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Energy smart meters guide

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Smart energy meters explained

As part of an initiative to improve the domestic energy market, the government is planning to ensure energy smart meters are installed in every home in the UK by 2020. These new meters should help households better understand and manage their energy use, as well as making it easier to adopt energy efficiency measures in order to save money.

With the smart meter rollout scheduled to begin in 2015, you may already have had a smart meter installed – or have been contacted by your supplier about having one fitted at your home. To help you better understand the smart meter and what it means for your household energy, the following is a short guide to smart meters, their benefits and common issues.

What is a smart meter?

Available for electricity and gas, smart meters are a new kind of energy meter that offers a range of intelligent functions through wireless technology:

  • They can accurately and automatically record your energy usage.
  • They can send meter readings directly to your supplier.
  • They can show you real-time feedback on your energy usage and its related costs.
  • Your supplier can use it to send information about any changes to your tariff.

What are the benefits of a smart meter?

There are many benefits to having a smart meter in your household. These include:

Eliminates estimated bills

As smart meters send meter readings directly to your supplier, you will no longer need to deal with estimated bills. This means you’ll only ever pay for the energy you actually use. Once your smart meter is installed, it could take a couple of months before your supplier can send you an accurate bill.

Automatic meter readings also mean you won’t have to submit any readings yourself – and you won’t have meter readers visiting your property. However, your supplier may still require the occasional visit for a routine safety check, as they would for a regular meter.

Better energy management

Smart meters have a digital display that can show you your energy usage on a weekly, daily and even hourly basis – expressed in pounds and pence. You’ll be able to see how much energy you’re using at any one time, and even check your energy usage for the previous year. This can help you better manage your energy use and reduce your energy bills as you become more aware of your consumption and which appliances use the most energy.

Easier to switch suppliers or tariff type

The smart meter makes it easier to change from a prepayment tariff to a tariff that uses a regular credit meter and vice versa, as your supplier won’t need to physically change your meter. This also means you won’t have to pay for the meter to be changed during the switch. The process of switching suppliers should be easier and faster, too, as suppliers will be able to access relevant information about your tariff more easily.

It is hoped that the technology will eventually lead to the creation of new tariffs that are personalised to each domestic energy user and designed to individually fit each household’s lifestyle and energy consumption.

Easier to top-up prepayment meters

Your smart meter can be used as a regular prepayment meter, using a top-up key, token or smart card. Alongside cash payments, suppliers are now expected to also offer more convenient ways to top up, such as online, over the phone or via a mobile app.

Additional benefits with a smart meter

Some suppliers offer additional services with a smart meter such as online information, more detailed bills or apps for your smartphone. Some suppliers also offer different tariffs that give better rates or rewards for using your energy at different times of day. Your supplier can monitor your usage and determine whether you’ll benefit by being offered a discount to use most of your energy during off-peak times.

Faster resolution of problems

If there are technical problems or faults with the supply of energy, smart meters can make it easier and quicker to identify and fix the problem. Smart meters can also help detect and prevent the theft of energy more easily so you don’t end up paying for stolen energy.

Free installation

They’re free to install under the national upgrade programme – although the costs are likely to be covered through added charges to household energy bills across the UK. This is similar to standard meters where the cost of the meter and its maintenance is covered through your energy bills.

Measuring renewable energy

Regular meters are only capable of recording consumption, and do not take into account any energy generated by a household. If you generate your own electricity through renewable energy measures such as solar panels or a wind turbine, your smart meter can measure how much electricity you’re producing, and calculate whether you have a surplus that could be sold back to the National Grid. Customers who generate their own electricity may need a more advanced version of the smart meter.

What criticisms have been made?

Several criticisms have been made of the smart meter, including concerns such as data access and privacy, security, the installation process and health and safety. The government has set out rules to prevent these concerns becoming reality, including ensuring suppliers meet the needs of vulnerable customers before installation.

Informing customers

In 2013, independent research by uSwitch found that 55% of domestic energy users did not understand smart meters, what they do, or how they could benefit them. In order to address this issue, many energy suppliers now have dedicated web pages for information about smart meters.

Concerns about the roll-out

Several suppliers have expressed concerns that the smart meter roll-out planned by the government – which aims to install a free smart meter in 100% of UK homes by 2020 – is too ambitious, and that the cost of energy bills will rise unnecessarily if the current plan is to be carried out. Instead, to reduce costs of the in-home display, suppliers propose that consumers link their smart meter to their existing smartphone or tablet.

Concerns about privacy

With the smart meter sending real-time information about energy consumption to suppliers, concerns have been raised about potential invasions of privacy. However, suppliers such as British Gas have assured customers that the smart meters were designed with the help of security consultants to ensure data is protected, using the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

Ofgem published a series of Codes in July 2013 ensuring customers can choose how much data energy suppliers can retrieve from a smart meter, excepting data your supplier requires in order to create a bill. You can also specify whether this data can be accessed by third-parties or used for marketing purposes. Moreover, suppliers are required to obtain express permission from customers for them to receive half-hourly readings. Customers can also object to suppliers accessing daily data.

Suppliers are not able to control specific appliances in the home in what is called ‘appliance control’. If you’d like to implement appliance control, you would need to purchase additional smart technologies in your home, for example specially-designed smart appliances or plugs that enable you to remotely turn the heating on or off.

Concerns about health and safety

As smart meters are a wireless device, they emit radiofrequency (RF) waves similar to those emitted by mobile phones. Criticisms have been made by groups such as Stop Smart Meters UK that these RF emissions are harmful, and chronic exposure could lead to carcinogenic effects, long-term DNA damage, and symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, depression and arrhythmia.

However, the Department of Energy & Climate Change has stated that all smart meters are subject to the same safety regulations and testing given to any in-home technological device. Smart meters are covered by both EU and UK product safety regulation, and have undergone rigorous testing. As such, the consensus has been that smart meters are safe for use in the home.

If you’re concerned about the health issues related to smart meters, contact your energy supplier for advice. They may be able to offer you a hard-wired in-home display that does not require wireless technology, or a smart meter that operates in ‘dumb mode’ (doesn’t transmit readings to the supplier).

Can I still switch if I have a smart meter?

Yes. Having a smart meter installed with one energy supplier doesn’t prevent you from switching to another supplier. However, if you switch to a supplier that doesn’t yet support or use smart meter technology, your smart meter will revert to dumb mode and work as a standard meter. 

It is hoped that smart meters will make the process of switching energy suppliers easier and faster, although this is currently not possible due to what the Energy and Climate Change Committee has termed “interoperability issues”.

This is a term that addresses the fact that, at the moment, there is no universal standard for smart meters, with each supplier using different systems with different technology. As such, if you wish to switch suppliers, it’s likely your new supplier will not be able to access readings from the smart meter installed by the previous supplier. Inevitably, you’ll be faced with one of the following options:

  • Your new supplier will need to uninstall your existing smart meter and install their type of smart meter. This could be both costly and inconvenient, and would be something that occurs every time you switch suppliers – typically once a year.
  • If you’d rather not change your meter, your existing smart meter would need to be reverted back to a dumb standard meter. This is despite choosing a supplier that offers smart meter functionality.

Can I refuse a smart meter?

Yes. Households are not under legal obligation to have a smart meter installed in their home. Contact your energy supplier if you have concerns about the smart meter or would prefer not to have it installed in your home.

Under the Smart Metering Installation Code of Practice created by Ofgem, suppliers must properly explain how smart meters work, how households can use the data available to them, provide energy efficiency advice, and make it clear that the installation isn’t obligatory. The Code also ensures customers are protected from sales attempts during installation, with suppliers needing the customer’s permission in advance to talk about their products during the installation visit.

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