A guide to smart meters

Smart meters are replacing our traditional electricity and gas meters. According to a government-led initiative, your energy supplier must offer you a smart meter by 2024 – so what is a smart meter and how can it help you reduce your energy bills?

Smart meters are replacing our traditional electricity and gas meters. According to a government-led initiative, your energy supplier must offer you a smart meter by 2024 – so what is a smart meter and how can it help you reduce your energy bills?

Peter Earl
From the Energy team
15
minute read
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Posted 15 OCTOBER 2020

What is a smart meter?

A smart meter is a new kind of gas or electricity meter that takes meter readings automatically and sends them 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 display in your home. You can see your energy use in real time – for example, you’ll see the numbers go up when you boil the kettle, or down when you turn off a light.

You and your energy supplier will always know how much energy you’ve used, so you’ll no longer have to send them meter readings.

At a glance

How do smart meters work?

Smart meters take meter readings automatically and use a mobile signal to send these readings to your energy supplier, without you having to do anything.

Smart meters work on mobile networks – they don’t use your Wi-Fi or use up any of your mobile data plan.

Read our guide on how smart meters work.

Why are smart meters being rolled out across the UK?

The roll-out of smart meters started as part of an EU initiative to reduce European energy expenditure. 

The logic is that if customers have real-time information about how much gas and electricity they’re using, they’ll be able to change 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 rollout began in 2012, with the aim of reaching 50 million households by the end of 2020. In September 2019, however, the deadline was pushed back to 2024 as it became clear the original target wasn’t realistic.

As of March 2020, there were just under 16 million smart gas and electricity meters in UK homes, and until early March around 19,000 smart meter installations were taking place every day. Because of COVID-19, installations slowed down, with energy suppliers prioritising essential and emergency metering work and support for people in vulnerable circumstances.

Since lockdown restrictions started easing, the installation of smart meters has started up again, and energy suppliers have been given an extra six months to hit targets.

Are smart meters compulsory?

No, smart meters aren’t compulsory, and people can choose not to have one. They’re a great way to track your energy usage and try to reduce your consumption, but while energy companies have been mandated to offer them to every household by 2024, it’s ultimately your decision. If you haven’t already got a smart meter, some suppliers do oblige you to have one fitted when you switch to certain tariffs. It’s always worth checking the tariff details before you switch and if you’re not ready to have a smart meter installed yet, there are plenty of alternative tariffs available where you don’t have to.

What are the benefits of having a new smart meter?

There are a whole host of benefits to having a new smart meter for your energy readings, including:

  • You know exactly how much energy you’re using and how much it costs

Your in-home display will show your energy use in pounds and pence, as well as units of energy. You’ll be able to see what it costs to make a cup of tea or run the dishwasher (just remember all those things that run constantly, like your fridge and gadgets on stand-by, will also be factored in).

  • You can take immediate steps to reduce your consumption – and your bills

It’s easy to tell if something in your home is using a lot of energy or if you have a faulty appliance that causes a sudden spike. As a result, you can work out how to reduce your emissions and be greener.

  • There’ll be no estimated bills or meter readings

You’ll only pay for what you actually use, and you won’t have to take regular meter readings or let your supplier into your home to do so.

  • Prepayment customers will get additional benefits

Your balance will be displayed on your in-home display and you can top-up online. There’s also the potential for auto top-up, so you won’t have to worry about running out of credit.

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:

  • Switching energy providers can be trickier
    Current smart meters can be supplier-specific, so they might not work if your existing smart meter isn’t compatible with your new supplier’s technology. This problem should be solved in the future as technology becomes more compatible.
  • Poor signal can prevent your smart meter from working
    Smart meters use mobile technology to communicate with energy suppliers, so a weak signal can sometimes stop your smart meter from being able to send readings. While this could lead to delayed bills, rest assured that your supply shouldn’t be cut off.
  • You’ll always know how much energy you’re using
    While in many ways this is a benefit, some people don’t like to know exactly much energy they’re using and how much it’s costing them. If you feel this way, consider keeping your in-home display in a cupboard so that you won’t see the exact figures every day.

What are the disadvantages of not having a smart meter?

Choosing not to have a smart meter installed in your home means you’ll miss out on all the advantages they offer. You could find it harder to monitor and reduce your energy use and spending, and you’ll have to continue sending meter readings to your energy supplier.

What are the costs of changing to a smart meter?

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

While energy companies should save some money because of smart meters (they won’t have to send people out to take meter readings) there’s nothing to stop them hiking their prices a little to help pay for the rollout. That’s why right now it’s particularly important to compare tariffs and get a good deal.

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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. 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.

Find out how much you could save – use our energy comparison tool.

How far does 50p worth of energy go in your home?

Lots of things affect your electricity bills, including VAT, supplier costs, and how you use your appliances.

We’ve looked at what 50p worth of energy equates to in our everyday lives.

50p worth of energy could power three washing machine cycles, boil a full kettle 14 times or allow you to enjoy a 15-minute shower.

Find out which appliances use the most energy or keep reading to learn more about how much the UK really understands about energy use.

The UK cities least switched on about their energy use

We surveyed the nation to find out how many people know what 50p worth of energy could get them. The findings reveal that over 75% of the UK are unaware how much their household appliances cost to run.

We showed people a series of energy statements on how much it costs to power different appliances and asked them to select whether they thought they were real or fake. It turns out that three out of four of us don’t know the true cost of running our household appliances.

Newcastle is the city that’s least switched on about energy use, followed by Norwich and Manchester. At the other end of the scale, Birmingham, Glasgow and Sheffield are the most in the know, getting the highest number of statements correct.

Generation Z is the most clued up age group in terms of knowing what 50p worth of energy can get them at home, with over 30% answering correctly, compared to just 20% of those aged 55+.

If you’re looking to better understand your energy use, consider getting a smart meter. You’ll be able to monitor your energy use in pounds and pence in real time, helping you to get a better idea of how much energy it takes to power different appliances.

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 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 communication signal in your area is weak or if your meter type isn’t supported yet. But energy suppliers are committed to offering every household a smart meter by 2024.

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. They 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

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 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, less energy will be wasted at the production stage.

The government has 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.

If the whole nation got a smart meter, we could save enough energy to power every household in Aberdeen, Cardiff and Manchester for a year.

The UK’s energy wasting habits

Spookily named, vampire energy is the energy used by household items, like microwaves, TVs and phone chargers, when they’re left on standby.

Vampire energy is estimated to cost the UK £966 million per year, which works out as £35 per year for the average UK household. Simply leaving your TV on standby could cost you up to £30 a year.

 

The UK's energy wasting habits

50%

50% of people in the UK admit to being guilty of wasting energy by leaving the TV on standby

20%

16-24 year olds are the biggest energy zappers, with 20% leaving appliances on standby - double the UK's average

15%

15% of people in the UK leave computers on standby, equating to over £3.5 million a year

Based on results from a UK nationally representative survey during July 2020

Findings from our recent survey revealed that 20% of people in the UK are guilty of leaving at least one device on standby when they’re not using it.

50% of people in the UK leave the TV on standby, costing the nation up to £414 million a year, while 15% leave computers on standby, costing over £3.5 million a year.

Over 20% of Generation Z leave device chargers on standby, double the nation’s average. This energy wasting habit is also the source of arguments in a third of UK households, according to our research.

Energy wasting habits that cause the biggest arguments at home

Whether it’s leaving lights on at night or having the heating on during the warmer months, it’s common for us to argue about energy use in the home. Our research reveals that 40% of the UK has had at least one disagreement over it in the past year.

Click on the heat spots below to see which energy wasting habits cause the most arguments in the home.

Energy wasting habits that cause the most household arguments

house
Day

Having the heating on when it is not essential

14% of UK homes argue about having the heating on unnecessarily

Night

Leaving internal or external lights on during the night

1 in 5 of us are guilty of leaving lights on during the night

Night

Having the heating on with windows/doors open

6.3 million people in the UK argue about having the heating on while windows or doors are open

Day

Leaving plug sockets switched on when not in use

36% of the UK are guilty of leaving plug sockets on when not in use, causing arguments at 1 in 10 households

Day

Leaving internal or external lights on when you leave your home

Almost 1 in 5 in the UK are guilty of leaving lights on when not at home

Day

Filling the kettle up to the top unnecessarily

20% of the UK fill the kettle up to the top unneccesarily

Night

Leaving the fridge/freezer door open

1 in 10 people in the UK are fridge loiterers, leaving fridge or freezer doors open unneccessarily

Night

Leaving devices on charge all night

1/3 of the UK are guilty of leaving their devices on charge all night

Based on results from a UK nationally represented survey conducted in July 2020

The top five reasons for household energy dramas are:

  1. Having the heating on when it’s not essential (14%)
  2. Leaving lights on at night (12%)
  3. Having the heating on with windows or doors open (12%)
  4. Leaving plug sockets switched on when not being used (11%)
  5. Leaving lights on all day (9%)

14% of the UK have argued over having the heating on when it’s not essential, and it’s 16-24-year olds who are the biggest culprits in this energy crime. Almost a quarter of the same age group have been involved in an argument about leaving lights on at night, while 30% admit to being guilty of this themselves.

The research shows Gen Z to be the most wasteful age group when it comes to energy use:  80% admit they’re guilty of at least one of these energy wasting habits and 63% have been involved in an argument about wasting energy in the last year.

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

Yes, you’ll be able to switch 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.

However, some suppliers might not be able to use your smart meter if you’ve already had one installed. This doesn’t mean they won’t supply you – it just means you might have to give them meter readings the old-fashioned way.

If you don’t have a smart meter just yet, it might be best to get the switching process over before it’s time to have one installed. Check out energy deals to see if you could knock a few pounds off your energy bill with a new provider.

Are customers protected 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 shouldn’t include talking about their products unless they get your permission first
  • There will be no sales during the engineer’s visit to change your meter
  • 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.

Read our guide to switching energy suppliers

Are smart meters safe for my health?

Yes. Research carried out in 2017 by Public Health England, the Government's watchdog on Public Health, shows that smart meters are no danger to people’s health.

The study shows that the likely exposure to radio waves from smart meters is much lower than that from other everyday devices such as mobile phones and Wi-Fi equipment, and around one million times less than international health guidelines.

Smart meters actually only transmit low power radio signals for very short periods, typically less than 15 minutes on an average day, and because of the distance that they are located from people in the home.

What happens to the data collected by smart meters?

One of the most useful benefits of having a smart meter is that you won’t have to give manual meter readings to your energy provider. The data captured by the smart meter is automatically recorded and sent to your supplier so that they can accurately bill you for the gas and electricity you use.

The data can also be used to for the in-home display, or mobile app or dashboard provided by your supplier, so you’ll be able to see how much energy you’re using in real time.

Methodology and References

50p worth of energy: Censuswide survey of 2,000 adults in July 2020.
https://www.sust-it.net/
UK average tariff rate (£18.54p/KwH) for electricity use (December 2019 tariff).

Vampire Energy, Household Arguments: Censuswide survey of 2,000 adults in July 2020
https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/energy-consumption-in-the-uk
https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/home-energy-efficiency/home-appliances
https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/blog/seven-steps-saving-energy-home

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