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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?

Hi John, sorry for the delay – Hazel has now got an update from our lab and responded to your question here: https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/smart-meters-will-you-use-yours/#comment-2745

Hope it helps.

Richard D – ask many energy suppliers but especially Ecotricity about it: I am sure they will be pleased to tell you of all the issues! Shortly before I made the last post I had received another estimated bill, even though for once the meter reader came when I was in and he actually did come and read the meter. When I rang Ecotricity they advised that readings from this area had been submitted as 4 digits (the meters have 5) and so they were useless and had to be ignored.
Under the last government I involved Malcolm Wickes (when he was the relevant minister): his suggestion was to change energy supplier, which is pointless as it is the meter readers (who you have no choice over) that are causing the problems. I forwarded Mr. Wickes’ letter to Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, and he was understandably somewhat upset by the suggestion.
The Gas Companies’ so called “safety checks” on meters (which in reality are getting the readers to inspect the meter once every 2 years to make sure that you are not fiddling them) are also exposed as a joke: over the years I have arranged to be in on at least 5 occasions for one of these “essential safety checks” only for the meter reader to take one look at the fact the meter is behind a freezer and turn away saying “I’ll just put it down as if you were out” rather than squeeze into the gap and actually inspect it.

Although this does not impact upon any individual’s decision to install a smart meter, it is worth saying, for the long run. In parts of the US, cheap electricity is apparently available from local wind-farms, but the grid network is not available to get it out long-distance to the bigger cities.

There, the local electricity companies are selling “electric furnaces”. From a fairly cursory look, these appear to be 5 foot tall boxes about 2 ft. x 2ft in cross-section. They contain the sorts of metal bricks that you get in room storage heaters, but their size suggests that there are maybe 20 times as many, and that a thick layer of insulation could surround them.

The electricity company sends a radio signal down the electric line to a smart meter that turns the furnace on, when demand is light and there is spare capacity (which is of course largely unpredictable and dependent on the wind, and commercial and industrial usage and temperatures ver the preceding period). The stored heat can be released when needed, as with the room storage heaters.

There is a further clever wrinkle. The stored heat is not released directly to the central heating system (which I think is often air-based and not water-based in the US) but is used to heat the exchanger of a heat pump which raises the output temperature so it is much higher than the incoming air which passes over the heated metal bricks. The heat pump gets an amount of heat >3 times the electricity used to drive it, as is well known when a heat pump has a low temperature gain across it. I guess that is achieved by blowing a lot of air past a small fraction of the bricks, to ep the temperature down.That way the effective capacity of storage is increased by a factor of 3, at the cost of paying high-rate charges from time to time.

Clearly UK houses without basements could not accommodate such an “electric furnace” standing up, but many houses could accommodate one on its side below a suspended ground floor, and it could even be dropped into an insulated hole dug in the back garden.
Simpler systems could just turn on ordinary room storage heaters in the same way. These heaters are now available with thicker insulation and fans to get the heat out quickly when needed. So I think we ought to see intelligent meters as a first step to switching our houses to electrical heating from gas, a good idea if we get cheap wind-power or nuclear-power in any quantity, and as international gas prices rise as reserves become depleted.

I have a medium-sized terrace house, which I heat with one large and two small storage heaters, giving me an annual bill of around £700 at present. I should add that I run dish and clothes washers, and a tumbler drier in the winter, at night on time-clocks so they benefit from the economy 7 rate. With an intelligent meter, there is the potential to lower this bill.
I do not know whether the intelligent meters currently being installed are easily converted to
do this kind of thing, but we would hope the companies who make them, and the government who presumably license their usage, have allowed for this in the future.

I think similar technology is already in place in parts of the UK.

It’s not integrated into the SmartMeters but it sounds like it does a similar job.

It’s called a Radio Teleswitch.

In Cornwall, for example, I have stayed in houses with this technology installed.

At a time determined by the electricity company (usually around 11:00 p.m.) the Radio Teleswitch makes an almighty “CLANG” as it both switches on the Storage Heaters and switches over teh conventional meter to Economy 7 Rate. Around 7 hours later a similar “CLANG” lets you know that the meter has switched back to “day” rate and teh heaters have switched off.

These devices were introduced in preference to standard time switches (as I understand it) for two reasons: they don’t need to be re-set after a power interruption and they allow the electricity company to switch on different householders’ heaters at slightly different times form each other to avoid huge power demand surges over the network.

They could easily be activated at times of low demand or high “cheap” supply.

Brian says:
16 February 2011

Is the Npower smart meter battery powered or mains?

Plenty has been said about Smart Meter problems, but on another forum I have seen discussions about operating frequencies. In parts of N Yorks (where I live), some of us have been told that our meters cannot use the standard 420MHz frequency as it interferes with some military communications (or something) and we have to wait till 2022 before 450MHz becomes available. If this is true, it is particularly annoying as the supplier (Octopus, recommended by Which?) didn’t suggest there was a problem before signing me up and getting my (non-functioning) meter installed. Has anyone else encountered this?