Separate gas and electricity suppliers, switching providers, now smart meters; didn’t it used to be so much simpler in the 80s – or was that because your parents were paying the bills?
While smart meters have been big business in the US for a while – 70 million were installed in the US in 2016 – things in the UK are just getting started. As of January 2018, just 8.6 million of them have been installed, and in typical Brit style, the issue is fraught with controversy, whataboutery and half-cocked technology that's already being superseded.
Essential reading: The best smart home systems
Everything from energy viruses, Big Brother privacy invasions and the risk of billing catastrophes have all been levelled at smart meters by the usual corners of the press, whipping consumer anxiety into a frenzy.
But what is a smart meter, how do they work and do you want one? Read on to find out.
What is a smart meter?
Smart meters are connected meters which are designed to replace the electricity and gas meters which you’ve currently got sitting in your cupboard under the stairs. They do exactly the same jobs as the ones you’ve got at the moment but they send meter readings direct to your energy suppliers without anyone having to come round and look at them.
This is a good thing because you don’t need to let a stranger into your home, you don’t need to do any readings yourself and your supplier can bill you on how much gas and electric you’ve actually used rather than make estimates.
Now, it may be that you’re still billed according to monthly averages of your total annual consumption but the point is that the capacity is there to work on a pay per usage situation.
Now, as well as your supplier, your smart meter is also wirelessly connected to a little in-home display (IHD) which you have sitting around on the sideboard somewhere. That’s designed to give householders meaningful representations of their energy consumption.
So, as well as the slightly impenetrable kWh measurements, it’ll also display how much you’ve used in pounds and pence as well as your live rate of consumption, again, in pounds and pence. The idea is that you can see how and when you use the most energy at home and, hopefully, it’ll bring in a few truths about having a shower that lasts all week. You get the picture – or at least you will once you’ve had a smart meter installed.
Do you have to have a smart meter?
Absolutely not. You will be offered one. The idea is that the Government wants everyone in England, Scotland and Wales to have been offered one by their supplier by 2020 but you do not have to accept. You can hang on to your old meters for as long as they’re operable which should be a very long time. Getting a smart meter installed won’t cost you anything, though, and there’s really very little to fear, so don’t sweat it either way.
How do I get one?
All of the Big Six energy suppliers are offering them already to many of their customers and have been for quite a while. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re ready to offer you one. You can try to hurry them along by phoning them up and asking them or by registering your interest on the relevant page of their websites but it’s more likely to be a case of whether or not your location and usage type casts you into their priority group.
Each supplier has a different set of customers it’s looking to roll out to first, and you’ll have to read up yourself on that one, but, generally speaking, if you’re in an area of poor mobile coverage or using a prepay meter or Economy 7 meter, then you’re probably out of luck. It seems the suppliers would rather get the easy ones working properly first.
Are there Economy 7 and prepay smart meters?
Two-tariff, such as Economy 7, and prepay smart meters are coming. They exist already but there’s not many of them. Once they do arrive, they should be a real bonus for these users. If you’re a prepay customer, then you’ll get a mobile app, complete with warning notifications when you’re running low, where you’ll be to top-up instead of having to head to the petrol station to stick some more credit on your plastic key.
Those with a two-tariff meter will benefit because they’ll actually be able to make sense of the system and see at a glance which tariff they’re set to use at any one moment. In fact, smart meters may well give rise to a few more innovative multi-tariff packages once the energy companies get a better idea of our usage through all this live data.
And as it turns out, having to wait a while to get a smart meter may be no bad thing because…
…it’s probably not a good idea to get a smart meter now
Here’s the thing. Sure, a smart meter will teach you about your energy habits – but what saves most money when it comes to energy is switching providers. Now, you can still switch from one company to another when you have a smart meter installed, but you will very likely lose a lot of those smart abilities if you do.
That’s because the first generation of smart meters called SMETS 1, which are the one ones that almost everybody has installed, send the meter readings back to the suppliers by normal mobile broadband from a SIM card within – and it’s not a standardised system.
So, when you switch from one provider to the other, the new provider doesn’t have that connection any more, the signal is lost, your meter goes from smart to dumb again and you’ll have to give manual meter readings once more. Your in-home unit will still function to a degree but many of them will only offer kWh displays at this point and not pounds and pence usage any more.
However, coming to an area near you in 2018 are the SMETS 2 smart meters. These communicate on a secure national network called DCC to which all the providers have access. So, even when you switch, your new supplier will be able to listen to your SMETS 2 smart meter no matter which company installed it and what model it is.
There are noises about the roll out of SMETS 2 meters from all the Big Six but our recommendation would be to leave it to the last quarter of 2018 to go smart to make sure you get one – maybe even later.
While the government is insisting that we’re all given the chance to get smart meters for free, there doesn’t seem to be any obligation to replace a SMETS 1 with a SMETS 2. Most energy suppliers are saying that they’ll be able to upgrade the older SMETS 1 models to the DCC network with a remote software update but our advice would be to hold out for the SMETS 2. Updates can be tricky.
Which smart meter should I choose?
You’re not likely to get much of smart meter or in-home display (IHD) choice from your provider and, really, don’t waste your time thinking about it. They’re all very similar and pretty much all do the same things. The only one that looks a bit poxy is the one from Eon because it’s not got a colour display. That said, Eon has the E.On See app which connects to your smart meter from your mobile or tablet without the need of the IHD anyway, so no worries there.
All the IHDs seem to come with a warning light which turns from green to amber and red depending on how decadent you’re being with your waffle iron. They all have an AC mode as well as back up batteries, they all allow you to set budgets for how much you’d like to spend on energy each day – and then get notifications when you find you’ve gone way over what you’d intended – and they all including a reading of all the CO2 emissions you’ve been responsible for. Fun.
The only real question for you is whether you’d like your device to be one in portrait or landscape orientation. At the time of writing, EDFs and SSE’s are portrait, and probably a little less confusing, while the ones from British Gas, Npower, Scottish Power and Eon are landscape.
Like we say, though, don’t sweat it. As far as we’re concerned, none of these IHDs are either good or bad enough to make or break your choice of getting a smart meter with any provider. Most likely, there’ll be some new ones available with the SMETS 2 meters and, even likelier, you’ll be doing all of this through your mobile phone in a year or two anyway.
The case against smart meters
Smart meters ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, kid – at least so the certain anti-smart meter campaigns (that's a thing) will have you believe. Probably the biggest scare story about them is the claim that they give off intense bursts of microwaves, which can cause cancer.
We’re certainly not arguing that intense microwave radiation doesn’t cause cancer, but according to Public Health England, British Gas and Cancer Research UK, the levels of radiation from smart meters are very, very low; lower than those from your mobile phones and tablets and not really any different to the Wi-Fi network that you probably already have in your home. So, that’s that one.
One definite downside of smart meters is that giving any object networking potential means that it, of course, becomes possible for a third party to hack it. In fact, while there haven’t been any smart meter hacks as yet, there have been a number of attacks on energy sector’s other systems in Israel, Turkey and Finland where computers controlling warm water and heating systems have been disabled leaving homes cold. In 2016, an attack in the Ukraine on one particular energy provider left over 80,000 with a total blackout for hours.
As a result, countries in Europe are paying particular attention to smart meter security. The Netherlands have selected meters that don’t have remote on/off switches and in the UK the Government has got GCHQ dreaming up the protection. Any connected device is always going to be vulnerable to some degree and even if you don’t get a smart meter installed, that doesn’t mean that hackers won’t take out your energy provider instead.
By the same token, privacy is an issue. Even if it’s not data theft, you need to be comfortable with the idea that a smart meter will give your energy provider access to your gas and electricity usage data. As it stands, your supplier will be able to access your daily energy use – unless you object – but they need your permission for the up to date info and they need your permission to use your data for marketing and if they want to sell it on to third parties. So, it’s probably worth while digging your heels in on that one. There’s more info from OFGEM here.
Of course when it comes to switching, your half-hourly energy usage data could come in very handy when you want to find a provider that’s going to cost you the least with the most suitable tariff for your usage patterns. So, it works both ways on this one.
As for costing you more, there’s no evidence to suggest that smart meters will charge you more for your gas and electricity usage. There have been one or two instances of mistakes where customers have been charged a small fortune but, obviously, these people never had to pay a penny for such glitches. There’s a hidden cost that we’re all already paying because the rates have gone up a touch to cover the cost of these so-called free installations but there’s not much you can do about that. You’ll pay whether you chose to go smart or not.