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Are smart meters more hassle than they’re worth?

Kettle boiling

Smart energy meters won’t automatically help consumers save money on their energy bills, says a new study. So why doesn’t being told how much energy we’re wasting inspire us to turn off a few more electrical gadgets?

Oxford University boffins have found that installing a smart meter (which automatically measures energy use and sends it to your energy supplier) won’t save you money. You’ll only benefit if the smart meter comes with a real-time energy display – even then it’ll be hard to keep up the savings.

No long-term benefit

This isn’t the first study to arrive at such a conclusion. Academics in the Netherlands recently found that electricity use by energy monitor users dropped by 7.8% in the first four months. Yet in the medium to long term those with a monitor did not manage to sustain their electricity savings any better than those without one.

But I didn’t really need to see either of these studies to awaken my own scepticism about energy monitors and smart meters. I’ve already found the novelty of checking up-to-the-minute electricity use does indeed soon wear off.

When my parents got a free energy monitor from their supplier recently, we all spent a good hour or so marvelling at how turning on a hairdryer, kettle or TV caused the numbers on the display to shoot up. But a couple of months on and the energy monitor sits lonely and ignored on the kitchen windowsill.

Effort or apathy?

Cutting energy use requires sustained effort, and all too often it seems impossible to keep ‘checking the energy monitor’ at the top of your priorities when you get into the shower or reboil the kettle.

Objectively, I can see that energy monitors and smart meters with real-time energy displays are a hugely positive step towards giving us all greater control over our energy bills. But perhaps the old adage ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’ rings true.

Even with the financial incentive of cheaper electricity bills, it seems we have a long way to go before we’re all as sparing with electricity as with cold hard cash. Or maybe it’s just that my family is particularly lazy?

After all, it wasn’t so long ago we were all ambivalent about supermarket plastic bags – but now no trip to the supermarket is complete without taking (or forgetting?) a bag for life. So will energy monitors trigger a similar new age of eco awareness? Or are they destined to be yet another flash-in-the-pan gadget that soon gets relegated to the kitchen drawer?


Actually I have never really seen the point of them – It is quite easy to work out how much energy you are using by looking at the power rating of the appliance.

If you want to see how rapid the rate is just go to the electricity meter and watch the rotor rotate – the faster it spins the more energy used – and the dials give an exact amount used.


Smart meters are more likely to have people competing to see who can make it read the most!


All electricity suppliers have an ongoing programme of periodic meter changes (PMC’s),they have to to change our meters approx every 20years (depending on the certification period of the existing meter) this cost is covered either by an additional levy on the standing charge or built into the unit price of the energy sales.
The introduction/roll out of smart metering would appear to enable supply companies to make an additional charge to us for one that is already part of the existing service, plus they will be gain an accurate reading and reduce there meter reading staff numbers.


I suspect that the primary reason why electricity suppliers want to install smart meters, is to allow them to monitor our energy usage. The devices that would be installed by energy suppliers (via PMC, see comments by Reh) will log usage and relay this to the energy supplier (via the internet) for subsequent interpretation.

Smart meters are part of an approach known as ‘demand-side management’, and are a first step towards implementation of ‘smart grid’ technology. It remains to be seen how far the UK electricity suppliers (and/or government) will take smart grid technology, but the capability will be there to control demand at peak times. The US and some European countries are moving ahead with this technology.

Demand-side management is not necessarily a bad thing. Shifting load-use to more convenient times (for the supplier) will reduce the need to build more power stations, or put another way, will extend the life of existing installed plant before new capacity is required. However, the down-side is that consumers would need to change usage patterns in order to establish compatibility.

Finally, some smart meters have a local wireless connection capability which will allow interested users to link with a suitable PC software package, which would then analyse usage over a period of time and display this in a meaningful manner. This would be much more useful than ‘smart meter gazing’.


The question says “Smart meters – will you use yours?” but the article covers both smart meters and energy monitors – not the same thing though I suppose there may be units which do both.
I would like a smart meter simply to avoid meter readings (especially when the reader gets it wildly wrong as happened to me last year) but I am not willing to pay for one – the power company should be able to finance it by the savings in manual readings.
I have used an energy monitor for a year or so – a simple enough device which shows how much electricity I am using at any time, plus cumulative usage and approximate costs. As mentioned above I did treat it as a bit of a toy at first, and that interest soon faded. But I have found one long term use for it. When I am going out, and especially if I am going away for a few weeks, I check the meter. If I have left something unnecessary turned on I can usually see it from the meter reading. I aim to get the reading below about 100w which covers a few things I leave on all the time (answering machine, security etc.). I don’t know how much that saves me but it is probably worth the small effort, made much easier by the monitor.
I bought my monitor from Amazon, a British Gas model. Recently I received another free from nPower, my supplier. Oddly they do not agree, differing by 150w or so. The nPower has prettier displays but must be plugged in. The British Gas “Owl” has a battery powered display monitor so it is easier to tour the house checking where electricity is being used, so I find it more useful.


Smart Meters will be a great benefit in avoiding the desperately unreliable meter reading “service” that we have endured since Thatcher hived off the Meter Readers to the likes of Accuread et al.
For those not in the know, the meter reading companies now get to charge the energy companies for reading the meters. They get paid no matter how good or bad the service is. Therefore they have no interest whatever in actually doing the job……and they don’t. This results in erroneous readings, failure to read (they say you were out but hey don’t actually come to the door to find out) and readings not being sent to your supplier in time to be of any use.
The potential to render these companies obsolete and stop them profiteering at our expense (after all, the fee the energy companies pay to the readers is added to our bills in some way or other) is most welcome.
Frankly I see no other benefit to the consumer whatever to Smart Metering.
Energy companies will benefit greatly, as other posters have pointed out.
Energy Monitors are not that much use either unless you are terribly profligate with energy. I’d hazard a guess that if you are you probably won’t get an Energy Monitor (unless you receive a free one) and that even if you do you’ll either not use it or ignore it.
If you already have an eye on what you use the chances are that the energy monitor will not tell you anything you didn’t already know.


Dave D – I didn’t know anything about this meter reader issue until reading your post, most interesting. Now I’m thinking that although smart meters are a long way off energy monitors, they do perhaps have an upside after all!

John Fitz-Hugh says:
30 September 2010

Any chance of a reply from “Which” to the questions I posed on 30/8/10 under “smart meters – will you use yours?”, regarding the accuracy of the tests performed by “Which” on energy monitors?