Smart meters explained

Last updated: 11 September 2020

In this guide, you’ll find answers to the following questions:

  • What is a smart meter?

  • How do smart meters work?

  • Are smart meters safe? Are smart meters secure?

  • What’s happening with the UK’s smart meter rollout?

  • I want a smart meter. How do I get one?

  • Should I get a smart meter? What are the pros and cons?

  • Can I switch energy suppliers with a smart meter?

What is a smart meter?

Smart meters offer an improved way of measuring your household’s energy use. A standard meter requires you to submit your own meter readings to your supplier, but smart meters are designed to transmit this information automatically on your behalf. Usage data is sent wirelessly through a mobile network to your supplier. 

The meters come equipped with a separate in-home display (IHD) that shows your energy usage in real-time, along with accompanying costs, encouraging you to monitor and manage your energy more efficiently. 

Your bills will be more accurate, based on up-to-date data rather than estimates or averages. Smart meters come in various types – including Economy 7 smart meters and smart prepayment (PAYG+) meters – to suit your circumstances..

How do smart meters work?

Smart meters send information wirelessly, like mobile phones. They’re made up of three components: the smart electricity meter, smart gas meter and an in-home display (IHD). These components talk to each other through their own dedicated wireless network, and then send your meter readings to your supplier through a wider area network that’s 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. If you want to know how to read a smart meter, you should simply use the supplied IHD to measure your consumption in real-time. Many suppliers also offer mobile apps and online portals to customers with smart meters. These let you view your gas and electricity use in real-time, top up your account if you’re on a prepayment smart meter, and receive helpful tips to save energy. 

Are smart meters safe? 

Yes. 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 smartphone. Exposure levels to these low-frequency emissions are lower than those emitted by microwaves and TVs, according to Public Health England (PHE) studies. 

Are smart meters secure?

Smart meters aren’t connected to your home network or even the internet – instead they used a pair of closed communications networks: a dedicated home area network for communicating between the meters and your in-house display, and a cellular network for transmitting meter readings to your energy supplier.

In addition, any information collected isn’t stored centrally; it’s stored on your smart meter and sent directly to your supplier and any other parties for whom you’ve given explicit permission to, plus your IHD. The data is encrypted prior to being sent, meaning only the recipient can access it – even the DCC cannot view your data. The National Cyber Security Centre offers more information if you need it.

How is customer data used?

GDPR laws place defined restrictions on your data, including who can access it and how you wish to share it. A smart meter only records your gas and electricity consumption – it doesn’t transmit personal data like your name, address, and payment details, because your energy supplier already has that information. 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. You can view what’s being shared on the in-home display screen.

Why is there a mass roll-out of smart meters?

The primary reason for putting a smart meter in every home is to create a nationwide smart grid. This allows network operators to accurately predict the country’s energy use, allowing them to better balance supply and demand. As the country moves to more renewable sources of energy, this approach could theoretically help prevent power cuts and manage sudden surges in demand.

What’s happening with the UK’s smart meter rollout?

If you don’t yet have a smart meter, you probably will soon. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the UK government had already announced a delay to its original pledge of rolling out the technology to all English, Scottish and Welsh households by the end of 2020. Now the deadline will be the end of 2024. At some point, if you’ve not already received a smart meter, your energy supplier should contact you to arrange installation.

I want a smart meter. How do I get one?

Visit your energy supplier’s web pages and look for information about smart meters. You should be able to register your interest for a smart meter and will be put on a waiting list to receive one. Installation should be completely free but will require you to allow engineers into your home to replace your existing meter with the smart meter.

Are smart meters compulsory?

No. While you will be given the opportunity to replace your current meter with a smart meter, you’ll be able to discuss the move 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.

Should I get a smart meter? What are the pros and cons? 

There are many good reasons to switch to an electric and gas smart meter, but there are some disadvantages to a smart meter too.

Pros

Take a closer look at your own usageSmart meters can help you reduce your energy consumption and lower your bills. The IHD and/or mobile app provide fresh insights into your lifestyle, with up-to-date readings and tips to boost efficiency, particularly useful for those on prepayment meters.
Receive more accurate energy billsNo more estimated bills, plus no need to let anyone into your home to read your meter.
Improved energy efficiencyBeing part of the smart grid will help balance supply and demand in the future, and hopefully lead to lower bills.
More competitive plansSuppliers gain a better idea of how and when consumers use their energy. This encourages them to offer plans to suit typical household needs, or to encourage consumers to balance their usage to reduce potential strain on the energy grid.
More visible readingsWhile standard meters are usually tucked out of sight, the IHD and mobile app allows users to track their usage from anywhere in their home. Use this to discover which appliances are using the most energy and look for more energy-efficient alternatives.
Easier to top up prepayment accountsSmart prepayment meters allow you to top up online or through an app. No more having to top up a key or pay for tokens.

Cons

You won’t automatically save moneySmart meters provide more accurate readings but won’t on their own cut your usage. You’ll need to put in the effort to track your energy consumption to identify potential savings.
May not be available in your areaIf you live in a remote, rural area without reliable network service, you might need to wait for this technology to arrive.
Not suitable for all propertiesIf your meters are tucked away behind thick walls – say in a basement or even outside – then the wireless signal may not be strong enough to reach your IHD in some (or even all) parts of your home. Up to 30% of properties may be affected, although solutions are being proposed.
May not (currently) allow you to switch supplierSee ‘Can I switch energy suppliers with a smart meter?’, below.

What costs are involved?

You shouldn’t be charged to have a smart meter installed by your energy supplier. The cost of the rollout, including installation and ongoing maintenance, has been factored into your existing energy bills, as is the case with your traditional meter.

Another cost-related question is whether a smart meter will save you money. The answer is, not on its own. But it does make billing more accurate, and you can use the IHD to monitor your energy usage and patterns, which could encourage you to be more efficient. The government anticipates that over the longer term, suppliers will also save money through no longer requiring as many home visits to – for example – read the meter. These savings should, theoretically, be passed on to you.

Can I 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 energy plans and switch if you find a better deal. Nevertheless, there is one potential issue to consider, related to the fact there are two generations of smart meters on the market.

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 to your new supplier until a remote upgrade makes them compatible with the unified smart meter data network, allowing them to send meter readings once more.

Second generation smart meters

The newer models (SMETS2) don’t have these problems. They’re already compatible with the DCC network, 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 even if you have a SMETS1 meter, don’t worry: you’ll soon be able to switch suppliers with no problems.

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Ben GallizziEnergy Expert - Oct 23rd 2019