers who want to be able to capture usage data across cooling, electricity and water as well as heat.

The Guru Hub II manages and monitors up to five utility accounts – and much of our portfolio of active sites make use of this. Guru is currently completing the installation of hardware in one of London’s tallest residential buildings and the Guru Hub II is going to be monitoring heating, cooling and electricity from day one.

When a customer tops up, how quickly does their credit appear on their in-home display?

One of the most shocking differences between PAYG devices in the heat network sector is whether top-ups are processed live, or periodically in batches.

Some PAYG devices work by processing payments in batches, often at midnight at the very start of the next working day. This might be workable if a customer remembers to top in advance of their credit running out, but can lead to scenarios where a customer can’t access the heat that they’ve already paid for. This is especially worrying in the case of vulnerable customers, or ahead of public holidays like Christmas.

With Guru, if a customer tops up, the payment is processed in seconds and they’ll be able to see the new balance on their Hub II straight away. Customers can also still top up via unique payment code entered directly into the Hub II using the touchscreen even if the site is experiencing internet connectivity issues.

Does this PAYG system include an in-home display, or do I have to rely on an app?

While the idea of delivering consumption information to customers via an app might sound appealing, it’s likely that upcoming consumer protection regulations will mandate an in-home display for PAYG customers. While an app might be acceptable today, it’s likely to mean revisiting occupied dwellings at a later date to retrofit an in-home display

Citizens Advice strongly recommend that all pay-as-you-go customers have an in-home display (rather than rely on apps). This is in line with Ofgem’s position on the smart meter rollout and is likely to be Ofgem’s position on heat networks when they take up their role as the regulator.

The Guru Hub II has a 5” touchscreen display which shows credit balance, current real-time demand, tariff information (including standing charge and friendly or emergency credit options), colour graphs of consumption for last day, week and month, custom messaging from utility to customer and CO2 emissions. It was designed with extensive input from residents, and helps to engage customers with their energy use.

Can I meet my commitment to GDPR with this PAYG system?

Meter data is considered ‘Personal Data’ under GDPR and it’s important to understand the technical infrastructure of the PAYG system when choosing a solution for your development. Systems that transfer data via an unencrypted wired M-Bus network are less secure.

In contrast, Guru’s wireless mesh network is much more secure and all data is covered under our ISO27001 certification for cyber security.

What does your in-home display look like?

Functionality aside, when we look at the heat network PAYG market we ask ourselves – why do so many PAYG meters look like calculators? Why can’t PAYG meters look as good as other smart home devices like Alexa or Google Home?

New homes built today look great, with high quality finishes regardless of tenure type. PAYG meters are in a prominent position in many homes, but more importantly, they’re a great way to engage customers with their energy usage.

The Guru Hub II has a 5” colour touchscreen display, and also comes with the option of a fitting kit, allowing the device to be recessed against the interior wall.

Image: Guru pay-as-you-go hardware is installed in Stockwell Park Estate, London.