Is it finally time to get a smart meter?: Are the gadgets safe and will they save you cash/

As winter looms, energy price hikes will soon hit home. Despite a new price cap, bills will still be double last year. 

And as households frantically seek ways to cut costs, many will be scrutinising their power consumption like never before.

So is now finally the time to get a smart meter? As well as automatically sending regular readings to your provider, which should mean more accurate bills, these gadgets come with a monitor that shows your usage in real time. 

Keep tabs: As well as automatically sending regular meter readings to your provider smart meters come with a small portable monitor that shows your usage in real time

This lets you track your spending and might nudge you to switch off lights or appliances when you are not using them.

But there are pitfalls. You need only browse energy giants’ Twitter accounts to see messages from customers complaining that their meters have stopped working or caused inflated bills. 

Money Mail can also today reveal that some suppliers are now refusing to offer the devices due to a global shortage of parts. 

Meanwhile, there are concerns that firms will be able to switch struggling households to pre-payment meters at the touch of a button, leaving them at risk of being cut off.

Here we explain what you need to watch out for before you sign up . . .

Will I be able to get one?

Energy suppliers have been ordered by the Government to roll out smart meters in homes and businesses across the UK. It is not a legal requirement to have one and customers can refuse if they wish.

However, firms face hefty fines if they fail to meet strict targets — which has led to many using heavy-handed marketing tactics.

Last week Ovo sent a letter to customers informing them that, from October 1, only those with a smart meter would be eligible for its ‘100 per cent renewable electricity’ tariff. It said: ‘Getting a free smart meter is the simplest way you can help to create a greener energy system.’

EDF Energy was criticised last month after sending a letter to customers that read: ‘We need to install your smart meter as part of a Government-led upgrade.’ One customer wrote online: ‘I am aghast at the letter I received from EDF Energy today. It is not “essential” that you install a smart meter in my home nor do you “need to do so”.’

EDF says it encourages customers to install one but makes it clear they can choose not to.

However, some households are having the opposite problem. British Gas recently informed a customer that it cannot currently install smart meters due to ‘challenges’ in the market. In a letter seen by Money Mail, the supplier said it would not be upgrading meters until later in 2022 or ‘early next year’.

The energy watchdog indicated this is an industry-wide issue. A spokesman said: ‘Ofgem is aware of concerns amongst stakeholders relating to stocks of smart meter equipment arising from a global shortage of semiconductor components. We are not aware, nor do we expect, that suppliers should be refusing installations because of this.

‘Ofgem regularly talks to suppliers in case of any unresolved issues.

‘When households are facing massive increases in energy bills, it is particularly important that suppliers are held to account and any bad practices are stamped out quickly.’

So far around 29.5 million smart meters have been installed in the UK — which means around half still need upgrading.

British Gas says shortages have been worked through and they are continuing to install smart meters, with more than 500,000 done this year.

My new device doesn’t work 

Teething problems: Amanda Overend's smart meter malfunctioned

Teething problems: Amanda Overend’s smart meter malfunctioned

Mum-of-three Amanda Overend says EDF Energy ‘pestered’ her to get a smart meter.

Finally succumbing in June, she then found the device did not work. Its display remained blank, meaning Amanda has had to continue relying on old-fashioned meter readings and cannot view her usage in real time.

And the 43-year-old, from Ilkley, West Yorkshire, is still waiting for her supplier to repair the gadget three months later.

Amanda, who runs an online children’s bookshop called Books & Pieces, says: ‘We are the kind of family that turns the light off every time we leave the room.

‘That has become even more important now bills are rising. A smart meter would be really useful.’

She adds: ‘When the engineer installed it, he said it wasn’t uncommon for them (meters) not to work.’

EDF says it is fixing the device as a matter of urgency.

How much will my bills drop?

The key question customers ask is: can smart meters help them save money? They can be effective in helping monitor usage but you must act on the findings in order to cut your bills.

Many suppliers have previously offered cheaper tariffs to customers willing to get a new meter. 

These disappeared when the energy crisis hit but are expected to return after wholesale prices stabilise.

Industry insiders have also told Money Mail that the real reason behind the smart meter push is to encourage more people to take up ‘time-of-use’ tariffs.

These deals incentivise customers to use energy at off-peak hours by charging lower prices. For example, if you use your dishwasher or washing machine at night, you will benefit from a discounted rate. The tariffs are especially useful for people who charge electric cars overnight.

Emphasis on this strategy has ramped up recently due to fears of nationwide blackouts this winter.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw wholesale energy costs soar overnight. As a result, countries are pushing households to ration their energy — though Prime Minister Liz Truss has refrained from doing the same in the UK.

Instead, the National Grid, which is responsible for keeping the lights on, plans to bring in a new scheme where smart meter customers are paid to reduce their energy usage.

It is based on an initial trial by Octopus Energy and E.ON earlier this year. Customers were given a two-hour window each day when they could use electricity.

If they used between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of their normal levels of power, they received a credit. The scheme is set to be rolled out more widely from November. But last week several suppliers raised concerns.

Octopus and E.ON warned the programme would fail because the proposed payments to households which hit their targets were too low. 

National Grid suggested companies should not pay customers more than 52p for each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity they saved by avoiding peak hours. 

But Octopus says customers need to be ‘properly incentivised’ with rewards of at least £1 or £2 per kWh.

Gareth Kloet, energy spokesman at GoCompare, adds: ‘Time-of-use tariffs only work out cheaper if you use almost half of your electricity at off-peak hours. This just isn’t feasible for most people. You can do some things — like washing — at night. But you still do all your cooking, for example, during the day.

‘It might be beneficial for people who do shift work but otherwise it isn’t worthwhile.’

There is no fee to have a smart meter installed — instead the cost of the rollout is being added to all household bills over several years.

However, there are reports of some firms charging customers up to £400 to remove the new technology.

It’s helped me slash my bills 

Savings: Mother-of-two Sarah Fitzgerald

Savings: Mother-of-two Sarah Fitzgerald

With bills rising, Sarah Fitzgerald says her smart meter has helped her family slash their electricity consumption.

It means the mother-of-two, from Chelmsford, Essex, can cut back where necessary.

To keep bills down, she has bought a Halogen heater — one of the most energy-efficient types of electric heaters — an air fryer and electric blankets.

Development manager Sarah, 42, says: ‘I know what I’m spending and my supplier doesn’t bill me on estimated usage.’


Can I trust the readings?

Complaints about faulty smart meters have been building throughout the energy crisis.

In the first three months of this year, among cases dealt with by the Energy Ombudsman, issues with smart meters were the second most common gripe. Many customers have reported receiving inflated bills because the readings logged are inaccurate. Others say their meters have gone ‘dumb’ after switching supplier or that the display screen doesn’t work.

Some are also frustrated to find they are still being asked to submit readings each month despite having a smart meter. One reader told Money Mail her smart meter had not sent any readings to her supplier E.ON since Feburary.

She wrote: ‘I am a pensioner and as such do not want to receive an excessive bill nor have the threat of my gas supply being cut.’ E.ON has now arranged for the reader to have a new device installed.

Older smart meters are more likely to cause problems. This is because early models — known as Smets1 — typically stop working when customers switch provider. The industry has since moved on to Smets2 devices, which should work regardless of which firm is supplying the home. Yet almost half of all smart meters installed — 15.3 million — are Smets1.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) says it has devised a fix.

This involves remotely moving older meters onto a network so they retain their smart capabilities when a customer switches provider. More than nine million have been upgraded so far. 

As bills soar, some customers have been tempted to use their smart meter data to pay for their actual energy usage each month rather than making regular direct debit payments.

However, it is worth remembering that most firms typically offer a discount of around 6.5 per cent to customers who pay by direct debit.

This system also evens out bills for customers, ensuring they pay the same throughout the year and avoid bill shocks in winter.

I can’t get hold of one 

Frustration: Nicole Ratcliffe is concerned over her energy usage

Frustration: Nicole Ratcliffe is concerned over her energy usage

Mum-of-two Nicole Ratcliffe fears her energy consumption is running away with her — but can’t get a smart meter.

The 41-year-old requested one from supplier British Gas, to help her keep track of usage. 

But the firm said this would not be possible due to ‘challenges’ in installing new devices.

Nicole, from Manchester, says: ‘I was surprised. I thought everybody was being pressured into getting the meters.’

British Gas is investigating.

Am I vulnerable to any risks?

Technically speaking, energy firms can remotely disconnect smart meter customers if they fall behind on their bills. 

But Ofgem imposes strict rules that mean suppliers could not do this on a whim. They must first contact you to discuss possible repayment plans.

Most providers are also signed up to trade body Energy UK’s ‘vulnerability commitment’. This states that they cannot disconnect vulnerable customers such as those who are disabled or experiencing severe financial difficulties.

However, there are concerns suppliers may instead switch struggling households to prepayment meters. If customers have a traditional meter, firms would need to install a new device.

But those with smart meters can be switched over remotely at the touch of a button. Prepayment meters work on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ basis. Most firms offer an emergency credit balance of £10.

But it means that if you cannot afford to top up your meter, your supply could be cut off.

In the industry this is cruelly referred to as ‘self-disconnection’. Customers on prepayment meters also typically pay higher prices, as standing charges are more expensive to reflect the extra administraiton involved with managing these accounts.

Separately some households may have concerns about what suppliers are doing with customer data. Earlier this year Ofgem paved the way for smart meter readings to be taken every half hour.

Cyber experts warned customers could be at risk of being burgled as criminals could hack your data to find out when you are not at home. Energy firms say customers can opt out of half-hourly readings and select once a month instead.