Smart meters: everything you need to know

Smart meters make energy billing easier, and they can help you monitor your energy consumption. Find out more about them

smart meters help cut your energy usage and monitor your bills
(Image credit: Getty Images)

What are smart meters, and should we use them? Our energy suppliers have to offer everyone a smart meter by 2020, but many of us are still unsure of what their functions are and whether we need them.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about your new smart meter, from how they are installed to how to read it. Or, visit The Hub, our one stop shop for all you need to know about making your life easier with home technology.

What is a smart meter?

Smart meters are a type of gas and electricity meter that automatically sends meter readings to your gas and energy supplier. They are put in place of your old meter and come with an in-house display – a small piece of kit, not much larger than a smart phone that will need to be plugged in somewhere in your home. 

The handheld display usually has a digital touch screen, so you can use them to check your energy usage and how much your energy has cost you to date. They can even show live energy usage, allowing you to recognise what appliances really drain your electricity or gas which could help you save money. Check out smart meters available on Amazon for an idea of what's available.

They are not the same as a smart thermostat which is a device that controls your heating. 

How do smart meters work?

Most smart meters use wireless or mobile phone-type signals, but the wireless network they use is separate to your home Wi-Fi. They use a home area network (HAN) to communicate with with your smart meter display and a wide area network (WAN) to communicate with your energy supplier.

You can see how much power is being used in kWh and m³, and in pounds and pence and it comes with an in-home display, so you can see usage by week or month. The display will show a comparison of real-time usage to the last week, month or year.

All of this information is sent via a wireless network to your energy supplier to automate the billing process. 

Wesco whistling water kettle lifestyle image with mug

Electric kettles use a surprising amount of energy per boil (you can watch it on your smart meter display), so why not consider switching to a stove top version like this one from Wesco. For similar try Amazon

(Image credit: Lakeland)

Should I get a smart meter?

There are several benefits to a smart meter:

1. You get up-to-date readings

These are in your home on an easy-to-read monitor. No more traipsing out to the garage or front of the house in the rain to read the meter. Even better, no more searching for that special key you need to open the meter box.

2. Your bills should be more accurate, saving you money

The readings are sent to your supplier so they don't have to work off estimates (and you don't have to manually submit them or wait for someone to come round and read the meter). Therefore, you are less likely to get overcharged – or undercharged and stung with a massive bill when they catch up.

3. Control your energy usage and take steps to save energy

The smart meter display shows live energy consumption so you will quickly learn which appliances are using the most fuel or power. This allows you to make informed decisions about what you use and perhaps looks at upgrading appliances that are a drain on your utilities to something with a better energy rating.

4. App connectivity is an option

As smart meters are linked to your account with your supplier, if you use the supplier's app you can check your energy usage from your smart phone too. You can keep track of your bills on the go and monitor any discrepancies, too.

How to install a smart meter

Every household in England, Scotland and Wales will be offered a smart meter free of charge by 2020. Your energy supplier will send someone to fit it for you. They will just need access to your home to set it up. You’ll be offered a free demo to interpret the readings to ensure you get the most from it.

The aim is for around 53 million meters to be installed, but when you get yours will depend on your supplier’s roll-out plans. Ask your current provider to find out when you can upgrade and to arrange a fitting, or switch to a company already offering smart meters. It’s a good idea to register your interest in a smart meter with your supplier.

What can you do to help the installer?

  • Ensure they have clear access to the existing gas and electricity meters.
  • Make sure there is somewhere suitable for the handheld display to be plugged in (it will need to be plugged in at all times, so find a socket that doesn't need to be used for anything else).
  • Arrange the installer to visit for a time when you are in. Allow around an hour for installation.
  • Offer the installer a cup of tea!

How much does it cost to install a smart meter?

It should be free to install a smart meter. It is in the energy supplier's interests to provide you with one as it helps them automate their systems and cut overheads. If the supplier is asking for money for installation, question it.

Having a smart meter should hopefully save you money too. So from a cost point of view, there is no question about installing a smart meter.

Smart meter dangers: are smart meters safe?

Smart meters use their own secure wireless networks so they should be safe from external tampering and do not conflict with the security of your home wireless network.

In terms of device safety, all smart meters supplied in the UK should carry the CE mark showing the product has been tested to the safety standards set out by European directives. As long as your electrics are safe and you do not connect the smart meter to an overloaded plug adaptor, it should not pose any risks. What's more, the installer will flag any concerns they might have about your home's gas or wiring in the process of installation so consider it a free utilities MOT.

Some worry about the radio waves from smart meters that allow for connectivity. Again, this worry is misplaced – any radio waves are much weaker than those from other appliances such as your mobile phone, microwave and even your TV.

Know your consumer rights

The data collected by a smart meter belongs to you, not to the energy supplier, meaning they are not allowed to share your information with third parties or for use in marketing campaigns without your prior consent.

The Government has recently published guidelines to protect homeowners’ privacy, which includes offering you the ability to choose how often your supplier accesses your readings, such as half-hourly usage. However, when data is required for regulation purposes and when bills are being produced, the company can gain access to view the figures. What’s more, smart meters are covered by UK and EU product safety legislation, which ensure that they are safe to have in the home.

How does a smart meter work with a pre-payment meter?

A smart meter could be set up to top up automatically when credit is low and you’ll be able to keep a regular check on your balance through the in-home display. Plus, your supplier may be able to offer smart ways to add credit to your account from home, rather than at an in-store top-up point. Contact your supplier to find out what they can offer you.

Second generation smart meters: when can I get one? 

Technically, all smart meters installed after March 2019 should be second-generation smart meters. The reason for this is that the first-generation meters had a fatal flaw: they lost their 'smart' features if you switched energy supplier. However, it has recently been reported that first-generation meters are still being installed across the UK, especially in Scotland and the north of England, for reasons that range from connectivity problems to a lack of qualified engineers to install them.

If you did have a first-generation smart meter fitted, though, don't panic: it won't suddenly stop working altogether if you switch supplier; it will just revert to being a regular meter, and you'll need to provide your energy supplier with meter readings. For those of us who have data sharing concerns, this may even be preferable. 

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