What is a smart meter?
Confused about smart meters? Find out what they are, how they work and whether you should get one. We look at both the advantages and disadvantages of getting a smart meter..
What is a smart meter?
A smart meter is a device that comes in two parts. The meter part replaces the old-style gas and electricity meters. Those are the ones that had to be read every so often – either by a meter reader or yourself.
The second part is a digital display that clearly shows you how much energy you’re using, and how much you’ve used over a period of time.
The idea is that a smart meter helps you stay on top of your energy bills by showing you just how much gas and electricity you’re using.
The meter is connected to the internet by a secure national network so it can automatically send smart meter readings to your energy supplier.
Regular accurate readings put an end to estimated bills, so you’ll only pay for the energy you actually use. What’s more, you don’t have to take meter readings yourself. The smart meter does all the work for you.
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How do smart meters work?
Smart meters collect information about the amount of gas and electricity you use, almost in real time. They then send that information to your energy supplier.
Smart meters are easy to read. They show the information on a digital display, so you can keep an eye on how much you’re using.
The displays are all slightly different, but they normally let you see how much energy you’ve used in kilowatt hours (kWh). You’ll also see how much it’s cost you in pounds and pence.
You can check how much energy you’ve used over a day, a week or a month, and compare it to previous days, weeks and months.
Some smart energy meters come with a budgeting feature that lets you set goals for how much energy you use.
This can be handy if you’re trying to use less energy, or if you’d like to teach your children about how much energy appliances use.
READ MORE: How to make your home more energy efficient
Smart meter installation
The government promised in its 2017 manifesto that every UK household should be offered a smart meter before the end of 2020.
Ofgem, the energy regulator, introduced rules that energy companies had to take "reasonable steps" to fit meters by that time.
More recently the government has added a target to install smart meters in 85% of homes. The energy suppliers have until the end of 2024 to get it all done.
It doesn’t cost you anything to get a smart meter installed. And you can still switch supplier afterwards too.
READ MORE: Energy price cap explained
Can I get a smart meter?
When smart meters first appeared, you couldn’t really get one if you were on a special tariff. Or if you were on a non-standard meter, like a prepayment meter or an economy 7 meter.
However, the technology has come on since then. Now you can get both prepayment and economy 7 smart meters.
A prepayment smart meter lets you add credit and top up your smart meter online. So you don’t need to buy cards from the shop.
An economy 7 smart meter shows on and off-peak electricity usage separately. This means you can keep an eye on your energy usage more accurately, to make sure you’re using it at the best possible time.
If you’ve got a prepayment or an economy seven meter, you should now be able to get a smart meter. In the past, a supplier might have told you it wasn’t possible to get a smart meter upgrade. But things have changed, so it’s worth checking with them again.
If they still say no, you could switch to a different supplier who does offer smart meters. It’s still a good idea to compare prices with us first, to make sure you’re getting the best deal from your switch.
READ MORE: The energy switching process explained
Do I have to have a smart meter?
The energy suppliers have to offer all of their customers a smart meter installation, but you don’t have to accept one However, if you choose not to, you might miss out on tariffs that are for smart meters only.
Smart meter problems
There are many advantages of smart meters, like clear and simple displays, no meter readings, and free installation. So why has there been such bad press about them?
Well, as with any new technology, there have been some teething problems with smart meters. For some people, they simply weren’t available. For example, if you were living in an area with poor reception, they wouldn’t work properly.
And if you used a prepayment or an economy seven meter, you couldn’t get a smart meter version when they first came out.
There’s also the issue of switching. You can always switch energy suppliers, but you might find that your smart meter becomes ‘dumb’. It depends on the type of smart meter you have.
The first generation of smart meters were called SMETS1 meters. As soon as you switched supplier, they stopped being smart. That’s because they communicate by 3G, so any new providers probably just can’t pick up the signal.
So with the SMETS1 smart meters, it’s back to square one. You’ll have to start giving your new supplier monthly meter readings again, but at least the smart meter digital display makes it much easier. No more hunting under the stairs on your hands and knees with a torch!
You’ll also still be able to use the digital display to monitor your energy usage. It just won’t show you the energy cost as it will be different with a different supplier.
Thankfully the 2nd generation of smart meter (SMETS2) is ‘smart’ enough to cope when you switch supplier. They communicate using a central wi-fi network that’s separate from your own wi-fi. So in theory it should work perfectly. Although you may have to switch it off and back on again!
So if you’re getting a smart meter installed now or in the future? Make sure it’s a newer 2nd generation SMETS2 meter so you don’t lose your smart features when you switch.
Are smart meters compatible for businesses?
IIf you run a small business or run your business from home, installing a smart meter is a great way to keep an eye on how much energy you use. It could help cut your business energy bills too.
Get in touch with your supplier to find out more about getting a smart meter installed where you work.
Alternatively, get in touch with our business energy team. They can switch you to a new deal that includes a smart meter installation.