The provision of electricity, and the way we pay for it, has hardly changed since Thomas Edison’s time, and in today’s world the practice of sending someone round to every house four times a year just to read the meter is positively archaic.
Smart meters are designed to end all that, by letting energy companies take their readings in real time, and then feeding the information back to us so we can see what it’s costing. There is no downside to them, because Ofcom, the energy regulator, has required all the electricity and gas companies to offer them to us at no cost.
They are supposed to have completed their roll-out by the end of next year, but there is no chance of that happening. However, the installation programme has gathered pace noticeably in the last few months.
There are two practical benefits to having a smart meter. The first is to have it read automatically, eliminating the need for estimated bills; the second is the accompanying gadget, which monitors how much gas and electricity you’re using in real time and how much you’ve saved, in pounds and pence, by turning the central heating down or the tumble dryer off. This is conveyed via a digital readout, so you can leave the gadget on a kitchen shelf where it will always be visible.
Yet the technology is not for everyone.
Smart meters work by creating a wireless link between your gas and electricity points. If the meters are more than about 30ft apart, the link will fail and installation won’t be possible. Even if it goes ahead, there is no guarantee that your meter will remain smart. That’s because there are two types on the market, and only the newer, second-generation models have the capacity to remain active if you change your supplier.
In practical terms, that means that if you shop around periodically for a cheaper tariff – which you absolutely should do – your smart meter will revert to having to be read manually. It will still let you see how much power you’re using but not how much it’s costing, because every supplier charges differently. A fix is apparently in the works for this, but there is no indication of when, or even if, it will materialise.
As you can’t choose what sort of meter you will get – it’s all in the hands of your supplier – it’s worth checking before you agree to have one that it is SMETS 2 compliant. It’s also a good idea to opt out of marketing policies that allow suppliers to use the data they collect to try and sell you a new boiler or a houseful of energy-savings light bulbs.
How you get a meter depends on your supplier. You should eventually be sent a letter or email offering you an installation date, but you can often jump the queue by phoning the call centre or filling in a form on the website. You don’t need broadband to qualify but your house must be within range of a signal, and many firms will turn you down if you prepay for energy or you use an Economy 7 tariff.
The installation itself takes a couple of hours and involves your power going off for 20 minutes or so. The job is usually carried out by a contractor appointed by your supplier, but if you don’t want the fuss, you are under no obligation to agree to it.
It’s worth remembering that a smart meter will not in itself save you money – but in letting you see how much you’re spending, it won’t be long before you start reaching for the off switch.