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How smart are smart meters?

Posted by Sharon Russell-Verma on 3 November 2015 at 11:10 am

This autumn the official roll-out of smart meters across England, Wales and Scotland will begin, and it should be complete by 2020. Smart meters are the next generation of gas and electricity meters. They have in-home displays which help you keep track of the energy you use, and will cut out the need for meter readings. So how do they work and what do you need to know about them?

How do smart meters work?

Smart meters measure the total energy used in your home in the same way as a traditional meter.  They are 'smart' because they use radio waves (similar to those of radio transmitters, mobile phones and wi-fi) to communicate the information they collect, allowing remote readings to be taken by utility suppliers.

The system that collects information from the electricity and gas meters has two main components:

  1. The Home Area Network (HAN). This links the smart meters with an in-home display which allows you, the householder, to view your energy use in real time. Furthermore, it can tell you when you used the energy and how much it costs.
  2. A communications module that allows communication between the meter and your utility company, so there's no need for someone to come to your home to take meter readings.

The communications are not continuous and data is only actually sent in short, intermittent bursts. The display also presents historical information on energy consumption so that you can compare your current use with your past energy use.

What are the benefits of smart meters?

According to the government and the energy companies who are rolling out the smart meter project, they will:

  • provide you with accurate real-time information about your energy use. This should help you to make informed decisions about your energy behaviour.
  • allow you greater control and give you the option to be more flexible with your heating settings. 
  • bring an end to estimated billing - you will only be billed for the energy you actually use, which should help you budget better for your energy bills – no more nasty surprises!

Smart meter roll-out

It will be mandatory for energy companies to offer their customers smart meters. They will also have to follow strict consumer protection rules around:

  • data access and privacy
  • security
  • technical standards for the smart metering equipment
  • meeting the needs of vulnerable consumers
  • no sales during the installation visit - installers will need the consumer’s permission in advance of the visit if they want to talk about their own products.

How much will a smart meter cost?

Each smart meter costs about £215 and, even though there will be no upfront cost to have smart meters installed, you will pay for them through your energy bills as you do now with your existing meter.

Health and safety

Smart meters are covered by UK and EU product safety legislation. Public Health England (PHE) states that the evidence to date suggests exposures to the radio waves produced by smart meters do not pose a risk to health. Assessments made in other countries that use smart meters have found exposures that are well below internationally agreed guidelines. PHE will be carrying out further research to assess exposures as the technology is rolled out.

Can I refuse a smart meter?

Yes you can. Smart meters are not mandatory. Even though energy companies have been asked to take 'all reasonable steps' to install smart meters in every home, you can refuse a smart meter. If you don't want a smart meter, tell your supplier and they will probably offer to install a 'dumb' meter or a smart meter set up to work in 'dumb' mode with all the communications mode switched off.

Where is the evidence they can help?

There has been criticism about the smart meter rollout because it has been estimated that the average saving for a typical dual fuel bill will be just £26 a year. Smart meters themselves won't actually save you energy or money but it's hoped they’ll give you, the customer, the information you need to make behavioural changes that will. However, there is some evidence from other countries that savings are minimal once the honeymoon period is over.

The next blog in this series will examine how smart meters can work for pre-payment customers and concerns both from the industry and the public about the smart meter roll-out.


Photo: David Dodge

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8 comments - read them below or add one


muymalestadoComment left on: 30 April 2017 at 9:14 pm

Smart Meters? I wonder. BBC Radio4 'Money Box' is the latest media outlet to query this technology (Sat, 29th April, 2017 @ 12:00 and Sunday repeat 30th April, 2017 @ 21:00).

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Adam W

Adam WComment left on: 19 January 2016 at 10:47 pm

richmc,rudge energy> From what I have read, the cost of the meter will be recouped through your energy bills. Whether your energy company chooses to do this through your standing charge or your unit cost is up to them (as is the decision to charge the customer in the first place).

I would suspect that the energy companies will not offer the best tarriffs to non-smart meter customers because of the increased cost of collecting the meter readings (whether you are submitting them or they are read by a meter reader). They are already talking about providing better (hourly) tarriffs to customers who are submitting all their data.

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Ian Smith

Ian SmithComment left on: 1 December 2015 at 6:00 pm

My understanding is that the meter will, by default, supply quarterly data - in effect replacing the current arrangements but without the estmated readings.  The data is owned by the householder and it is for them to elect to permit half hour data to be provided.  Benefits may be offered in return for this such as time-of-day tariffs.  As ever, there are potential disbenefits if this data is not communicated and/or stored securely.  Access to half hour data can reveal whether the house is occupied, for instance, or, in some cases, the religion of the household (eg. no cooking during daylight hours during Ramadan).  Understanding how secure the data access and privacy arrangements are will be a key factor in my agreement to go beyond the default condition.

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richmcComment left on: 30 November 2015 at 4:58 pm

Rudge energy, I'm with you on this one. I have the usual bog standard 4Kw PV system but with a Wattstor battery system. This time of year I am exporting zero power and during the summer only exporting when the batteries are charged and my large hot water tank is heated. A smart meter would let my cat out of the bag and I would only be paid for what I export not the estimated 50% as I am now, my generation payment would not be effected but my fed in would. I will be refusing a smart meter and will continue to provide readings on line. It would be interesting to know how the companies aim to recoupe the cost of the meter, if it's through the unit rate for the power used then how will I be able to ensuer that I don't end up paying for a meter I don't have? If it's through the standing charge it will be less of a problem as I have a zero standing charge tarrif.

As Paul53 has said there is no way the power companies won't use the smart meter system to  "maximise profits" The consumer has always in the past ended up worse off when this type of technology is implimented. I'm just releved that they can't be forced on us.

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paul53Comment left on: 7 November 2015 at 8:47 pm

you  dont  think  they  will  be  changed  to  benefit  consumers  do  you

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NEF Gordon

NEF GordonComment left on: 6 November 2015 at 12:04 pm

Sparky Parky - I think you'll find the separate gas and electricity smart meters each allow the energy supplier to 'fetch' real time or daily meter readings remotely (rather like a smart phone can fetch your emails). In due course you should be able to see the same data provided wirelessly (probably via a smart phone app or web browser with log in). The plus side is that consumers will have the option to become more aware of their consumption at any given moment. I've seen the E-on app/PC graphics and it looks good. It might help families identify when appliances are being unnecessarily left on etc.

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Rudge Energy

Rudge EnergyComment left on: 5 November 2015 at 5:09 pm

As a PV owner that is using as much of the generated power as possible, I'm pleased to see confirmed that I can refuse to have a Smart Meter installed. The other apect is that I would also be paying £215 for an unwanted meter. 

Most electricity suppliers have the option for customers to simply provide a meter reading online when they want to. So apart from a little display that is provided, nothing is really gained!


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Sparky Parky

Sparky ParkyComment left on: 3 November 2015 at 4:33 pm

How does the reading from the gas part of my smart meter reach the electrical part? The meter is a Landis &Gyr Libra 310 P.

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