My struggle to get a smart meter fitted: One family’s bid to join the eco-revolution ended in farce

Ping! It’s the monthly email from Ovo Energy, imploring us to get a smart meter.

Apparently, doing so would be a win for planet Earth and for our family, too. It sounds too good to be true. Sign us up, we say. Again. I say again, because each month we’ve replied to say that we’d like one.

And each month we’ve been told that, sadly, there are no appointments available for fitting a smart meter in our area, the wild and lawless Scottish Borders.

Energy battle: Gethin Chamberlain at home with his troublesome gas meter

If you were the suspicious type, you’d think there was something a bit odd about this. And you’d be right.

For now, you just need to know that we have finally cracked and registered a complaint with Ovo. This has miraculously secured us an appointment for the fitting of second generation smart meters — the sort that should allow you to switch from a dreadful supplier to one marginally less incompetent.

And now it is the morning of the appointment, a dreary Friday towards the end of September. It is a little after 8am. There’s a man from the Scottish Gas Network, on his hands and knees in the courtyard, fitting a new gas meter that looks just like our old meter.

The man says he doesn’t do smart meters.

Fast forward an hour and Ovo customer service is insisting that this is nothing to do with them.

The good news is that there is a smart meter engineer booked in for later.

Fast forward again. It’s lunchtime and the smart meter fitter is finishing up. It all seems to have gone quite smoothly.

He plugs in the little display screen that will show our usage and switches it on.

Now, I realise that smart meters divide the nation in a way rivalled only by Brexit and the pronunciation of the word scone.

But for those of us in the ‘I wonder how much watching an entire Game Of Thrones box set might cost?’ camp, they are an oddly attractive proposition. They raise the prospect of households reducing the monthly bill by switching off unnecessary appliances.

So you have to understand that after so many false dawns, this should have been a moment of great excitement.

‘Er . . . it says Emergency Credit. Why does it say Emergency Credit?’ I ask.

‘Dunno,’ says the fitter.

‘Well, forgive me, but it would be useful to know. Because I’m no expert on these things, but that looks to me very much like the display I’d expect to see on a pre-payment meter. And we pay monthly.’

‘It’s pre-payment.’

I stab slightly wildly at my phone until triumphantly landing on the correct email.

‘We ordered second generation, pay-monthly smart meters. Here’s the confirmation.’

‘These are first generation. I don’t do second generation. And they’re pre-payment.’

‘Well, you’re going to have to take them out.’ But he wouldn’t.

Calling Ovo Energy’s service desk means listening to rather more of the band Oasis while on hold than anyone should have to endure. But eventually it was agreed that things had gone rather badly wrong. Then it went further downhill.

The meters could not be changed to pay-monthly — known as credit meters — until the following Monday. But as credit customers, there was no way for us to top them up. So we would have to get by on emergency credit of £15 of gas and £15 of electricity. This, the service team insisted, would be more than adequate.

But the gas meter appeared to be devouring gas with voracity. ‘Er — it’s already used £5 and we’ve hardly got anything switched on.’ Don’t worry, said the confident voice on the other end of the line. We don’t cut people off at the weekend.

Now, I realise that smart meters divide the nation in a way rivalled only by Brexit and the pronunciation of the word scone.

On Monday morning, they cut off the gas.

It took a stressful hour on the phone to get it back on again — goodness knows the distress it would have caused a little old lady living alone. 

Finally, we were switched back to a credit meter and a supervisor later called to book us in for the correct second generation meters to be fitted. It would be a minimum 17 working days, she explained.

On the Tuesday morning, an email arrived cancelling the appointment. There were no appointments available, Ovo said, not now or in the foreseeable future. I should call in a few weeks. They refused to discuss it any further on the phone. 

So we were back to square one, but now with first generation smart meters that may or may not work if we try to switch. Ovo insisted that it does fit second generation meters, but once again couldn’t offer an appointment. It saw nothing amiss about these two conflicting positions.

Most such Smets2 meters are fitted in southern England. Many companies refuse to fit them at all in northern England or Scotland, claiming they don’t work.

Ovo is set to become the second largest energy provider in the UK after agreeing to pay £500 million for SSE. It was valued at £1 billion earlier this year and founder, Stephen Fitzpatrick is said to be worth £600 million.

Emergency credit is usually used for pre-payment customers who have run into trouble with paying. Ovo says that pre-payment customers — often those with bad credit ratings or in difficult financial circumstances — pay more than those on monthly deals.

Our pre-payment meter registered £15 used in the space of 48 hours with the thermostat set to 18c on a mild weekend and the hot water on for a couple of hours.

Only after I contacted Ovo’s press office was I offered an appointment and a Smets2 meter was installed last week. That’s not an option available to most customers though.

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