Smart meters let you see the cost of the energy you are using immediately. 14 million households already have smart meters.
But how useful are they in practice? And are there any problems?
And is your supplier saying you have to get a smart meter as your meter is dangerous?
There is one big issue you may not have heard of…
This article looks at the pros and cons when you are thinking about getting a smart meter and you pay for your gas and electric by direct debit or when you get a bill.
It doesn’t cover the case where you want to get a smart meter and use it as a prepayment meter. If that is what you are considering, read Will a prepayment meter make it easier to budget? as there are a lot of other points you need to consider.
Keep track of your energy usage and what it costs
The meter can tell you the cost of the energy you have used today, this week, and this month. People find it easier to think in pounds rather than kW (kilowatts).
You can set a target budget for the maximum you want to use. You will then be sent messages such as Weekly budget exceeded if you go over. Some meters may let you set an alarm to beep when you have reached the limit you have set. This is just information for you – it doesn’t stop you going over this limit.
You can also use the meter to see what an individual appliance costs. First switch everything off except the essentials such as the fridge. Then switch one thing on and see how much extra energy it uses.
“Time of use” tariffs
An Economy 7 tariff gives you seven hours of cheap electricity overnight. They are used if you have storage heaters. You used to get two separate electric meters, but if you have this installed now, it may be a single smart meter.
Time of use tariffs allow for a much more flexible charging structure. You have to have a smart meter for these. One example is Octopus’s Agile tariff where the prices varied every day and every half hour – Octopus said this was:
Perfect for electric vehicles, storage heaters, or anyone who can shift their electricity use outside of peak times.
Many of these time of use tariffs have been suspended because it’s difficult to make them compatible with the Energy Price Cap. But they are likely to return now energy prices are reducing a bit.
A new trial scheme started in winter 2022-23 where some families were paid to use less energy at specific times. Customers may be able to save up to £100 a year but they have to have a smart meter and they have to be invited. Last year some people thought they saved £10-20, but I haven’t come across people who saved a lot more than that
No need to read the meter
A smart meter automatically tells your supplier what you have used, so there is no need to have the meter read.
Your bills should then be accurate, not using any estimated amounts.
Would you use it much after the first week?
Just having a smart meter won’t save you any money. That only happens if you actively use the information to reduce the energy used.
Lots of people don’t seem to find it helpful. Here are some comments I have seen recently:
- Mine constantly looks angry and I keep turning it over as its stressing me out too much.
- The budget keeps resetting and the manual is useless.
- My husband played with it a lot at the start. But it only told us what everyone knows – using the tumble drier is expensive and when heating is on low we don’t use much gas.
Does it actually work?
There are persistent reports of people telling their supplier that their smart meter doesn’t work but being ignored.
It seems some suppliers just want to meet their targets by switching you, but then don’t care if your meter doesn’t function as it should.
A smart meter can be switched to be a prepayment meter without your consent
There are many reasons why having a prepayment meter is a bad idea for most people. Here is a list of the problems with prepayment meters – they make it harder to budget over the winter when its coldest and many people simply run out of money.
If you have an old style meter and your supplier wants to put you on a prepayment meter because you have arrears, they should check one is suitable for you. Then they have to go to court to get a warrant to fit it.
But if you have a smart meter, this can all be done remotely – no one comes to your house, it’s just a change in the supplier’s system.
This used to be very rare. But in 2022 it happened to a lot of people.
Here is one story in a report from the BBC:
Her new provider told Samantha she was in arrears of over £1,600, an amount she disputes because she monitored her usage closely using her smart meter. But suddenly it was switched. “I literally just came in from shopping and realised I had been switched onto a prepayment meter with no notice.”
There is extra protection in winter 23-24 to stop prepayment meters being fitted for the most vulnerable. For example, they now can’t be fitted if all the occupants of a house are over 75, or there is a child under 2, or someone with a terminal illness. These protections also apply to a smart meter being switched to work as a prepayment meter.
But you may not come into one of the “most vulnerable” categories that is protected. Or you may prefer to avoid the possibility completely by not getting a smart meter.
So is a smart meter a good idea?
This coming winter 2023-24 will be very difficult for many people.
The Ofgem Price Cap has fallen a bit. Lower prices will help everyone, but unless you use more energy than average, you may gain less from the lower prices than you lose as the £400 help over last winter with electric bills has ended and won’t be repeated.
I don’t think anyone should decide to get a smart meter at the moment unless they are 100% sure that they can afford their energy bills even if prices rise again.
Some extra information from a smart meter on the cost of the energy you are using may be nice, but it isn’t worth taking the risk that you could be one of the people switched to a prepayment meter when you don’t want one.
Does your supplier say your old meter is dangerous?
Suppliers have to install a certain number of smart meters in a year. But you do not have to accept one!
In autumn 2023, British Gas and possibly some other energy suppliers seem to be using scare tactics to get people to switch. Customers have been send emails saying that their old meter is unsafe or may catch fire… but when they have called up, alarmed, they have been told this is just “marketing”.
Some customers have complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that this is misleading. The Energy Ombudsman says you can decline a meter replacement request and that suppliers “should not give the impression that an analogue meter must be replaced”.