Consumer information

Smart meters – what are they and how can I find out more?

Benefits and disadvantages of smart meters

What are the benefits of smart meters?

If you get a smart meter now you should get the following benefits – some of these benefits will be felt immediately, others will build up over time and as the technology evolves:

Accurate bills – the smart meter will send information to your energy supplier on how much energy you have used, so you shouldn’t receive any more estimated bills. If you receive a smart meter before 2014, you should be aware that it may take a couple of months after your smart meter is installed before you get an accurate bill.

Less time waiting in for the meter reader – though some visits from your energy supplier may still be necessary to check the meter is working properly. Your energy supplier will also still visit occasionally for a routine safety check.

Choose to change from a prepayment to a credit meter, and vice versa, without needing to have your meter changed.

If you have a smart meter in prepayment mode, it should become easier to top up your meter. Energy suppliers are expected to offer more convenient ways to top up, for example online, over the phone or with a mobile phone app. However cash payment will always be accepted.

A standard in-home energy display, at no additional cost – this has a small screen which shows how much energy you’re using at any one time. It will give information on how much energy you used in a previous period, eg previous week, last month etc, so you can keep track of your energy usage and budget more easily.

Some energy suppliers will offer additional services to help you understand what you’re using, such as online information, more detailed bills, or apps for your mobile phone.

Could help you save money – by knowing what you’re using, and having an idea of which appliances use the most energy, you may be able to reduce your energy usage and save money.

Some customers may be able to benefit from different tariffs, which may give you better rates or rewards for using your energy at different times of day.

Reduced theft of energy – from being able to prevent and detect theft of energy more easily so you won’t have to pay for stolen energy.

Faster resolution of problems – where there are technical problems and faults with the supply of energy, smart meters should make it easier and quicker to identify and fix the problem. This means less inconvenience and may mean less time without your energy supply.

Micro-generation – if you generate your own electricity, eg you have solar panels or a wind turbine, you will have a meter at the point of generation that measures how much electricity is being generated. In addition, from 2014 your smart meter will be able to record and monitor how much energy you sell back to the Grid. However, the standard energy display will not show this information; if you want this to be displayed on your energy display, you would need to buy a more advanced version.

In the future, as the technology develops and more customers have smart meters, there should be more benefits for customers such as faster and easier switching, benefits to prepayment meter customers and improved customer service.

The above benefits are likely to be common to all smart meters, but the precise functions of your smart meter and the benefits to you will depend on when you get your meter, and your energy supplier. Your energy supplier should provide more information.

How much money will I save if I have a smart meter?

Having a smart meter will not automatically save you money. How much you save on your energy bill will depend on whether you are able to use the information from your smart meter or your energy display to work out where you can reduce your energy use and cut your bill. If you are already very energy efficient, you may find it more difficult to make savings using your smart meter.

However, there are also other ways that you may be able to save money on your energy bills, for example through energy efficiency measures or switching energy supplier, or changing to a cheaper payment method (for example it is nearly always cheaper to pay by monthly direct debit, than paying every quarter by cash or cheque). If you decide to use an internet price comparison site, make sure that you use one that is accredited to the Consumer Focus Confidence Code. http://www.consumerfocus.org.uk/get-advice/energy/confidence-code

Contact your energy supplier for advice on reducing your energy bill and staying warm. You don’t need a smart meter to do this – suppliers are already obliged to provide free energy efficiency advice to their customers. They may be able to offer you a cheaper tariff or free energy efficiency measures such as insulation. Many will also be able to provide free energy efficiency advice based on your own consumption information to help you understand how you can save money. This could be provided via a website, via your display or by letter.

You should make sure that you continue to heat your home properly so that you and all members of your household are comfortable and warm. This is particularly important if you have young children, or elderly household members.

Other useful numbers:

You can also contact the Energy Saving Trust advice centre on: 0300 123 1234. If you’re concerned about paying your energy bills you can call the Home Heat Helpline on 0800 336699.

Are there any disadvantages of smart meters?

As with any new technology, smart meters bring new opportunities (see ‘What are the benefits of smart meters?’), but also new consumer challenges, particularly in the early stages. Below are some of the key consumer concerns that we are aware of and advice on the latest consumer protections in these areas.

Will smart meters make it easier for suppliers to disconnect me?

Always contact your energy supplier as soon as you realise you might have trouble paying. Debts will build-up and be harder to pay off the longer you leave them. Your supplier has to help you if you have problems paying your bill and will be able to offer you different options to pay back the money you owe them. If you’d like more information about what to do if you’ve got behind with your bills or are worried about debt, see: www.consumerfocus.org.uk/plugthedebt

What is technically possible with a smart meter?

With a smart meter it will become technically possible to ‘remotely disconnect’ customers, ie this could be done at a distance, without visiting your home. However, Ofgem  (the energy regulator), has introduced tough rules to make sure that energy suppliers have to follow a number of different steps if a customer is in debt, with disconnection only being used as a last resort.

Protecting vulnerable consumers from disconnection

New rules from Ofgem mean that energy suppliers now have to take all reasonable steps to find out if the customer or anyone in the household is vulnerable prior to disconnecting them.

These steps include:

  • reviewing the customer’s accounts to find out if there is any record of vulnerability in the household
  • reviewing written contact with the customer to make sure that: it is in plain English; the customer is encouraged to ask for help; and the customer is also directed towards independent sources of help
  • making multiple attempts to make personal contact with the customer in different ways and at different times of day
  • visiting the customer’s property at different times of day and looking for visual signs of vulnerability of anyone in the household
  • checking whether the property appears to be temporarily or permanently unoccupied
  • checking whether there has been a change of occupancy

More information on energy suppliers’ commitments around not disconnecting vulnerable customers is available in the ‘Energy Safety Net’: http://www.energy-uk.org.uk/publication/finish/30-disconnection/308-era-safety-net.html

Switching to prepayment

If you have a smart meter instead of visiting your house to swap your credit meter for a prepayment, this should be able to be done remotely. This means that your smart meter can be changed between ‘credit mode’ and ‘prepayment mode’ without the need to physically change the meter. Ofgem has introduced new consumer protection rules here too; if your supplier wants to switch you to prepayment mode, they have to make sure that if it safe and practical for you. See ‘Does having a smart meter make it easier to switch me to a prepayment meter (PPM)?’ for more information.

Does having a smart meter make it easier to switch me to a prepayment meter (PPM)?

From 2014, smart meters will be able to switch between credit and prepayment mode. This will mean that if you want to change from a ‘credit meter’ to a ‘prepayment meter’, you won’t have to have the meter replaced. The energy supplier will be able to do it remotely.

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has published new rules to make sure that customers are only given a PPM if it is right for them. Energy suppliers now have to make sure that:

  • It is safe and ‘reasonably practical’ for a customer to use a prepayment meter

The energy supplier has to look at this from the customer’s perspective. Ofgem guidance suggests that suppliers look at factors such as:

  • Is the customer able to understand and operate the PPM and visit top-up points to add more credit (for example whether the customer has a physical or mental disability that prevents them from being able to appropriately use a PPM)?
  • Does the customer lives quite a distance from any top-up outlets?
  • Does the customer require a continuous supply for health reasons, such as dependency on medical equipment requiring an electricity supply?
  • Is the PPM situated in a position (such as high on a wall) that means the customer could not operate it?
  • Would the PPM have to be located outside, or in a room to which the household does not have continuous access?

If a change in your circumstances means that it is no longer safe and reasonably practicable for you to use a PPM, your supplier will now have to:

  • Re-locate the PPM to a position where it is safe and practicable
  • Or offer you another payment method, for example a credit meter

Identifying customers’ circumstances

Ofgem has said that energy suppliers should take proactive steps to understand their customers’ circumstances. It expects this to include:

  • Reviewing the customer’s accounts to find out if they have any record of customer vulnerability which would mean it was not safe for them to have a PPM
  • Making multiple attempts to contact the customer to discuss the option of paying through a PPM
  • If the energy supplier has not been able to contact the customer, or if they are not sure if a PPM would be safe and practical for the customer, they must take reasonable steps to visit the customer at their premises

Checking if there has been a change of occupancy

Once the PPM is installed:

  • Suppliers will generally be expected to take proactive steps after putting a customer on a PPM in order to ensure it is safe and reasonably practical, including:
    • Where possible, monitoring whether the customer is purchasing credit or is is self-disconnecting
    • Where it is identified that the customer is not purchasing credit or is self-disconnecting, making multiple attempts to contact the customer to understand the reasons for this
    • Where it becomes apparent that the customer is self-disconnecting because it is not safe for them to have a PPM, the supplier should make alternative arrangements

Will I still be able to pay with cash if I have a smart prepayment meter?

Yes. Energy suppliers will legally have to give their customers with a smart meter the option for pay by cash.

Does a smart meter allow my energy supplier to limit my energy use (also known as ‘load limiting’)?

None of the energy suppliers are currently using ‘load limiting’.

Energy suppliers have committed not to use load limiting without notifying Consumer Focus and Ofgem. Ofgem considers that this could have the same impact as disconnecting your supply, and introduced new consumer protection rules around this in October 2011. Please contact the Citizens Advice consumer service on 08454 04 05 06 if you or someone you know has been offered or has experience of their load being limited. You can also contact the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0208 1850 710 (English language) or 0208 1850 717 (Welsh language).

What is technically possible with a smart meter

At present most of us can use as much electricity as we want, provided we can afford to pay for it. Smart meters will make it possible in the future for energy suppliers to offer cheaper tariffs with a ‘load limit’ or to use this function if you fall into debt.

If you have this type of tariff your energy supplier could limit the amount of electricity that you can use at any one time eg they could supply only a very low level of electricity, for example enough electricity to power lights, a fridge and TV. Your energy supplier could also, in agreement with you, put a cap on the amount of energy you use in a given period eg per day or week. This is called ‘load limiting’. As explained above, none of the energy suppliers are currently using load limiting.

Will energy suppliers be able to control specific appliances in my home?

What’s happening now

No, a normal smart meter could not control specific appliances in your home, for example it could not turn off your fridge or your dishwasher. This would be called ‘appliance control’ – you would need additional smart technologies in your home, for example specially-designed smart appliances, or smart plugs for this to be possible. This would only happen with your consent as part of an additional service.

Appliance control trials

This type of technology is not yet widely used in Great Britain but some energy suppliers are trialling it. For example, one energy supplier has run a customer trial of smart fridges that can respond to signals from the National Grid. This means they shut down for short periods when electricity demand is at its highest, without (in theory) any effect on performance or the freshness of food. This has the benefit of helping to keep the lights on for everyone and can keep costs down as there may be less need to invest in new generation and distribution equipment ie substations, cables, overhead lines etc. Again, this would only happen with your consent as part of a service or product.

Smart technologies and possible future uses of appliance control

Smart technology, which refers to more than just smart meters, may in the future make it possible for energy suppliers to control how much electricity flows to certain appliances in your home such as fridges, air conditioning, pool pumps etc. Suppliers may offer cheaper deals or special appliances to customers who are willing to allow them to switch off or turn down the amount of electricity their appliances use when there is high energy demand on the Grid. However, more than just a smart meter is needed to enable this to happen and it will be up to you whether or not you decide to sign up to these kinds of deals. When offers like this become available, the benefit to you as a customer is that it may help you to reduce your energy use without having to change your lifestyle. This could lead to lower bills, and you may also be offered a cheaper deal or cash incentives if you allow suppliers this control.

Some suppliers are also trialling customer appliance control. ie you may be able to remotely turn off and on your heating when you are away from home using your mobile phone. However, this would require you to have additional equipment, or controls fitted to your heating system.

Advice on appliance control trials

These kinds of trials are offered on an opt-in only basis and they are not yet widely available in Great Britain. There are currently no specific consumer protections around these kinds of offers so if you are interested in signing up to a trial we recommend you find out the following from the energy supplier:

  • Do you have to pay for the smart appliance or smart plug? If so how much?
  • What happens if you want to end the contract, or don’t like the deal? Will you face a penalty fee to exit – if so how much?
  • How often and when are suppliers most likely to expect to control your appliances?
  • How will it work? Will you notice the difference? Remote control of some appliances like fridges may not be noticeable to you, whereas control of tumble dryers would be
  • Will you be able to override the energy supplier’s control and use the appliance if you want to?
  • If you override the control – how will this work? Will you face a penalty fee or a higher charge, if so how much?
  • If you have problems or questions, where do you go for help? Is this a 24 hour help line?
  • What happens if the appliance is switched off longer than it should do and this results in problems eg the food in your fridge is spoiled? What compensation will you get?
  • Who is responsible if there are problems – your energy supplier or the manufacturer of the appliance?

If the supplier is supplying the new appliance, check how big it is and if they will need to carry out installation work in your home.

Are there health concerns related to smart meters?

What technologies are currently being used?

Most smart meters currently use wireless technology in order to transmit information – this is similar to what you may already have in your home, whether in a mobile phone, remote control, microwave, or for providing wireless internet.

At the moment, communications technology solutions have not been selected for the national smart metering system and Government is consulting on the detailed technical specification for the smart meter. Both wired and wireless technologies exist that could be used for communications within a person’s house and, for practical and technical reasons, both wireless and wired solutions will need to be utilised by installers during the rollout. Government expects decisions on both the communications used within the household, and those used between the household and the energy suppliers, to be made in 2013.

Will this new technology have to meet any standards?

Smart meters are covered by UK and EU product safety legislation, which requires manufacturers to ensure that any product placed on the market is safe.

 The Health Protection Agency (HPA) provides advice and information on the health implications of smart meters, as it does for a range of technologies commonly found in homes and businesses across the UK. Further information about smart meters and health can be found on the Health Protection Agency: Smart meters  web page.

Information on how electro-magnetic fields produced by smart meters in other countries compare to similar technologies is available on this website run by the National Grid : http://www.emfs.info/Sources+of+EMFs/meters/smart/ (see table at bottom of the page).

What are the health concerns?

Consumer Focus does not have any technology or health experts and we do not have a view on whether or not smart metering technologies could have implications for people’s health.

Some concerns have been raised about the long-term impact of electro-magnetic field emissions on customers’ health. In addition, a small number of consumers report a condition called electro-hypersensitivity (also known as electro-magnetic sensitivity), that they attribute to electromagnetic fields from technologies such as mobile phones, VDUs and wi-fi.

The Government is fully aware of the health issues involved with electro-magnetic field emissions and keeps the scientific evidence under constant review. The HPA’s independent Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) published a review on the health effects of radio frequency EMF in spring 2012.

Advice

If you are concerned about the health issues related to smart metering speak to your energy supplier to see what they can do to help. They may be able to offer you smart options so you do not have to use wireless technology, for example by providing you with a hard-wired in home display, rather than a wireless one or a smart meter that operates in ‘dumb mode’ i.e. like the current meters.