Domestic householders are always being encouraged to switch their energy service providers, which can help to keep utility companies on their toes. However, in the world of district heating, making a change isn’t so easy. Sycous have developed the UK’s first cloudbased, remote data collection administration software for the communal energy market - which they say is finally giving their clients the upper hand in the metering and billing game.
Talking to Martyn Farrelly, Business Development Manager at Sycous, it’s very clear that his company is on something of a mission.
“Sycous comprises a collection of likeminded people who’ve all worked for other service providers in our industry and who wanted to do something different,” he said.
“One of our passions is to champion fully working metering and billing networks. At the moment, there are many networks out there that, unfortunately, aren’t working 100%. We want to deliver a network where, if you push a button to read all the meters in a particular town, every single meter reading is recorded on our software. A large proportion of our work is about repairing existing networks that don’t work properly.”
Unlike domestic customers, managers of district heating - such as local authorities, housing associations, developers and property management firms - can’t change their heat supplier. However, they’re not obliged to use one billing provider, which is where Sycous spotted an opportunity to improve the market.
“A lot of companies that appear similar to us offer billing and bureau networks for their customers, who provide hardware for data collection,” Farrelly said. “What we decided to do was to provide a transferable data solution, which basically means our clients can either take care of the billing themselves or have a system that can be transferred between providers. By using our system, our clients can encourage service providers to be more competitive and offer improved services, because our clients could switch providers on behalf of their residents.”
The obvious question is, why do existing metering and billing solutions provide such a headache for administrators of district heating networks?
“Sometimes heat network operators can find themselves tied into service providers and unable to change for a variety of reasons, and often the equipment won’t work with other providers,” Farrelly explained. “That isn’t always the case but it’s generally how the market works. The problems at the moment are poor service levels, high prices and the inability to change provider without incurring extra costs, usually attached to equipment or changing software packages.
"We have our own in-house IT development team that spends all its time evolving and developing programmes, and adding bespoke parts to software for our clients.”
When it comes to the reasons why existing networks can fail to work effectively, Farrelly believes it boils down to a lack of understanding in the industry.
“The process that led from a specifier saying, ‘This is what we want for our district heating network’ and an energy company delivering the system was falling over due to a lack of synergy from the front to end delivery,” he explained.
“Subsequently, our clients didn’t understand what was required on the operational side of a property, while people working on the construction side didn’t consider the implications. It was all about delivering a building at the best price, but the operational costs of running a development over its lifetime can be as much as it cost to actually build it.”
On its website Sycous states a number of visions, including the desire to see district heating become the sustainable norm and also to bring an end to fuel poverty. Some of the benefits of their automatic billing and reporting software includes saving time for the network and reducing costs for the consumer.
Along with a selection of hardware - including meters for heat, electricity and hot and cold water - Sycous has developed a software solution that has advantages for consumers as well as improved efficiency for networks.
It is claimed that the system reduces the time required to manage 150 properties to just two hours per month, with the option to produce either e-statements or paper versions for consumers. Sycous also offers to make sure that data is validated against essential conditions, including their clients’ own parameters and ensures that they are complying with the Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations 2014.
“Another of our passions is to give our clients the ability to administer their own network,” Farrelly said. “With our software, we automate as much of the process as possible, so that meters can be read remotely and you don’t have to walk around properties, writing down figures on a notepad. We also champion the automated payment process, to make it easier for the consumer. We have a lot of ‘pay as you go’ networks now, allowing people to pay online, or top up their credit online, in a shop or on their phone."
“What we’re saying to our clients is, ‘Automate as many processes as you can and your costs will come down’, because they’re not allowed to make a profit from the delivery of heat. Our solution improves transparency for consumers, too, as they have access to a consumer portal and everything else you would expect from today’s technology.”
Looking to the future of district heating and communal energy, Farrelly believes that the only way is up.
“We’ve all been on a journey of learning - I’ve been doing this for seven or eight years now and district networks aren’t necessarily a new concept, but the billing side of it is. There have been many challenges, but I’ve noticed that in the last two years there has been a marked change in people’s attitudes towards getting it right.
"There’s been a lot of engagement with organisations like Sustainable Homes, who are dedicated to making sure we deliver a service to the consumer that’s comparable to other service providers in the industry. That’s one of our objectives too.”
Sycous has worked with Breakthrough funding, a company that helps UK SMEs achieve R&D tax credits - a government scheme created to enhance and reward innovation amongst UK businesses. Could you be eligible? Click here to learn more.
For more information, click here.