What is a Smart Meter and How Do They Work?
Smart meters allow you to monitor your energy consumption in real-time. By wirelessly sending your gas and electricity usage directly to your supplier, installing a smart meter means no more meter readings and no more estimated bills.
What is a smart meter?
Smart meters are a new type of gas and electricity meter which provide up-to-date and accurate information on how much energy you use. The latest generation of smart meters are known by their model number, SMETS2.
As with traditional energy meters, smart meters measure gas and electricity usage. However, smart meters use technology to automatically send updates on your consumption information to energy suppliers, eliminating the need for estimated bills and regular meter readings.
Smart meters work in tandem with an in-home display (IHD) to show the amount of energy being used in real-time and how much it is costing. Armed with this information, you should be able to better control your energy usage and keep on top of costs.
Read on for everything you need to know about smart meters, including how they work, how to read a smart meter, if they’re worth installing and how to get one.
How do they work?
Smart meters act as direct replacements for standard gas and electricity meters. Upon installation you will receive:
- One meter each for gas and electricity, to replace your existing ones.
- An easy to read in-home display which allows you to see your energy consumption and cost from wherever you wish in the home.
When your smart meter is installed, the installation engineer will ensure the correct setup and configuration of your new meters. You will then begin to see real-time data appear on your in-home display.
Your new meters will most likely be placed where your old ones were, be that under the stairs or in a cupboard.
Smart meters use wireless networks to communicate your energy consumption information directly to your provider. In theory, you should never have to observe or take a meter reading again and only pay for your actual energy costs, rather than receive estimated bills.
Smart meter appsMany suppliers offer mobile apps for customers with smart meters. Users can keep an eye on their energy consumption and cost remotely, while prepayment customers can top-up using the app, instead of having to go to a PayPoint or Post Office.
How do smart meters communicate?
Smart meters do not rely on a home wifi internet connection to work. Instead, they use the smart meter Home Area Network (HAN) and the Wide Area Network (WAN) to communicate with each other and the IHD.
Electricity smart meters are usually connected to the mains via a wall socket and monitor energy usage in real-time, while gas smart meters are often battery-operated and programmed to take a reading every half hour and communicate this via your electricity meter.
Electricity smart meters are linked to a communications hub, which allows it to send energy consumption data to the Data and Communications Company. This information is then sent on to your supplier and energy network.
While your energy supplier uses this information to accurately bill your gas and electricity costs, your energy network can use it to improve their own systems and service.
What are the benefits?
For many in Britain, energy bills are a huge issue. The number of people living in fuel poverty is growing and smart meters are helping millions of households across the country stay in control.
Here are some of the benefits that come with having a smart meter:
- Give confidence about the ability to afford to use certain appliances, such as heating in the winter. If you are guessing how much it costs, you may be worried about turning it on.
- Conversely, making people realise about how much they are using so they can cut down on certain appliances.
- Eliminates estimated bills and the need to submit meter readings. All bills will be completely accurate and up to date.
- Makes it quicker and easier to switch from a prepayment plan to a standard fixed tariff.
- Smart meters work with smart grid technology to enhance the energy management features of home battery walls and solar panels. With network infrastructure moving towards increased automation, smart meters could play a big role in our future.
Are smart meters bad for your health?
Some groups have called out the deployment of smart meters, branding them ‘harmful’ or ‘dangerous’. While there is potentially a debate to be had, suppliers claim that smart meters emit less radiation than mobile phones and other such devices. Those declining a smart meter on these grounds may want to think about getting rid of their smartphone, too.
How to get a smart meter
Getting your smart meter is a simple process, though not the same for everyone. Each individual supplier has its own smart meter design and fitting process.
Some energy providers will have an option to book your smart meter fitting online. However, the quickest way to get sorted is by giving your supplier a call to see if they are offering smart meters in your area yet.
Smart meters are suitable for most homes, though there has been a delay in their rollout in rural areas, high-rise buildings and homes with thick walls, as a weak signal means devices are unable to communicate effectively.
How much does it cost?
Although suppliers will often tell you that smart meter installation is free or there are no upfront costs, the overall estimated £13.5 billion smart meter rollout cost is expected to be recouped through energy bills. The National Audit Office has estimated the rollout will cost £391 for each dual fuel household.
Can I get a smart meter if I’m renting?
If you’re paying the energy bills directly to the supplier, rather than the landlord, you should be able to have a smart meter installed. However, you should always check the fine print of your tenancy agreement first and inform the property owner. If the landlord takes care of utility bills, it is up to them to install a smart meter or not.
What happens if you switch supplier?
What happens if you have a smart meter installed by one energy provider and then decide to switch to another supplier? Simply put, nothing. You are protected by energy watchdog Ofgem’s rules and regulations. Smart meters must be installed on a non-commitment basis. If you wish to switch thereafter you are free to do so, just as you would before.
Don’t worry about the fact you have one particular energy firm’s design, they all work on the same network and will continue to work as usual, as long as your new supplier is smart meter ready. All big six providers, and many of the smaller and medium-sized suppliers, are already smart meter ready.
If you switch to a tariff that does not allow smart meters, your smart meter will go into what is known as ‘dumb mode’, which is much the same as how your old meter would have worked. Your in-house display will still be operational - the only difference is that it will not calculate your usage into pounds and pence. Instead, you will just see it in kilowatt-hours (kWh).
Switching to Smart Prepayment (PAYG)Smart prepayment tariffs make topping up from your phone and even transferring credit from one meter to another possible. If you have a smart meter in your home, it is likely to you can switch to a convenient smart tariff with a simple phone call. Speak to an energy expert by calling 020 3936 0059 to make it happen.
New smart meter rollout deadline
The government’s stated endgame for the smart meter rollout, which started in 2011, is to achieve 85% smart meter adoption throughout Great Britain.
The deadline for most British homes and small businesses to be fitted with smart meters has recently been extended by four years, pushing it back to 2024. The current thinking is that there needs to be a change of approach to drive further adoption.
To reach this new target, the government is considering stricter rules and deadlines for all active energy providers. The argument for firming up on installation targets is that, with the energy market constantly evolving, the new deadline should reflect the latest changes.
Are smart meters compulsory?
Ofgem, the energy supply regulator, has unequivocally stated that smart meters are not compulsory, which means you are within your rights to refuse one.
The UK government has changed what was once a hard deadline to get all households in line to more of a goal. This softening in smart meter policy is good news for those who don’t want smart meters in their homes.
Latest figures state that only around three out of ten households with the Big Six energy suppliers have had smart meters installed. However, when taking smaller and medium-sized providers into account, that makes around 18 million smart meters in UK homes.
There have, however, been reports of energy suppliers’ using sly tactics during the rollout and there are definitely legitimate concerns about customers being:
- Charged more because they don’t have smart meters to access certain exclusive tariffs. This can be easily remedied by switching to a provider with fairer pricing.
- Harassed after the supplier was asked to stop contacting a household.
- Lied to about fines or fees for not accepting a smart meter.
- Forced to accept smart meter installation appointments against their will.
How do I legally refuse a smart meter?
Refusing a smart meter will require you to be increasingly eagle-eyed when signing up to a new energy plan. This is especially the case if you are coming off of a fixed rate tariff. You need to be firm about your refusal to have a smart meter installed.
When speaking with your supplier, you may need to remind them that Ofgem asserts your right to refuse smart meters. Know your rights and if all else fails, you can take your business elsewhere. Remember, the customer is always right.
How to read your smart meter
Smart meters eliminate the need to take readings for your supplier to then bill you based on that information. Instead, your in-home display can help you to curb your energy usage by making you aware of how much you are really using.
Knowing exactly how much you are spending can stop you worrying about turning any of your appliances on and put you back in control of your monthly spend.
Above you can see a typical in-house display. Although each energy supplier has its own design, the basics remain the same. The above example is using a predetermined budget. It then denotes the amount in pounds and pence that you have spent within the day. You can also change this setting to display other time frames, such as your billing month.