The ultimate guide to electricity meters and meter readings

In this guide you’ll learn the following:

  • Why do I need to know how to read my electric meter?

  • How do electricity meters work?

  • What kind of electricity meters are there?

  • Where is my electricity meter?

  • How can I take advantage of my meter reading?

  • What electric meter is right for me?

Why do I need to know how to read my electric meter?

Reading your electricity meter on a regular basis has several benefits:

  • See how much electricity you’re using – and thus how much it’s costing you

  • Provide regular meter readings to your electricity supplier to ensure you’re not being overcharged for your usage

  • Provide accurate figures when comparing energy suppliers and tariffs

Even if you know how to take a basic electric meter reading, do you understand what the numbers you’re noting down represent? Our guide has everything you need to know to better understand your energy meter to discover precisely what your electricity provider is charging you for. 

How do electricity meters work? 

Electricity meters have been around since electricity first became widespread in houses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were modelled after gas meters and are used to measure and track how much electricity you use. Based on the reading of your meter, your energy supplier will then bill you accurately for your usage. Without readings, your supplier will use estimates based on property size and occupancy, which can lead to you being overcharged. 

Electricity meters function by measuring the instantaneous voltage and current to show how much energy has been used. Essentially, electric meters count how many kilowatts of electricity your house or flat consumes, and this is used to calculate your bill based on your provider’s unit cost in kilowatt-hours (kWh). Meters also enable you to monitor how much electricity you’re using to determine if your energy costs are fair or cheaper than they would be on another electricity tariff or with another energy provider.

What kind of electricity meters are there?

There are four broad types of electricity meter:

Standard electric meter

Standard electric meters are the most common type of electricity meter for houses in the UK. Standard electric meters display your electricity usage in a similar way an odometer displays how many miles you’ve driven in your car. Traditionally they were displayed using a series of revolving dials but on newer meters are displayed digitally. The more electricity you use, the more the dials turn and the higher the number displayed will be. To take a reading simply read the number from left to right. If your reading has a red number displayed, ignore both the red number and any that follow it.

The number displayed is in kilowatt-hours (kWh), which is basically the amount of energy you use in one hour. Standard electric meters charge the same rate for electricity 24-7, making your rate easy to read and understand.

Economy 7 meter

Another type of meter is an Economy 7 meter, which is paired with an Economy 7 tariff. Economy 7 meters work like standard meters and display a set of numbers that you read left to right, up to the red number (if one is displayed). The key difference is that Economy 7 meters display two sets of numbers – one for electricity consumed during the peak hours of daytime, and the other for off-peak hours, recorded at night. This reflects the fact Economy 7 tariffs charge two different rates – a higher one for peak hour usage, and a discounted rate for off-peak usage. This could be advantageous and help reduce your electricity bill if you’re able to shift most of your electricity usage to the off-peak hours, which typically come in a 7-hour window between 10pm and 8.30am depending on your tariff and supplier.

Economy 10 meters work in the same way as Economy 7 meters. However, Economy 10 meters offer discounted rates during select afternoon, evening, and night hours – so three rates instead of two. To maximise an Economy 10 meter, you should use appliances such as dishwashers and laundry machines during the off-peak hours. You may find that not many providers offer tariffs for these meters, making your options limited.

Prepayment electricity meter

Prepayment electricity meters make you pay for your electricity usage in advance, so you can only use electricity that you’ve prepaid for. If you run out of credit, your provider may ‘back charge’ you to keep your supply running without you knowing, forcing you into energy debt. Due to this, it’s crucial you pay close attention to your electricity usage when using prepaid meters. 

Prepaid meters come in various types: standard prepayment meters which read in the same way as standard electricity meters and Economy 7 meters, and prepayment meters which connect to a pay point that accepts tokens or keys. You can purchase these tokens or keys at most corner shops, supermarkets, and many more participating stores. A third type of meter is a smart prepayment meter, which works in a similar way to smart meters (below), and which allow you to top up your credit from the comfort of your own home over the internet.

Prepaid meters can be a good option for those who want to be conscientious about their energy consumption, as they force you to limit the amount of electricity that you use.

Smart electricity meter 

Smart electricity meters are the most modern electricity meter on the market right now. Compared to other types of electricity meters, smart meters offer more information about your energy consumption. They display real-time energy usage, as well as historical usage data that gives information about your energy consumption behaviour. Using this data, smart meters help you optimise your energy use to reduce your energy bills. Furthermore, smart meters send usage data directly to your provider, ensuring more accurate billing as there’s no need to send meter readings manually. 

Smart electricity meters use a digital display to record information, although most providers that offer smart meters give you the option of reading this information via a phone app where you can check your energy consumption in real-time no matter where you are. 

There are two generations of smart meters. The first generation (SMETS1) may revert to standard meters (with digital displays) if you switch to a different supplier. The second generation (SMETS2) of smart meters don’t have this problem, and a planned future software update should ensure SMETS1 meters will be compatible with all suppliers too. But for now, if given the choice, pick SMETS2 for compatibility reasons.

Where is my electricity meter?

The exact location of your meter will vary, but it’s typically where the electricity supply comes into your home. The meter is often close to where your fuse box is, whether that’s tucked in the cupboard under the stairs, down in the basement or even outside in the garage. You may even find it’s been enclosed in a small metal cupboard. If you live in a shared building, such as a block of flats, the meters may all be in a single room, or there may be a single meter covering all the flats (in these circumstances, it’s usually your landlord who pays the energy bills directly, then charges each flat an equal percentage of the total cost). 

The meter itself is not that big – typically no larger than a small VHS video cassette (remember them?). It’s typically black or white and may have old analogue dials or a modern digital display. You should be able to find your 11-digit code meter number on this – the first two digits are letters, then the rest are numbers.

How can I take advantage of my meter reading?

Now that you know how to read your electricity meter be sure to check you’re paying the proper amount each month. Have a look at your last energy bill and compare it to your meter reading to see if your charges match your reading. 

If you feel you’re being overcharged for electricity, it might be time to find a new provider or a different tariff that better fits your lifestyle. You can use one of the many energy comparison sites to find and compare the lowest tariffs currently offered. 

Which electric meter is right for me? 

It’s easy – and usually free – to ask your supplier to change your meter if you’re unhappy with the one in your current home. When choosing which meter to use, first think about your energy usage. If you’re a night owl who does household chores such as running the dishwasher and washing machine during the night, an Economy 7 meter may be the right choice for you. 

If you’re someone who wants as much information as you can get about your usage, then choose a smart meter. You’ll need to check with your supplier to see if these meters are available in your area, and your home also needs to be suitable as readings are transmitted over a dedicated (and secure) wireless network, so there may be issues with the signal, particularly if your home has thick walls.

One potential drawback of smart meters is that energy providers gain more of your personal data than they would if you were using a standard meter or economy meter. The government is encouraging suppliers to have all their customers on smart meters by 2024, but if this is a key concern for you, you can refuse the installation. 

You can also look at different plans to see if you stand to save more with a different type of meter, such as an Economy 7 meter. Call your supplier if you need a new meter installed - they will schedule a time to come to your home with all the necessary equipment and install it.

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Updated on Tue 22 Dec 2020 12.00 GMT