What to watch out for before getting a smart meter

31 January 2018

Smart meters are the energy gadgets being offered and installed in every household that wants one across England, Scotland and Wales by 2020.

By the end of the programme, which began in 2016, around 53 million smart meters will be fitted in over 30 million premises, according to the government – which is spearheading the scheme.

But providers, consumers and industry bodies have reported problems with the roll-out.

Moneywise explores what’s happened and looks at whether a smart meter is right for you.

The benefits

A smart meter is a tool (or tools if you have gas and electricity) you can have installed in your home – usually where your existing meters are – which sends automatic digital meter readings to your energy provider.

This means bills should be far more accurate than at present, when they are estimated, and it saves householders from having to submit their own meter readings.

On installation, you’ll receive an in-home display gadget detailing how much gas and electricity you’re using, as well as the cost. According to the government, this will help households to manage their energy usage better, save money, and reduce emissions.

Smart Energy GB – the company communicating the smart meter roll-out – adds that smart meters will enable households with prepayment meters to top up their energy online or over the phone rather than having to go to a shop (although they can continue to do this should they wish).

Another point to consider is that some suppliers are offering their cheapest average tariffs to customers who take out smart meters with them.

According to energy comparison site uSwitch, British Gas and First Utility’s cheapest tariffs are only available to households that already have a smart meter with them or to those who take out a smart meter with them. These tariffs cost £916 and £995 respectively per year.

However, while they are the cheapest average annual tariffs offered by these suppliers, they don’t beat the current cheapest deal on the market open to everyone, which is £807 from Outfox the Market.

There have also been some major issues with the smart meter programme. Here are the five key problems.

1. Not all households can get a smart meter to begin with

Moneywise spoke to 11 energy providers, including the Big Six. We found that some are installing smart meters to priority customers to begin with – such as to prepayment meter customers – while others are rolling out meters area by area, which means you may need to get in the queue.

Other providers exclude homes with prepayment meters or solar panels, although by 2020 every household will have to be offered a meter – see the table below for full details.

For example, SSE says: “Where customers need a prepayment meter, have two rate tariffs such as Economy 7 or a more unusual or complex meter, there may be a delay in getting a smart meter installed.” 

Smart meter roll-out is not so hot

2. You may lose smart connectivity if you switch providers

While you can switch energy suppliers if you have a smart meter, many meters installed to date won’t send meter readings to your new provider, which means you’ll have to revert to manual meter readings and estimated bills until the problem is resolved.

The issue is that most providers have only installed first-generation smart meters – known as SMETS1 meters – and some of these can’t connect to the national smart meter communications network run by the Data Community Company (DCC).

With British Gas, for example, SMETS1 meters will only continue to operate if you join from EDF, Scottish Power, Spark, SSE or The Co-operative Energy. Of the 11 providers we spoke to, only a few have begun trialling second-generation meters – known as SMETS2 – which will resolve this issue.

In fact, a written statement answered by Claire Perry MP, the minister of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), on 1 February 2018 revealed that of the 450 SMETS2 meters installed and connected to the DCC, most of these are "being operated in test conditions" with only around 80 installed in a "live environment". 

In January 2018, the Department for BEIS extended the starting point from which SMETS2 (second generation meter) installations will count towards suppliers’ targets from 13 July to 5 October, due to providers not being ready.

A BEIS spokesperson says: “We have taken this step to ensure that customers can continue to feel the benefits of smart meters and suppliers can be completely ready to roll out SMETS2. This will not affect the rollout of the programme, or the 2020 final deadline.

“Smart meters are a vital upgrade to our energy infrastructure and millions of people are already benefiting from them. They will provide accurate bills and save consumers £300 million in 2020 alone.”

Prior to the government’s SMETS2 extension, a spokesperson for Octopus Energy told Moneywise: “We are concerned that there are so many SMETS1 meters installed in the UK, which aren’t interoperable, and not a very long time period for SMETS2 meters to be rolled out.”

Energy regulator Ofgem says the DCC is planning to connect all SMETS1 meters to the network by mid-2019, but in the meantime, you’ll have to revert to manual meter readings and estimated bills.

Robert Cheesewright, director of policy and communications at Smart Energy GB, explains: “You can speak to your new supplier ahead of switching to find out whether your smart meter will be affected, but rest assured that you’ll always be able to switch, and if you have experienced some loss of smart functionality when switching supplier, this will only be temporary.

"Earlier smart meters [SMETS1] will be enrolled into the national communications network over the air, without the need for a visit from an engineer.”

3. You may experience delays in getting a smart meter

Households keen to have a smart meter installed may experience delays. Renewable energy provider Green Energy explains that as it’s a small energy provider, it needs to ‘piggy-back’ off Big Six orders
for SMETS2 meters as it’s not cost- effective for manufacturers to supply the small number of meters it needs. Its chief executive, Doug Stewart, says he’s “hamstrung” by this reliance on larger companies making orders.

He explains: “There aren’t enough smart meters to go around and they’re slow to get hold of when you’re a smaller provider, plus there aren’t enough engineers to install them; we keep turning down customers. As an industry, I don’t think we’ve got a prayer of installing them by 2020.”

This worry of getting smart meters installed by 2020 is one echoed by other providers. British Gas’s parent company Centrica has labelled the government’s 2020 target as “ambitious”. In particular it warns that the government's proposed energy price cap may "seriously impact the smart meter roll-out", and "in a worst-case scenario, it could seriously slow or even halt progress".

Ovo Energy meanwhile has also labelled the government’s 2020 target as “ambitious”, although it adds that it's working hard to reach it.

A spokesperson for Scottish Power adds: “Due to the delays with the DCC becoming operational, the target dates will be a challenge for the whole industry.”

4. Energy bills may rise as a result

Centrica has called on the government to “address inefficiencies” in the programme to make it more cost-effective. It says the roll-out is “costly to implement” and adds “the equivalent of almost £40 on the bill of each Centrica customer”.

It also warns that forthcoming plans to cap energy bills could have “serious implications” for the smart meter programme, as it may result in there not being enough money to fund the rest of the roll-out.

5. Households pressured into to getting a smart meter

Households are being unfairly pressured into getting smart meters, according to complaints received by Citizens Advice, which runs the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) helpline.

Issues seen by the CTSI include households being given so-called ‘deemed appointments’ – where suppliers say they’re coming to install smart meters without giving consumers a chance to opt out. 

Other complaints include communications about smart meters omitting the fact they’re not compulsory.

As a result, the CTSI has written a letter to industry body Energy UK asking it to remind suppliers not to give the impression to households that smart meters are obligatory. The organisation is concerned suppliers may be breaching the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

Steve Playle, lead office for energy at the CTSI told Moneywise: “The industry is under great pressure to install meters by the 2020 deadline, but they’re slipping behind, and as such, they’re finding more and more ‘interesting’ ways to get people to sign up.”

The CTSI has the power to launch criminal prosecutions against rule breakers.

Victoria MacGregor, director of energy at Citizens Advice adds: "We are concerned that some companies are using aggressive sales practices to install smart meters. People have come to Citizens Advice for help because their energy supplier has said they’ll force entry to install a smart meter, or told them that they are required to have one.

"Smart meters are not compulsory and customers shouldn't feel pressured to have one installed if they don't want one.

"We appreciate that suppliers are under pressure to install more smart meters but they have a responsibility to act reasonably towards their consumers and not to use misleading or aggressive sales practices."

Moneywise has also seen reports of such behavior by energy suppliers. One text we’ve seen, which was sent to an Npower customer who wishes to remain anonymous, said that the provider was due to install a smart meter without the customer requesting one, and without stating that the scheme isn’t compulsory or how to opt out.

The text message says: “Hello! We are due to attend your property on behalf of Npower to fit Smart meters on 30/01/2018. Please call us today on [number has been blanked out by Moneywise] to confirm or rearrange your appointment.”

On raising this with Npower, it told Moneywise: “While smart meters bring many benefits to consumers, they are not compulsory and customers are not forced to have one. Customers who are offered an appointment but don’t want a smart meter can contact us to cancel their appointment.

“This specific message relates to a reminder to the customers who have not confirmed, rescheduled or cancelled an existing appointment. These are sent via SMS or email as part of the follow up process.

“When the initial appointment communications are sent via the customer’s preferred channel, they are given options on how they respond to the proposed appointment date and time, including the option to cancel the appointment.”

However, while Npower says the message is a follow-up text, the reader is adamant that it was the first communication they’d received on smart meters. About a week later they did receive a follow-up email from Npower, which again Moneywise has seen. While this did contain more information about smart meters, again it only gave the customer the opportunity to ‘confirm’ or ‘change’ their appointment – not to cancel it. 

Other letters Moneywise has seen, which were sent to an E.on customer who wishes to remain anonymous, include the following statements: “Your meter is being phased out. Please go online or call us to book your appointment… We need to install smart meters in all homes as part of a nationwide upgrade programme.

“We need to change your meter… Your electricity meter is an old model that we need to replace with our free self-reading smart meter.”

Nowhere in either letter did it state that smart meters were not compulsory or how customers could opt out of having them installed.

When we put this to E.on, a spokesman told us: “We’re obliged to contact our customers about upgrading their classic meters with a new self-reading smart meter to support our commitment to Ofgem.

“While smart meters are not compulsory, we firmly believe smart meters offer a number of significant benefits for customers, including bringing an end to estimated bills and the ability to gain a greater understanding of their energy use which can help them lower their energy consumption. If a customer does not want a smart meter then they can contact us.”

E.on adds that if a customer needs a meter replaced for safety or legal reasons, they can opt for a classic meter instead of a smart meter.

When we raised this issue of customers being pressured into getting a smart meter with energy regulator Ofgem, it told us suppliers must treat customers fairly and be “transparent and accurate”. However, it has no open investigations into domestic smart meter wrong-doing at the time of writing.   

An Energy UK spokesperson says: “Energy companies are committed to meeting the government’s deadline of ensuring all households and businesses are offered a smart meter by 2020.

“Energy companies will be adopting various methods of communication with their customers to increase engagement and enable as many people as possible to experience the benefits that smart meters bring.

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Energy suppliers save the cost of a meter reader.....................what do I save?

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The GREAT thing about smart meters, is that you can be watching TV in the lounge, and your smart meter will let you know when your toast is ready, or your microwaved food is cooked and is awaiting your knife and fork. Never mind all this checking how much you have spent ;-). The downside is that I changed provider, and now have to hover by the toaster. ;-(

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have had smart meters installed, I am with E.on and,I have solar panels....... I enquired before I had the smart meters fitted and there was no problem with having solar panels. I've had my smart meters for 2 months now and all is good.....

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Smart Meters will only benefit the energy suppliers, I have had energy monitor for years and it does not reduce my bills, does not reduce emissions or tell me what anything is using, all it shows is the total being used at a given time and how much I have used. If it could tell me how much it uses to boil my kettle, how much it uses to roast my dinner or use my air con for a period I may consider it an advantage but it can't do any of this. I use a separate unit to put in socket then plus appliance into it and it tells me how much it has used for a given task so much better than a smart meter and only cost about £8. I read my meters every night at midnight and record it on a spreadsheet so can produce daily, monthly and yearly records since I bought the property in 2004, that goes for gas, electricity daily and water monthly as water has a display showing what is being used, I do not have estimated bills so a smart meter is a waste of every ones money provided user supplies accurate readings when requested by supplier, anyone failing to give accurate readings should be charged a higher rate for their energy as a penalty.

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I had an appointment with npower to instal a smart meter a few weeks ago but when the engineer arrived he said it could not be done as there was insufficient space where the current electruc neter is sited and he said I would practically need a new kitchen for a smart gas meter, which is now under the sink and there appears to be plenty of room to me.I am very keen to have a smart meter as I cannot read the current meters because they are at floor level. I would change my supplier if I found someone who woukd instal a smart meter. Am I ever going to be able to have one?

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Guys - I've had 2 letters from British Gas in the last 2mths asking me to contact them to arrange for a smart meter to be installed in my home. The letter is very bland and does not give assurances or FAQ's which might persuade me to go along with the scheme. What I don't know is:-1. I've heard that some meters don't work if you change supplier2. I'm not sure whether the work to be done to install the unit requires "walls to be chased, floor boards to be pulled up, or other intrusive work"3. A friend of mine had a meter installed only to be told his unit needed to be "earthed" by the installer. Fortunately he got a second opinion which was to ignore the advice suggesting the installer was potentially trying to take advantage of the situation and gain more work.As I've stated, I'm too unsure right now as to whether to switch or not - given that the scheme is not compulsory I'm sitting on the fence right now waiting for further clarity and assurances.Eric

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Who pays for the juice to run a smartmeter?1) The consumer eg, extra power runs through the meter, is read by that and adds it to the everyday bill,;2) the energy supplier;3) The infrastructure company (Western Power Distribution - WDP - in my case) orsomeone else?A few years ago, WDP fitted a digital display meter for my electricity, aying my old meter was out of date. it was ancient. the replacement one fitted has red LED which flashes throughout the day 9as my refigerator is constantly on), but faster when high power items such when my kettle or iron are on.I would not want a smart meter as my habts would not change. If I want a kettle on to boi water I will put it on!Am I paying for that LED being lit and the meter displaying its digits (liquid crystal display, I think).? I don't see why a consumer should have to pay for such gadgets' use. The costs may be petty to some, but if so, the companies should then pay if they want them fitted.!

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I give my energy supplier meter readings every month. I keep my central heating as low as possible. I turn it off if I think I do not need it on. How is a Smart Meter going to save me money ?

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wasnt given the option to cancel. I was just told by N power they were coming to install a smart meter on a given date and that was it. No option to cancel or told didnt have to have one installed.

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We had Smart Meters (for electricity and gas) installed in 2010 by my supplier at that time (British Gas) and have reaped the benefits from the outset. I have monitored my usage on a monthly basis and have succeeded in reducing our gas consumption by 30% in that time. We have the same house and the same people living there (just the two of us) so it has been the ability to monitor our consumption closely that has helped us to achieve this reduction. With regard to changing supplier, we did this in October 2017 when we moved from British Gas to OVO. After four weeks, OVO changed our Smart Meters without any problems and we haven't had any problems since then. I have been able to use the statistics from our new Smart Meter and I use the In Home Display in exactly the same way as I did with the British Gas monitor. I am amazed with the negative comments about Smart Meters that I read in the newspapers and on websites like Moneywise, and am astonished at some of the negative advice given in them. I have had an extremely good experience with Smart Meters and, when I came to choosing a new supplier in October 2017, I refused to consider any energy provider who wasn't able to provide us with a Smart Meter for both electricity and gas. That is how strongly I believe in them and their benefits!

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The alleged 'benefits' of smart meters are entirely spurious. The purpose of these meters is nothing to do with benefiting customers. It is to do with demand management. We used to have an electricity industry whose mission was to ensure that supply would always meet demand. So, you flick the switch and the lights come on. Thanks to the disastrous policy of successive governments, who have closed down cheap and reliable fossil fuel generation in favour of expensive and unreliable renewables, the mission is now to influence demand so that it matches supply. This is government policy. Smart meters enable demand to be influenced by variable 'time of day' charging which will be imposed on everyone when enough suckers have had these meters installed. Smart meters will also permit selective brown outs when demand cannot be met because electricity generation has become unreliable.All of this is because of the collective madness of the world demonising carbon dioxide, a trace gas which is essential for life on Earth. This is the 21st century equivalent of Lysenkoism. I could write pages and pages shredding the hypothesis that carbon dioxide controls the climate and that we need to reduce emissions. Suffice it to say that the switch from fossil fuels to ruinables is unnecessary, futile, and a step backwards.

In reply to by David Lilley (not verified)

Carbon Dioxide and Climate change

I'm no climate expert, but I do listen to the people who are, and the settled and agreed view among the scientific community is that carbon dioxide is the primary driver of increasing global temperatures, which in turn are driving climate change.
I invite you to write to the New Scientist putting your view and to then listen to the informed and detailed response I am confident you will get.

In reply to by David Lilley (not verified)

Smart Meters

Well said David Lilley, I agree with every word.

In reply to by Eric Wrightson (not verified)

Assuming that you've read all of the previous commentators views, I would offer that you should stay with what you already have and ignore Bristish Gas's letters. If you have one fitted ( despite the internal alterations) and it becomes problematic, Then if you decide to move, you have a duty to inform the new owners, who in turn may not proceed with the sale.Fortunately for me, I have solar panels and live in a poor transmission signal area which negates the option to have one-yay!Stick with your current meter,imho.

In reply to by Lee (not verified)

Smart meters

Hi Lee, just to let you and others know that for those that live in a poor signal area and can’t have a smart meter fitted as it can’t communicate, there is now another way they can make it communicate, sending & receiving meter data via coded digital signals mixed in with your house mains supply cable. To date they appear not to have used thus method! Watch this space for the future!

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

since getting smart meters,my dad has had sudden problems with hd tv reception on tvs in three different rooms, channels freezing and distorted sound. he had thes problems hours after the meters were installed and still has them 5 days later,,,is it the smart meters causing the problems and if so what can he do??

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have had a smart meter fitted to my electric meter without any authorisation This as come to light when I tried to change supplier and I found that the meter had been recalibrated. What should I do.?

In reply to by Mr Arnold Rogers (not verified)

A smart meter isn't going to save you any money for two main reasons, 1) The energy consumer is fronting the cost of the whole installation program and the meter itself and 2) the display monitor needs a mains socket, thus costing you more money.

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The company i use are all ways sending an e-mail for a meter reading,I send one to them and what do they do take no notice and send me a bill with an other reading on.The last time i said to them send me a meter reader who can look at the readings great a person turned up took the readings gave me a note of them then the company send a bill with an other reading on.Its just a shame the the people in the office need a brain first before you can get a proper reading.These so called smart meters are are so smart they can tell me when i can switch a light on or turn it off right.When it goes dark i think i am smart enough to know if i want a light on or heating on i will turn it on or off i do it for me not for some robot.

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I won't accept a smart meter until they are guaranteed to work with all energy suppliers and the remote display which are rubbish are updated to give the actual meter reading, preferably to 2 or 3 decimal places so I can accurately see what I have used in a period of day, month and year, I don't accept estimated figures which they all give. I had a new water meter fitted without any prior notification of them coming, it turned out to be a smart meter with a remote display bit like a smart phone with dripping tap and coloured fishes ( when kids visit they keep flushing loo to make the fishes show in different colours so causes water waste., it is good that the meter has reading to 5 decimal places and remote gives accurate meter reading to 3 decimal places so never nee to read main meter and they read it from van passing by through RF signal, Displays litres used or price of units used, records daily, weekly and monthly, if there is a leak, tap left running or I use more than it has recorded for previous days in that time period it will display lots of red fish and a running tap. Energy suppliers should learn from these displays, if gas or electric goes above our normal usage for a period it could show a flashing warning to tell us to check nothing left switched on or any leaks.I have had electricity displays by OWL and a free one from Npower for around 10 years now and they tell me very little, Npower one often shows I have used 20% more than my meter records so not very useful.

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