The ultimate smart meter guide

Smart meters: the most divisive tech in the energy industry?

Smart meters offer an improved way of measuring your household’s energy use. While traditional gas and electricity meters require manual meter readings to be taken, smart meters automatically send your information through to the supplier with real-time updates. The result is more accurate energy bills for customers. However, there's no denying that some customers have a less-than-positive opinion of them, while others can't imagine life without theirs. We explore why here.

What is a smart meter?

A standard meter requires you to submit your own meter readings to your supplier, but the new generation of smart meters transmit this information on your behalf. Usage data is sent wirelessly through a mobile network to your supplier. They come equipped with an in-home display (IHD) which keeps track of your real-time kWh use and accompanying costs, so you’ll be able to manage your energy use more efficiently. Your bills will be more accurate, relying on up-to-date data rather than estimations or averages. From Economy 7 smart meters to smart prepayment meters, there are plenty of different types to suit your circumstances. 

How do smart meters work?

Like mobile phones, smart meters use a wireless network to send information. They consist of three main parts, including the smart electricity meter, smart gas meter, and in-home display. These separate components talk to one another through the wireless network and process information through a communications hub connected to the wider Data Communications Company (DCC) network. 

In turn, your energy supplier receives automatic updates from your smart meter about the amount of gas and electricity you’re using. Many suppliers offer corresponding apps to customers with smart meters. These let you top up your account, view your gas and electricity use in real-time and receive helpful tips to save energy. 

The UK’s smart meter rollout 

If you don’t have a smart meter yet, you probably will soon. While the UK government originally pledged to roll out this technology to all households in England, Scotland and Wales by 2020, the deadline was extended to 2024 due to delays. This means you should be contacted by your energy supplier about having one installed before that date. All households will have the opportunity to replace their current meters with the latest smart meters, in an effort to improve efficiency.  

The driving force behind this mass installation of smart meters is the creation of a nationwide smart grid. If network operators can accurately predict the country’s energy use, they’ll be put in a better position to balance supply and demand. In theory, this could prevent power cuts and manage sudden surges in demand. 

If you are not willing to have a smart meter installed, you’ll have the chance to discuss it first with your supplier. Most companies have customer service teams on hand to answer questions you might have about using the technology so they can address your concerns. If you still don’t want one after that, you can refuse. 

What are the advantages of a smart energy meter?

There are plenty of reasons why a smart meter could be a good choice for your household:

  • A closer look at your own usage

If you’re looking for a way to reduce your own energy use (and bills), a smart meter can be just the ticket. The in-home display gives fresh insight into your lifestyle, so you can see how your habits impact your final bill. Many come with corresponding apps which give individually targeted tips for boosting efficiency, which can be particularly useful for those using a smart prepayment meter. 

  • More accurate energy bills

With smart meters, estimated bills can become a thing of the past. You don’t have to worry about letting anyone into your home for a meter reading or remembering to submit them yourself. 

  • Improved energy efficiency

With the help of an interconnected network of smart meters across the UK, the idea is that this technology will help create a more efficient energy network overall. The smart grid could be very useful for managing national supply and demand. 

  • More competitive plans

Using the data collected from smart meters, energy companies can get a better idea of how and when consumers are using their power. This encourages fresh innovation, allowing companies to adapt their plans to suit typical household needs. 

  • Portable display units

While standard meters are usually tucked out of sight, a smart meter comes with a portable display unit that allows you to track your use from anywhere in the house. This can help you pinpoint the appliances around your home and garden which are using more energy than you would like. 

Are there any disadvantages of a smart energy meter?

A smart electricity meter does offer plenty of benefits, but there are some misconceptions about what it can actually do which could be seen as disadvantages; mainly that it won’t save you money on its own. Although the best smart meters give you plenty of statistics to work with in terms of your own energy use, they can’t make you change your habits to reduce bills. 

The other potential drawback to gas and electric smart meters is that they’re not suitable for all properties. The components need a strong enough wireless network to communicate, or the system won’t work properly. 

Will gas and electric smart meters work for me?

At this point, you might be asking “should I get a smart meter?”. In theory, all households will soon be eligible for smart meters. This includes prepayment customers, who don’t have to worry about topping up a key or paying for tokens when they have a smart prepayment meter installed. Instead, they can use a smartcard to top up their credit online. 

But in practice, not all homes are suitable for a smart meter installation. If you live in a remote, rural area without reliable network service, you might need to wait for this technology to arrive. Properties with thick walls and flats in high-rise blocks also may not be eligible at this time. The best way to find out is to contact your energy supplier to find out what the plans are for your area. 

Are smart meters safe?

Smart meters have been heavily tested and regulated throughout development, falling under the same scrutiny as any other technological device. They’re currently covered by both UK and EU safety legislation, exceeding all standards. Meters operate using low-frequency emissions, much like other wireless devices including your standard smartphone. Exposure levels to these low-frequency emissions are lower than those emitted by microwaves and TVs, according to Public Health England (PHE) studies. 

What costs are involved?

You can have your smart meter installed by your energy supplier at no extra cost. The cost of the roll-out, including installation and maintenance, is already factored into your existing energy bills, just as it is with any traditional meter. 

If you’re wondering whether you can save money with a smart meter, the answer’s a bit more complicated. The device itself won’t slash your bills, but it will make them more accurate. With the information from your IHD, you can monitor your energy use and patterns, which could encourage you to find ways to be more efficient. The government expects that over a longer period, consumers will end up saving money because energy suppliers won’t need to carry out meter readings or home visits as frequently. Theoretically, those savings will be passed down to the customer.

How to switch energy suppliers with a smart meter 

Installing a smart meter won’t lock you into a plan with any single supplier. You’ll still be able to compare plans and switch if you find a better deal. At present, there are a few issues involved to understand. 

  • First generation of smart meters

The first generation of smart meters (SMETS1) can potentially lose their smart features when you switch suppliers. This is usually temporary, and they’ll still provide real-time consumption updates through your IHD. However, you’ll need to provide meter readings once more until a remote upgrade makes them compatible with the new supplier. 

  • Second generation smart meters

The newer models in the second generation of smart meters (SMETS2) don’t have the same issues. These are compatible with the DCC network already, allowing the meters to communicate freely with all suppliers. A SMETS2 model is usually the best smart meter, because you’ll have no problems should you wish to switch to a different supplier. First rolled out in 2018, more and more smart meters are now SMETS2 – when in doubt, just ask your provider what they have to offer. 

The government is planning to remotely upgrade all SMETS1 smart meters by the end of the roll-out in 2024, so there shouldn’t be any more issues with switching suppliers. 

How is customer data used?

GDPR laws put defined restrictions on your data, including who is able to access it and how you wish to share it. A smart meter only records your gas and electricity consumption. It won’t transmit personal data like your payment details, name and address because that information is already held by the energy supplier. When you install a smart meter, you can choose how often it submits data to the supplier and whether you’d like to share this with third parties. Customers can view this information themselves on the in-home display screen.

Bjorn GriffithDec 9th 2019