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A guide to smart meters

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 the end of 2020 – so what is a smart meter and how can it help you reduce your energy bills? 

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

What are smart meters and how do they work?

A smart meter is a new kind of gas or electricity meter that takes meter readings automatically. Smart meters use a mobile signal to send meter readings to your energy supplier, without you having to do anything.

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. 

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

The real advantage of smart meters is that you and your energy supplier always know how much energy you have used. Without a smart meter, you generally need to be at home to let the meter reader in to get an accurate reading, otherwise you'll get an estimated bill based on your typical usage. Or you'll need to contact your supplier with a reading. Your energy bill will then be adjusted and correctly updated once the meter has been checked.

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, and is scheduled to run until 2020. As of September 2017, there were over 4.63 million smart gas meters at work in UK homes, and over  6.17 million smart electricity meters. But with an estimated 53 million meters in UK homes, there’s still a long way to go.

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 install them, it’s ultimately your decision.

What are the benefits of having a new smart meter?

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

  • You know how much energy you’re using, and how much it costs. With a smart meter you can see your energy use expressed 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 constantly run, such as 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 – you just turn it off and watch the numbers fall. As a result, you can work out how to reduce your emissions and be greener
  • There’ll be no estimated bills and knocks on the door or  communications from your supplier to ask you to take meter readings
  • Prepayment customers will get additional benefits, such as the possibility of new and flexible ways to top-up, the potential to auto top-up, and a balance displayed on their in-home display
  • It is easier to switch suppliers as you won’t need to give a final meter reading to your existing supplier.

Is there a downside to having a smart meter?

Although smart meters make meter readings automatic and allow you to monitor your energy, there may be a downside to having one. Here are a few things to watch out for:

Smart functionality that sends readings automatically and shows real time energy usage means your bill will always be reflecting what you’ve used. You can also see what gadgets and appliances cost you the most money. Although this means you can always be on top of your spending, some people don’t like to know this and prefer estimated bills. They prefer to see only see their actual spending once or twice a year when the supplier sends out a bill after a meter reader comes around. 

Current smart meters can be supplier specific: So, if you decided to switch suppliers in the future, you may lose the smart functionality (sending automatic readings) if your existing smart meter isn't compatible with your new supplier's technology. This means your meter will act like a normal meter and you’ll have to get a new smart meter installed to continue to get automatic meter readings sent to your new supplier. At the moment, suppliers will install one for you at no cost to you. As technology progresses, this should solve this problem in the future thanks to greater compatibility.

What are the costs of changing to a smart meter?

There’s no direct cost for changing your smart meter. 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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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

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. Installation is quick, but your gas or electricity may need to be off for twenty minutes or longer. You’ll need to be home at the time.

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

At this point, most suppliers are already well into their roll-outs. However, there are a few reasons why you might not be able to get a smart meter just yet. For example:

  • The communication signal in your area is weak: Smart meters use mobile networks to send data. If the mobile signal in your area is poor you might have to wait for a smart meter
  • You have a type of meter that isn’t supported yet: For example, many suppliers aren’t quite ready to replace pre-pay or Economy 7 meters
  • Your current meter is very new: British Gas is installing smart meters to homes whose old meter is nearing the end of its operational life. If your meter is ready to be replaced you’ll receive your smart meter first, but if it’s new you may have to wait a little longer
  • Your meter is difficult to access: For example, if you live in a block of flats and all the meters are in the same locked cupboard, the company may not offer you an ordinary appointment
  • Your supplier isn’t installing smart meters in your area yet: Many companies, such as nPower, Scottish Power and EDF, are rolling out meters by region.

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. 

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