A few years back, the Government announced a scheme to roll out a whole new generation of ‘smart meters’ that would transform our energy bills, help us save cash and solve the problem of estimated meter readings.

It’s safe to say it didn’t go very well. Here’s how we described the situation in the Times in 2015: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/scandal-of-the-pound11bn-smart-meter-rollout-plan-8609mv5tvnj

So what went wrong? Well, I’ll answer all of your questions on smart meters, but let’s start at the beginning…

What went wrong with the smart meter roll out?

The smart meter plans were exceptionally ambitious. But despite billions of pounds flooding in to the scheme, there were not enough trained engineers to fit them. Businesses panicked about unrealistic deadlines and targets and rather than push back, began foisting the meters on to members of the public who were often misled that they had to agree to have one (it was always optional). Then it became apparent that there were problems with many of the first-generation meters.

There are two types of smart meter. The first-generation meters – known as SMETS1 – were installed in around 15.7 million properties. However, it wasn’t just that shortage of qualified engineers to fit the meters –many were not compatible with a different energy supplier, leading to all sorts of problems if people wanted to switch.

Countless people then began to complain that their meter didn’t work, the screen went blank or the meter was massively overestimating energy consumption. This led to a glut of complaints about incorrect bills a few years before the pandemic.

The second generation of smart meters (SMETS2) are generally compatible with switching and seemed to resolve many of the problems. However, the damage was done and the targets and timescales for the smart meter roll out were cancelled. Now, post-pandemic, there are reportedly long waits for people wanting smart meters.

How does a smart meter work?

A smart meter is just a more tech-savvy version of your old meter. The way that your gas and energy bills are calculated per unit is the same as before. However, smart meters automatically transmit data about your energy consumption to the energy provider. This removes the need to estimate bills – and helps the business identify if there is a problem with your energy consumption and affordability.

When they work properly, smart meters should make it easier to save money, as you can see from the display how much energy you are using. Link one with an energy monitor or smart thermostat and you can have endless arguments with your family over how much it costs to boil a kettle.

The meters generally send data to a hub in your home which sends it on to the energy firm. Gas and electricity meters work in slightly different ways but their information goes through the same hub.

Can a smart meter save me cash?

The simple answer is yes! Not just from watching the display screen, but from the way you use devices and energy consuming items around your house as a result. Some smart meters allow you to set daily targets. Of course, they don’t cut you off if you go over the limit, but they do let you know your target has been reached.

The other advantage of the smart meter is by knowing more about your energy consumption, you shouldn’t get any nasty surprises at billing time – other than the frankly insane cost of energy itself.

The National Grid are also due to be announcing a scheme that will apparently reward people for not using energy consuming devices like washing machines, tumble driers and even electronic equipment during the peak consumption hours of 5pm to 8pm. While not confirmed this scheme is likely to work only with smart meter customers, who will get discounts for sticking to the rules.

What if I can’t have a smart meter?

If you live in rented accommodation (and millions of people do) then you’ll need permission from the council, housing association or your landlord before you can fit a smart meter. This leaves renters – who are already facing record rent hikes – at a significant disadvantage.

People on pre-payment meters pay more for their energy despite often being in the most vulnerable positions. Many renters in cities, where properties ‘turn over’ quicker, can find themselves stuck with a pre-payment meter due to the actions of former tenants. This can be very frustrating and unfair. Make sure you appeal and seek a smart meter I the landlord agrees.

It’s also come to my attention that some people are waiting for some time for a smart meter to be fitted due to a backlog in work, repairs and replacements. If you are older or more vulnerable then speak up – you should be bumped up the queue.

What if my smart meter bill is suspiciously high?

Because there are so many first-generation meters out there – and even the new ones can have technical meltdowns – it’s possible to get hit with big bills that don’t make any sense. Though some businesses can be a bit sceptical about this, you can make a formal complain about any suspiciously large bill, particularly if you’ve lived at the same property for a while. That makes it easier for the energy firm to audit your previous energy consumption to work out what’s wrong.

Smart meters are transmitting data wirelessly so can fall victim to everything from power failures, thick walls, poor signals and more. Meters can also lose functionality for some time, requiring an engineer visit.

Lots of first-generation meters developed problems before, on or after the original supplier ceased trading last year. If you’ve got an ongoing complaint about energy that might include an old provider, it’s vital that you keep records of when things went wrong and dig out your old bills too, so the new provider has a reference of your previous energy consumption.

What about problems with my old meter?

Many energy billing problems simply come from the fact that the old meter you had might have been playing up or the firm was relying on estimated readings.

Even though the pandemic made it hard to make house calls, if your energy firm has been working off estimates for over a year, you may be able to appeal a bill even if it’s correct – as they should have identified the problem sooner. If you’ve ignored requests for readings, that might make things trickier – but put in a complaint.

‘Back billing’ is one of the most contentious areas of energy complaints. Ofgem’s rules state that an energy firm should not be billing you for energy consumption older that 12 months if they failed to correctly calculate your usage before. So if you get a big bill that goes back over a year, push back.

Smart meter checklist

Check the display. Obviously, if the display goes blank, something is wrong. But look for flashing displays, unusual symbols and screens that seem to stick. All are indicative of a potential problem.

Turn it all off. When it’s daylight (safety first), turn off all of the main devices plugged in and turn off the lights – don’t forget things with a pilot light. If you’re worried about the latter, check the instruction manual or get a friend to pop round for a bit of support. Check the dial which should be still. Give it a bit of time to be sure, then turn on devices one at a time. If the meter speeds up, then there could be a problem.

Use and energy monitor. I wouldn’t buy one to prove you’ve got a problem, but having an energy monitor is a good way to keep on top of how much energy you are actually using. They range hugely in price and quality so do your research first.

Seven days. Before they send anyone out, your energy provider may ask you to take readings of your meter once a day for seven days, to see if there’s an obvious problem.

Trust your instincts. If your energy consumption has gone up significantly (rather than the price you pay for energy) and you’ve not had any dramatic lifestyle changes, then that suggests there’s an issue. Note down some details of your circumstances. If you live alone and work in an office for example, then you shouldn’t be getting through a great deal of energy.

Take it further

Energy, like all the regulated sectors, has a free ombudsman service you can go to if you are unhappy with how a business has handled your complaint. The Energy Ombudsman will ask you to go through the firm’s complaints process first, but if they haven’t sorted things out within eight weeks, you can take your complaint to them.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

The great smart meter debate – can it really save me money?

Please share me around

Share useful info with your friends