How do smart meters work and what are smart meter problems?


A smart meter is designed to automatically tell your energy supplier how much energy you’re using. But how do smart meters work, do you have to have one, and what are smart meter problems?

How do smart meters work?

A smart meter differs from the old style electricity and gas meters in two ways:

  • It displays how much gas or electricity you’re using, almost in real time.
  • It sends a reading to your energy company – at least once a month, without you having to take a meter reading.

Do I have to have a smart meter?

You don’t have to have a smart meter. Your energy company will offer you one and may put pressure on you to accept it, but you have the right to refuse to have a smart meter.

If you change your mind and decide you’d like one in the future, you can still have it fitted.

SAVVY TIP: Ofgem, the energy regulator, says that if you refuse you may miss out on energy deals that are only available to people who have a smart meter.

Do I have to pay for a smart meter?

You will not be individually charged for the cost of having a smart meter, the display unit or for installation. However, energy companies are allowed to pass on the cost through our energy bills. Overall, the cost is £11 billion.

What is the timetable for smart meters being installed?

Some energy suppliers started trialling smart meters before 2016, and since then the rate at which they’ve been installing them has increased sharply.

The project to install smart meters should be finished by 2020.

SAVVY TIP: You can find out whether you can get a smart meter now by checking your supplier and area on the Smart Energy GB website.

Can I switch supplier if I have a smart meter?

Hmm. Yes, you can, but, if you already have a smart meter, it may not work with the new supplier.

That’s because smart meters that have been installed before the end of 2017 are likely to be ‘first generation’ meters. They’re also sometimes called ‘advance meters’.

This means they aren’t very smart at all, in that if you switch supplier, your smart meter may not be compatible with the new energy company. In that case, you’d have to use the it like an ordinary meter.

Meters installed from the end of 2017 should be ‘second generation’ and should work with any energy supplier. In time, the old style meters will be upgraded so they can work with any supplier.

Can I have a smart meter if I’m in a rented property?

You can if you pay the gas and/or electricity bills yourself. But if these bills are included in your rent, then it’s down to your landlord.

If you do want to get a smart meter and you pay the bills yourself, it’s probably worth telling your landlord anyway.

How often will the meter send information to my energy company?

Your smart meter will send data to the energy company at least once a month. However, energy companies will access your daily energy use data unless you object.

They can also see how you use energy on a half-hourly basis, but only if you give them permission. Similarly, they can use your data for marketing purposes if you give them permission.

SAVVY TIP: There’s a PDF guide to smart meter data which you can download from Energy UK (the energy companies’ trade body).

Who can’t have a smart meter at the moment?

As I mentioned earlier, it depends on your energy supplier, as some of the smaller ones haven’t signed up to the smart meter scheme yet. It also depends on whether they are installing meters in your area at the moment.

But other factors can affect whether or not you can get a smart meter. For example, flats aren’t the easiest places to fit smart meters, especially if the existing meter is several floors away from the flat itself.

You may not be able to get a smart meter if your existing meter is three phase (which is typically used by larger houses, flats or by commercial properties).

You may also not be able to get a smart meter if you’re on an Economy 7 or Economy 10 tariff.

If you have solar panels, you can have a smart meter but the display unit will only record the energy you use, not the energy you generate.

I have a poor mobile signal, can I get a smart meter?

You may not be able to. I’ve heard of people who’ve found that their smart meter didn’t work properly because they were in a mobile blackspot.

This problem should be sorted (or mostly sorted), but not until 2021.

Are smart meters a fire risk?

BBC’s Watchdog programme found that several house fires had started after people living there had smart meters installed. However, the government says that only 18 fires have been linked to smart meter installation, out of a total of three million meters fitted.

Can my smart meter be hacked?

The honest answer is that I don’t know. I know there were some fears a year or two ago that the security of the smart meter system wasn’t up to scratch. Apparently, all meters had the same encryption key, so if a hacker could decode it, he or she could get access to all the smart meters.

GCHQ got involved in 2016 and has suggested some changes to beef up the security. If you want to know some detail about what’s been done, there’s a short guide to smart meter security on the National Cyber Security Centre website.

Related articles:

Your guide to switching energy supplier; save money on gas and electricity

What to do if there’s a meter mix up or you’re billed by the wrong energy supplier

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