AMID all the gloomy headlines about the spiralling costs of living, I wasn’t surprised to receive an email informing me that my Direct Debit for gas and electricity was being increased. What took me aback, though, was the jump. A doubling, in fact. Could this be right?

Well no, technically it couldn’t be “right” or “wrong” as it was an estimate. An estimate of what I might owe currently, along with an estimate of what I might spend over the next six months.

Odd, I thought, given I have had a smart meter for years, and switched supplier a few months ago without a hitch. Surely one of the main points of these gadgets is to avoid guesswork about what I have actually used, and spare me clambering up a ladder to peer at the electricity meter.

Sure enough, my readings were significantly lower than those the energy company had estimated a week earlier. Far from being £41 in debt, I was £37 in credit. Clearly whatever formula is used to estimate energy usage for a household like mine significantly underestimates my enthusiasm for purchasing faux fur snow leopard pyjamas, onesies and dressing gowns.

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Meter readings duly logged on the energy company’s website, I set about querying this astronomical Direct Debit. After being ghosted by a human via live chat (I typed in three questions and the only response was “Ankita disconnected”), I managed to get through to a bot. “If your circumstance have changed, and you think you’re using more or less energy than we’ve estimated, you can make small changes to the amount you pay,” it told me. My circumstances have not changed, as I have been part-snow leopard for several years, but fine, OK. “How much do you want to pay instead,” asked the bot. I entered an amount. The answer was no. After some toing and froing, this digital gatekeeper allowed me to trim £15 off my monthly payment – no king’s ransom, certainly, but the kind of sum that isn’t trivial to many hard-pressed folk, especially with Christmas fast approaching.

Suspicious, I then set about trying to figure out how my annual usage was being estimated. Didn’t I provide my 2020 figures when I obtained a quote from this firm? I phoned up to ask, and in between some jaunty music was required to listen to a short radio play in which two dim women discussed whether they could safely use the energy company’s app to manage their energy accounts. “Let’s face it – no-one likes waiting on the phone...” / “It was really easy!” / “Maybe I’ll give it a go too!” Disturbing echoes of the Better Together campaign here, and if this patronising waffle was designed to make me roll my eyes and hang up, it nearly worked.

Nevertheless I persisted and was put through to a real-life woman. I asked what the deal was with these estimated bills. “We’ve lost communication with the smart meter,” she told me. That’s not very smart, I muttered. I could hear her frowning. “OK,” I said, “so I’ve provided a meter reading for summer but how has my winter usage been calculated?”

“It’s not winter usage, it’s for the next six months,” she said irritably.

“But ... that will include winter though, won’t it?”

She was having none of it. Time may wait for no man but the seasons apparently do not change for this woman. Sighing, she asked whether I was phoning to put my Direct Debit up or down. “I put it down last night, and now I just want to know how this estimate for winter was arrived at...” Click. “Hello? Hello?”

First Ankita, now this. I was in danger of developing a complex. A conspiracy-minded person might wonder if energy companies don’t really want you getting in touch with questions after they announced plans to pick the pockets of your winter coat.

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It was tempting to just give up and wait out the winter with the radiators off, permanently encased in three layers of snow-leopard garments, just to prove a point.

But I’d come this far, and was now too deep into an investigation of dubious carrying-on. Why, instead of going straight to raising Direct Debits, do firms not request meter readings? Why are estimated bills still an industry norm, even for unwitting customers who have smart meters fitted?

I took a deep breath and called back. The chap who answered told me he had good news – there had been a recalculation! My Direct Debit could now be reduced to ... wait for it ... £3 less than it was to start with. I certainly hadn’t received an email with these glad tidings. When were they planning to let me know?

Sure, the outcome was satisfying for me, but I had time – in the interest of column research – to spend hours on the phone querying this. Having read my meters, been given a hard dingie by Ankita and played Deal or No Deal with a bot, I had naively assumed there was nothing else to do but wait until the spring, when I would provide evidence of my penny-pinching and claim a rebate. How many others are paying more than they should be? Is your smart meter as smart as you think? It may pay to check.