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Prepayment energy meters still stuck in the dark ages

Broken bulb

In a time when technologically-advanced smart meters are poised to roll out to most of the UK, isn’t it about time energy companies dragged prepayment meters into the 21st century?

Consumer Focus has found that one in eight UK households rely on prepayment meters. That’s almost nine million people putting coins in their gas and electric slot machines.

Worryingly though, over a million of these folk have cut off their own energy supply in the past year. Which raises the question – how many people actually choose to have them installed? We’d expect not many.

Sure, they can help manage your energy usage, but many prepaid meters are forced upon rental or local council tenants. Precisely the people who can’t afford such expensive energy tariffs.

Switching prepayment tariffs is a chore

Using prepayment meters shouldn’t mean paying more for energy. Suppliers boast that prepayment tariffs are generally on par with ‘standard’ pay-quarterly prices – but it’s no secret that these are actually amongst the most expensive.

Plus, it’s difficult – although not impossible – to switch tariffs on prepayment meters. And when you do switch, you’re given a tiny choice of tariffs that (surprise, surprise) don’t include the very best prices (typically offered online, when you agree to pay by direct debit).

Energy companies should be obliged to give (and even promote) information about changing tariffs and about the process of switching to a conventional meter. Each of the energy companies had different policies when we looked into switching meters – some replaced them for free, with others charging up to £60.

Prepayment meters should be modernised

The problems don’t stop there. Why aren’t prepayment meters as convenient as prepay mobile phones? Most rely on arduous, outdated systems – such as buying tokens from a nearby shop (if it’s open!). Whereas you should be able to ‘top-up’ online or by text. Why pay a ‘premium’ and not receive a premium-class metering system?

Thankfully, a number of suppliers, including Scottish Power, have introduced a new online ‘pay as you go’ system, which enables you to add credit in the comfort of your own. A step in the right direction that we’d like to see rolled out on a wider scale.

Prepayment meters are in such a mess that it’s driven over a million people to intentionally cut off their supply. Either because they don’t have enough money to top up or because the place where they buy credit is shut. Many of these households are home to someone with an illness or disability.

Topping up your energy should be convenient and affordable – so when are energy companies going to move them into the 21st century.


Does anyone really use these any more? If they do – I feel very sorry for them. Get yourself a direct debit! It's cheaper and safer IMO.

MrsR says:
24 August 2015

That is far easier said than done, me and my husband have just moved into a flat, however from what i can gather, the flats used to be a house and therefore their is one proper meter downstairs which the landlord is billed for, this means they have put pound coin meters in each flat to pay for what we use, so he can empty it and use that to pay the bill. We’re putting in about £7 a day, which is ridiculous for a small 2 bedroom flat, when his mum pays £126 a month for both gas and leccy in her large 5 bedroom house, the electric cost is literally crippling us and we’ve only been here a week. If we could switch to direct debit oh my word we would.

Richard says:
22 July 2010

Agreed, they're grim.

joby says:
23 July 2010

I remember being put on a prepayment meter because my utility company made a mistake and did not record my payments to my account. I hated the fact that you had to top up all the time and the cherges, I thought, was astronomical. I fought with my utility company on this, as it was their fault this happened and they arranged to take the meter out. If you are on a repayment meter, they tell you that you have to stay on it if it is their choice to put one in. I did not stand for that as I believe you should always fight your corner if you know you are right. And in this case, I was!

R Putt says:
24 July 2010

What are you all talking about we are on a prepayment meter & have been for many years ,since we thought it would be cheaper to move from one which was in the house that we purchased about forty years ago when it was coins that worked it & was wanting clearing over public holidays when more coins could not be placed within . But when we had it changed to the conventional type we thought we where paying for the Super store just up the road by the amount that was on our bill to be paid by direct debit & so after 3 payments where made we asked to be put back on a prepayment meter , they duly refitted one of the type that has a key top up system that was about twenty years ago , in that time we have moved house where we have had the same type fitted & we are more than pleased with it , & it does not cost the earth to run & we do not pay any more than our friends who keep changing there suppliers or pay by direct debit and we do not try to save by switching everything off all the time & being old age pensioners we can manage perfectly well by putting in £40 at a time as we always have , it is paid for once and for all then we do not have unexpected bill coming in all the time thinking how shall we cope !!! . The trouble is with the country now is no one keeps a tally on what they have to pay monthly so bills come in when they have spent all there money for the week , on other unimportant items such as **** , drink , clothing they do not really want , the way we where brought up was if you cannot afford it then go without until it can be afforded , if this was the way today the country would not be in the financial crises it is in now with people being hard up , there is no need to be that way . Get rid of all those Cards & have one where you know how to spend what can be afforded . pay by cash not card or on line then everyone can work there money properly . We after all that still praise up the PREPAYMENT METERS .

I work in the postcode area with the 3rd highest level of deprivation in the county, and the 1st highest outside of London. In that area the vast majority of houses are on pre-payment meters and in most cases it is because the families concerned have had no one in employment for at least a generation. The people are, in general, very proud people with an abhorrence and morbid fear of debt, but in many cases the energy companies will not allow them to have Credit meters (i.e. not pre-payment) because their credit ratings are too low, generally because their hatred of debt means that they have never had a credit card or bank loan in their lives (and most no mortgage either as they are mainly council tenants). Many of the people I work with tell me that they are charged through the roof for electricity and gas by these pre-payment systems, but they are not permitted any alternative by the suppliers. However, despite this situation, many of them actually want to keep prepayment meters, to ensure that they never do get a bill they can’t pay; they just want to pay the same rate as everyone else. I believe that in the old days the higher tariff was supposed to reflect the wages of the men who came to empty the coin boxes on the meters, but now they all use cards (like a cash card) and no manual interventions are needed, so the energy companies are just profiteering again as far as I can see.

I don’t think coin meters exist anymore, maybe this article was written in the last century and posted now. Anyway, I have a prepay meter for both gas and electricity (a top-up card and a top-up key). It’s easy and works just fine. I know exactly how much I use and don’t have to worry about a bill or direct debits. By the way, I don’t like direct debits because that is just like saying to a company ” here is my account, please help yourself to my money”

Nicole says:
23 February 2013

I hate pre paid meters I have to put 40 pound a week on the gas at the moment and 20 on the lucky that’s 60 pound a week it’s now becoming a choice between food and energy for me and at the moment I only have 5 pound on my gas to last me five days so I. Can’t put the heating on and it’s so cold in fact I ve spent most of the day in bed with my kids it’s that cold it would be much better for me to be on direct debit at least I could put my heating on without fear of the money running out

TL73 says:
31 August 2013

I had a prepaid meter when I moved in here. It was not by choice but because one was already here. I live in a housing association property and it seems that a lot of the flats and houses have these. I had it for a year so I “knew” how much the gas and electricity cost me. I then transferred to a credit meter, thankfully my credit rating was sufficient but I still had a fight to get it- for which I give monthly readings and pay monthly. I can monitor how much I spend on line and get a “real” time account balance. It is definitely cheaper on a credit meter with the same company.

I see Ofgem has belatedly fined a supplier for charging nearly £200 extra on prepay meters and now they are to charge just less than £100. One small energy supplier only charges less than £30! Now who do Ofgem work for? Come on Which shout louder about the injustice of this case!!!!!

paul wenlock says:
28 May 2015

The Post Office now have a key topping up service, use it when drawing out your pension.