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A guide to smart meters

A smart meter could help you to reduce your energy consumption and potentially lower your gas and electricity bills. But are they compulsory? Do you have to pay to have one installed and are there are downsides to getting one fitted?

We answer your questions in our guide to smart energy meters.

A smart meter could help you to reduce your energy consumption and potentially lower your gas and electricity bills. But are they compulsory? Do you have to pay to have one installed and are there are downsides to getting one fitted?

We answer your questions in our guide to smart energy meters.

Written by
Sajni Shah
Utilities comparison expert
Reviewed by
Rebecca Goodman
Insurance expert
Last Updated
22 APRIL 2024
11 min read
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What is a smart meter?

A smart meter measures how much gas and electricity you’re using and sends meter readings automatically to your energy supplier, so they know exactly how much energy you’ve used.

The meter also sends information about your energy use to a digital display in your home so you can easily see how much energy you’re using in almost real time, as well as the cost. The idea is that by visualising your energy consumption, you can find ways to reduce any unnecessary energy usage and cut down on your bills.

Why are smart meters being rolled out across the UK? 

The UK government is legislating the rollout of smart meters to modernise the national energy infrastructure and encourage people and businesses across the UK to reduce energy waste. It’s one strategy the government is using to try to meet its legally binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

The logic is that if customers have real-time information about how much gas and electricity they’re using, they’ll be able to find ways to reduce their energy consumption – saving energy and money too.

Energy suppliers also save money in the long term, because the process is faster and more accurate, removing the need to send updated bills and reducing the number of meter readings done.

The smart meter rollout began in 2012 and was originally set to be completed by the end of 2019, but the deadline has since been pushed back a few times. In January 2022, the government set out minimum annual installation targets for energy suppliers that should last until the end of 2025, but they’ve stopped short of announcing a firm end goal for a nationwide rollout.

At the end of 2023, 34.8 million smart and advanced meters were in homes and small businesses across Great Britain. This means 61% of all meters are now smart or advanced meters.

Are smart meters compulsory?

No, smart meters aren’t compulsory.

Under the government’s rollout plan, suppliers must install a smart meter when they’re replacing or installing a new one, unless they have a good reason not to. However, you can choose not to have one fitted or you can request to have one fitted at a later date.

If your supplier says you must have a smart meter installed but you don’t want one, you can contact the Citizen’s Advice Consumer Helpline.

It’s worth noting, though, that if you refuse a smart meter, you may not be able to access all available energy tariffs. Also, if you need your meter replaced in the future, you’re likely find fewer traditional-style models available, simply because fewer will be made.

What are the benefits of having a new smart meter?

There are both pros and cons of a smart meter, but let’s start with the pros. There are a whole host of benefits to having a new smart meter for your energy readings, including:

  • You’ll know how much energy you’re using and how much it costsreading your smart meter in-home display will show your energy use in pounds and pence, as well as units of energy.
  • You can take immediate steps to reduce your consumption and bills – it’s easy to tell if something in your home is using a lot of energy, which means you can work out how to reduce your emissions and save money.
  • There’ll be no estimated bills or meter readings – you’ll only pay for what you use and you won’t have to take meter readings anymore. It could also make budgeting easier.
  • It’s also easier for prepayment customers to top up – the balance will be displayed on your in-home display and you can top-up online at any time, night or day. There’s also the potential for auto top-up, so you won’t have to worry about running out of credit.
  • You might be able to take part in nationwide trials to cut energy use and earn discounts on your bills.

Is there a downside to having a smart meter?

Although smart meters make meter readings automatic and allow you to monitor your energy, there are a few possible disadvantages: 

  • There were some problems switching providers with older model smart meters – some first-generation smart meters (SMETS1) were supplier-specific, which means they could stop being ‘smart’ if you switched suppliers.

However, this shouldn’t be a problem with newer second-generation smart meters (SMETS2). The rollout of plans to either remotely connect all SMETS1 models to the new network or replace them before the end of the smart meter rollout has begun, with priority being given to those that have temporarily lost smart functionality. Some older meters have become unreliable over time too. It’s estimated that almost four million smart meters in Great Britain are not working properly, according to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ).

  • Poor mobile signal may mean you’re not yet eligible for a smart meter – the data from smart meters is sent from your home to suppliers via mobile and radio masts, so if you’ve not yet heard from your supplier about a switch, it could be that the network coverage in your area is not yet strong enough to make it work.
  • You’ll always know how much energy you’re using – although for some it’s a benefit, it can make some people feel anxious knowing exactly much energy they’re using and how much it’s costing them.

Do I have to pay to install a smart meter?

There’s no extra cost for having a smart meter installed. Your energy company will provide the smart meter and install it free of charge.

You’ll pay indirectly for the rollout of smart meters, though, just as you’ve always done with traditional meters. You typically pay a fixed daily amount towards the installation and maintenance of your supplier’s meter network. These standing charges mean that the cost for the rollout will be spread across everyone’s bills, which effectively means you’ll be covering some of the costs even if you choose not to benefit from a smart meter.

How much money will I save with a smart meter?

The smart meter itself won’t save you money – the amount you save will depend on how you use your smart meter and how much it changes your daily behaviour. 
Your in-home display will show you the cost of different activities, like boiling the kettle or running the dishwasher. It can also help you identify any ways you might be wasting energy (and money), for example, by leaving your TV on standby or forgetting to turn off lights when you go out.

Once you begin to understand how much your consumption costs you, you’re likely to change your behaviour to save money, like only boiling the amount of water you need or using an eco-setting on your dishwasher. Little changes like these will help to save you money.

For more advice on how small changes could help you reduce your energy use and cut down your bills, check out our practical energy saving tips.

How do I get a smart meter?

Getting a smart meter is simple – at some point, you’ll be contacted by your electricity or gas supplier and they’ll offer you a meter. Just book an installation appointment with them and you’re ready to go. If you’re eager to get one as soon as possible, then most suppliers will let you request a smart meter, too.

If your supplier has already contacted you but you didn’t opt for the meter at the time, you can generally book an appointment through their website.

There may be rare cases when it’s not possible to get a smart meter just yet –for example, if the mobile signal in your area is weak or your meter type isn’t supported yet. Your energy supplier should be able to tell you if this is the case and advise on when you should be able to get one.

How are smart meters installed?

The installation process may differ by provider, but here’s what you can generally expect to happen:

Before the installation

Your energy supplier will contact you to arrange a date and time for your installation. You or another adult will need to be there during the installation, so factor that in when you’re checking your diary. 

When you book the installation, you should let your supplier know if there are any special considerations to bear in mind, such as if you:

  • Generate your own renewable electricity, for example, through domestic solar panels or wind turbines.
  • Are on a time-of-use tariff, such as Economy 7 or Economy 10.
  • Have gas and electricity meters that are hard to get to.
  • Have poor mobile network coverage where you live.
  • Have gas and electricity meters that are far apart, in which case they might need a more powerful hub to communicate with one another. 

Your supplier should tell you what to expect, how long it will take and if there’s anything you need to do before the visit, such as clearing out the cupboard containing your meter or arranging access to the main fuse box.

During the installation

Make sure you check the ID of the engineer who comes round to install your smart meter. If someone turns up unexpectedly without an appointment saying they’re there to install a smart meter, turn them away. Contact your energy supplier through official channels to avoid any doorstep scams.

The engineer will usually do a visual inspection of your boiler and other gas appliances to check they’re working properly. They’ll then take final meter readings (which you should also take note of) before removing your old meters. 
The smart meters will normally be installed in the same place as your old meters. During the installation, your gas and electricity will need to be switched off for around half an hour. 
After the fitting, the engineer will turn the gas and electricity back on and check that everything is working properly. 
You’ll be offered a free in-home display that you can put anywhere in your home – this is the easiest way to see what energy you're using and how much it’s costing you. You should be shown how to use it and offered advice on how to save energy.

After the installation

Once your smart meter is installed, your meter readings will be sent automatically to your energy supplier. You can often control how often meter readings are sent across: monthly, daily or half hourly. In return you’ll receive accurate, not estimated, bills.

Are smart meters good for the environment?

Smart meters can help us understand and reduce our energy consumption, which is good for the environment. 
If less energy is needed, less will need to be generated, which means that we’ll be able to get a higher proportion of our energy from renewable sources like solar and wind, with less reliance on non-renewable sources. And since energy providers will have a more accurate picture of how much energy is needed, they’ll be able to better balance supply with demand and reduce waste at the production stage.

In 2020, the government predicted that smart meters could reduce carbon emissions by nearly 45 million tonnes over the space of 20 years, which is the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road for a year. So far, they report that more than 80% of people who have had a smart meter installed in their home have taken at least one step to reduce their energy use. Even small steps can be impactful when taken collectively.

But although they’re called smart meters, they won’t make any savings by themselves, in energy or on your bills. The Energy Savings Trust notes that they’re most effective when people are taught how to use them effectively. That’s why it’s vital that the installer clearly explains how you can use your smart meter effectively to monitor and reduce your energy use.

To get started on reducing your energy consumption and lowering your bills, it can be helpful to know which appliances use the most energy.

Can I still switch energy suppliers if I have a smart meter?

Yes, you’ll be able to switch energy suppliers if you have a smart meter. In fact, eventually smart meters should make the changeover process even easier, as you won’t need to take a final meter reading.

If you had a smart meter that was installed before 2018, you might have found that your meter stopped working properly when you switched providers and you had to go back to giving meter readings the old-fashioned way. Thankfully, this isn’t a problem with new smart meters.

The government has ordered energy suppliers to make sure that all first-generation meters are either remotely migrated over to the new network or replaced with a new second-generation smart meter. You can check if your meter is now working again in smart mode – or if it could stop working if you switch – by using this meter checker tool from Citizen’s Advice.

If you’ve recently had a smart meter installed, you may be able to qualify for new tariffs. Check out energy deals to see if you could knock a few pounds off your energy bill with a new provider.

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Frequently asked questions

How will I be protected as a customer during the changeover to smart meters?

The government is guaranteeing certain safeguards during the changeover to smart meters:

  • Installers must provide energy-efficiency information as part of their visit. That advice should be tailored to your circumstances and include a demonstration if you want one.
  • There will be no sales talk during the engineer’s visit to change your meter unless you previously agreed to it.
  • Your data will not be shared with third parties, unless you give consent. If you do choose to share with comparison sites, such as ours, we can let you know if you could save by switching suppliers.

Are smart meters safe for my health?

Yes. Research carried out by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) – formerly Public Health England, the government’s watchdog on public health – found that the radio waves emitted by smart meters don’t pose a danger to people’s health, based on the evidence to date.

The study shows that the exposure to radio waves from smart meters is likely much lower than that from other everyday devices such as mobile phones and WiFi equipment.

What happens to the data collected by smart meters?

The data captured by your smart meter is encrypted and sent from your home network via mobile and radio masts to a central server run by the Data Communications Company (DCC). They send on your data to the correct energy supplier, without ever looking at it. 

Once your energy provider has your data, they can decrypt it and use it to accurately bill you for the gas and electricity you use. They’ll just see what you’ve used – personal details like your name and address are not stored on smart meters.

What are smart time-of-use tariffs?

If you choose smart time-of-use tariffs (TOUs) you’ll pay different prices for the energy you use, at different times of the day. Energy will be cheaper when there is less demand – during off peak times – and on windy or sunny days when there is more renewable energy being produced.

Smart TOUs aren’t commonly available yet, and to make the best of this kind of tariff you’d likely need to make some changes to the way – and times – you use energy, and that’s not always practical. But they could, for example, be useful in the future for electric car owners who want to charge their car overnight.

How accurate are smart meters?

Smart meters are as accurate as traditional meters. By law, smart meters must meet strict accuracy standards, which are monitored and certified by the government’s Office for Product Safety and Standards.

What are advanced meters?

Advanced meters are used by non-domestic customers. They must, at minimum, be able to store half-hourly electricity and hourly gas data, to which the non-domestic customer has timely access and the supplier has remote access.

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