/ Home & Energy

Our smart meter challenge to help stop stealth sales

Can you imagine someone coming round to install your new smart meter, then trying to flog you cavity wall insulation? No? Well, you may not be as imaginative as our sales-savvy energy companies.

By 2020 the government wants every home in Great Britain to have a smart meter. It will cost over £11 billion and we are likely to pay for it via our bills.

This meter will be smart because it will communicate directly with the supplier and so cut out the need for meter readings. They’re a great idea, because as well as passing this info to your supplier, they’ll also let you see your own energy usage. This could help you reduce energy consumption and, in turn, lower your bills.

So what’s the catch?

The government is encouraging smart meter installations to include advice on energy efficiency. This includes installers telling you about other energy efficiency products that you could buy straight from them! Moreover, we’ve found job adverts from energy companies insisting that potential smart meter installers should have ‘a good head for sales.’

Am I weird in hoping that they just have ‘a good head for installing my smart meter and then leaving me alone’?

Great though smart meters are, we’re worried that energy companies have spotted an excellent opportunity to sneak salespeople through your front door. Our research shows that 93% of people wouldn’t let an energy salesperson into their home, and 30% wouldn’t even open the door to them.

I don’t want your stealth salespeople

And what surprises me more is that it’s the energy industry being allowed to do this. Yes, the same industry that has a lowly track record for mis-selling and the same industry that has record lows when it comes to our trust in them.

The government’s sending a message to industry to make sure they don’t exploit this opportunity to be irresponsible when selling door-to-door, with the industry also putting together a code of conduct.

But, here at Which?, we still think it’s not right to sell products when energy companies come round to install 50 million smart meters. Full stop.

No selling, just installing

We’re challenging energy suppliers to sign up to our ‘no selling, just installing’ smart meter challenge. Companies who accept the challenge will not sell during the installation and their smart meter installers will not be on sales-related commission or have to make any sales leads.

The installer will fit the meter, explain how it works, leave written material – and yes, some of this may include marketing material – and then go. Seven companies have made the promise already – well done to Co-operative Energy, Ecotricity, First Utility, Good Energy, Ovo and The Utility Warehouse.

But come on other suppliers. Take up the Which? smart meter challenge and show that you’re committed to making the smart meter roll-out hassle-free, rather than just extra-profitable.

So, thanks for my new smart meter, energy company. Yes, please install it. Yes, please explain how it works. Yes, please leave written information. But don’t try and sell to me in my home.

Comments
MikeD says:
16 July 2011

My daughter did not notice that her freezer had started to run most of the time, as it was in the garage. Her next quarterly bill was £1,800, and a Smart Meter showing accumulated units per day could have saved her a lot of money.
How many other fridges and freezers that run 24/7/365 are inefficient and costing much more than their replacement cost to run each year. There are many unit consumption lists around, a good one appears to be.

I feel Smart Meters need to have default settings showing units used and accumulated costs per day, with unit rates and if possible individual account totals updated remotely, so that anyone can use them easily straight from the box.

MikeD says:
16 July 2011

I have a holiday home on a site with 280 on the Isle of Wight and we all communally purchase electricity on a commercial contract.
Does anyone know if the new legislation will force us to install Smart Meters.

michael says:
16 July 2011

SMART METERS ADD TO FUEL POVERTY AND PRIVACY INVASION.

Karen says:
16 July 2011

In my opinion Smart Meters are just a way of both the government and energy suppliers trying to make us think they are “working hard on our behalf”. And we all know that is a load of rubbish!! For goodness sake … energy saving is pure common sense. When not in use SWITCH IT OFF at the socket! When the weather gets a bit nippy … put on a jumper! If you’re watching television turn the light off or just use a lamp! When you receive your energy bill take a meter reading and let them know, especially if it is estimated! I do wish the government and these large and multinational organisations would stop treating us as if we are morons!! Just another way to probe into our lives and spy on us!

RichardS says:
16 July 2011

It is not clear from your article or the subsequent comments whether this rollout covers gas as well as electricity. I’m far more concerned with my gas bill than any other utility.

Doreen IDA says:
16 July 2011

We have a SMART meter for Electricity:- Readings became quite obvious once the process was understood. ( a day or so was needed ! ).
Since then we rarely look at the gadget, and typically proceed as normal, probably without significantly changing our usage, which is founded upon necessity.
Bye.

I like the concept of the Smart meter – but I do fear the implementation will destroy many of the benefits. I have been using a simple “add-on” electrify smart meter for over a year, and there is no doubt it’s use has saved me about 20% on my consumption. However, some of the issues with a scheme imposed by the government and implemented by the energy industry are as follows:
i) Standardisation – will the installations restrict the options to switch supplier – will each supplier have a propriety system, resulting in a “re-installation” cost if you “switch”
ii) Automatic “meter readings” sent back to the supplier – great idea, but the experience of other industries indicates that this will lead to increased disputed over consumption as the supplier will insist their reading are accurate. The house holder will still need to be able to see their individual consumption
iii) Will consumers be penalised if they do not wish to participate – perhaps due to some of the issues set out here
iv) Use of the data – again, experience of other industries indicates that:
a. Confidential information will be lost/stolen – (particularly with an insecure internet connection back to the suppliers)
b. Consumption information will be sold on to multiple 3rd parties who will try to sell(scam?) us for additional services of dubious value
c. Will customers be forced to have a broadband connection – or be penalised if not
v) Suppliers will try to “package” a set of additional services – elec/gas/phone/broadband/servicing/repairs/insurance etc etc. All with lock customers into sub-optimal deals – particularly exposing the elderly and other less able to cope with the complexities of all this technology.

In my view many of these issues have not been addressed within the legislation (I understand the industry have broadly been told to “get on with it”) I hope this helps Which with it’s campaigne.

Mike Suttill says:
17 July 2011

Smart meters are a good idea for allowing utility companies to directly read consumption for billing – no more stupidly increased estimated readings for some. For those of us with e-billing this is not such an issue. However I totally agree with Which that installers of smart meters should not do direct sales as part of the package – meter installers should be certified technicians who install meters – not salesmen! I also disagree with government that smart meters will allow consumers to monitor and reduce electricity and gas consumption – one still has to eat, heat the house, wash etc. After the novelty has worn off the majority will ignore them. Government is “forcing” the industry to do this at the tax payer’s expense but is doing nothing about making water utilities install water meters to all properties!

Good luck with the campaign.

Damn Young says:
17 July 2011

They are not there to help you save money, or the planet. They are SPYING devices. I applied for a job at Onzo, the company which makes them. Part of the Software Engineer job description read: ‘Gather as much information as possible, and maximise the value of that information to the power companies’. The devices do not just measure power consumption. They use ‘Zigbee’ radio technology to attempt to communicate with every electrical device in your home. By that method they could discover when you turn your TV on and off, and which chanels you watch. They could tell when you boil your kettle, and by the duration, how much water you boiled. They could listen to your computer WiFi chatter. By recording data day-in day-out, they can make a complete profile of the inhabitants of your home, and tell who is in and who is out at any particular time. By communicating with your smart water meter, they can even know when you flush your lavatory.
Is it not illogical that they claim to be reducing power consumption, by installing tens of millions of devices, which themselves consume power. At around 2 Watts per meter, and 26 Million homes, that equals an extra 52 Megawatts of wasted power.
My power company charges a high price for the first few thousand KiloWatt Hours, and then only half as much for any further power. This penalises low users, and encourages high consumption. If the government were serious about cutting consumption, they should require that power companies reverse that pricing distortion. A flat rate per KwH would be acceptable.
I already have a £15 device which I can place in between any electrical appliance and a wall socket, to find out how much power it consumes. My 32″ LCD TV consumes 138Watts. My 15″ LCD TV consumes only 22Watts. My Freezer 179Watts, Fridge 116Watts. In fact, I have already audited my entire house. As a result, my tumble drier is destined for the recycling centre, my freezer has not been turned on for years. The electric heaters will follow the tumble drier. The whole house has only energy saving bulbs, with my living room lit perfectly acceptably by only one 9Watt bulb. I did consider lighting it only by the street lamp outside. I installed extra thick loft insulation, and double glazing. Now I heat the whole house with just a woodburning stove. There is little fat left to cut, but Iam not done yet. By trimming consumption to the bone first, I expect to be able to generate all my own electricity, with just a couple of PV solar panels, at about £700 each. No spying required!
When looking round Curry’s or any other retailer, they never inform you how much power the appliances consume. Did you know that some Plasa TVs consume 600Watts? Which models are the most frugal? It would be nice if they told us.

The report on the “spying” plans from the energy suppliers is truly shocking – in my earlier comment I hinted at other uses, but the experience of “Damn Young” takes their potential intrusion to a whole other level!!

I thing this whole topic needs to be championed as a major campaign by Which!!

Rita says:
19 July 2011

Very enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail.

Damn Young says:
19 July 2011

Oh, by the way, If I were writing the software, I would probably even be able to tell whether you washed your hands after flushing your lavatory. Nothing to worry about though, everything’s fine.

Julia Maidenhead says:
17 July 2011

We had a smart meter installed while we were living in California we never saw the installers as they warned us it was happening but our meter was on an outside wall so they didn’t need to gain entry to the house and therefore harrass us with selling. And Pacific Gas & Electric did not charge us for its installation. If a smartmeter is accurate it really is an improvement as I always recheck the reading myself as its amazing how companies overestimate on an estimated bill or get it totally wrong on what they call a proper read bill.

Steve says:
18 July 2011

I think that both this article and the majority of responses highlight the challenge that both government and industry will have in selling this concept to the consumer, which is mandatory if the seven or so billion return on the the eleven billion or so investment is ever to be realised; ignorance, stupidity and living outside of the real world will be tough nuts to crack.

Damn Young says:
19 July 2011

How can it be seen as a commercial venture, when it is mandatory?
Ignorance is a terrible thing.
To sleepwalk into a totalitarian surveillance state (in your own home) would indeed be stupid.
Everyone should:
Search for smart meters on youtube, to learn about the US experience.
Read up on Zigbee radio networks in the home.

ALAN HACKETT says:
18 July 2011

The government, any, history regarding representing our, the people,on energy, is reprehensible. Now they are cahoots ‘for our benefit’ REALLY.

My sister and husband live in northern California. She told me that smart meters are currently being installed in her area. She has told the power company that she does not want one as it constitutes an invasion of privacy as well as the power company can control the use of thier appliances without permission. It seems as though that in california if you dont want a smart meter you dont have to have one installed.

What we want is a meter that can tell us when power is cheap. Soon there will be a surfit of windmills and solar panels all generating electricity when we don’t need it. I am quite prepared to switch my immersion heater on and mow my lawn when there is a glut to help out the power companies. I don’t want to be paying the 70p/unit that the solar panel owners are getting paid, I’ll be doing it as a favour and it will have to work out cheaper than my other forms of heating plus a bit less for my inconvenience! I might be prepared to pay 5p/unit, then energy companies will have to swallow the other 65p/unit. These aren’t my rules, discuss it with the nutters that made them. About time the governement reduced the VAT on energy to recognise the burden when are carrying and not increasing cost by paying hugh amounts to ‘green’ generators.

Paul Moran says:
20 July 2011

Why should we pay ANYTHING AT ALL for the installation of smart meters? The people who are going to profit from them year after year are the energy companies who will save on meter reading.Once upon a time, a very long time ago, it was accepted that companies would invest some of their profits in a reserve that would pay for investments in cost saving improvements, the development of new products or the expansion to their services. If further funds were required they would have to be raised on the market. Now, the dammed utility companies are constantly telling us that when they make improvements or replace worn out infrastructure the cost will have to be paid by the customers: why? Why are we always being held to ransom by the greedy privatised utility companies? The demise of our industrial base can be blamed largely on the practice of shoert sighted companies putting the maximisation of profit and dividends ahead of re-investing for the future. I am sick and fed up with the greed of our privatised utility companies: a curse on them all and the mad woman who spawned them.

RUTH says:
20 July 2011

Not so smart meters: I had a smart meter for water usage at a house I bought last year – the house was empty, but the meter kept showing water usage at ridiculous amounts eg 17 cubic metres overnight. (Average usage for a 3 bed house is approx 5 – 10 cubic metres per month!) I watched the meter spinning round while no water was being used any where in the house. The half year bill was over £200! At first the water board said there must be a leak, but after this had been ruled out, the water board admitted that this type of smart meter often went wrong & agreed to change it. I was very relieved to eventually get a cheque for the amount I had overpaid – in excess of £160. Will smart meters for electricity & gas be any more reliable?

I don’t want a smart meter, I don’t want to pay for it as I do not see any benefit to me.

Why are Which not challenging the need for these meters in the first place.

Someone needs to prove to me that a meter is necessary to enable me to reduce costs. I see no difference to submitting a reading via Internet manually to a smart meter adding to my costs?

Go on Which give me a ‘sound’ justification not just regurgitation of the companies and possibly the governments position. If you cannot then start supporting the majority of persons who are NOT interested in having a built in snoop in their property.

Tell me why I should NOT prevent the installation of a device which will provide the company (government) with information they have NO right to have.

Why is Which ‘scared’ to challenge the status quo?

I thought you might all find this quite interesting. Here are the sub-sections on training and accreditation of meter installers taken from the current draft of the Energy Retail Association’s Smart Metering Installation Codes of Practice.

It is the Members responsibility to ensure that;
3.7.1 The NSAP standard or equivalent accreditation for smart metering
Installers is adopted, taking into account the knowledge and skills
necessary to fulfil the role;
3.7.2 Installers have received training to safely and correctly install Smart
Metering Systems and will undergo formal accreditation and registration
with the appropriate governing body before being permitted to attend
Customer premises to install Smart Metering Systems;
3.7.3 Installers receive appropriate behavioural training (soft skills) to ensure
they are competent in addressing Customer queries and/or refer them to
an appropriate contact;
3.7.4 Installers are trained and competent to provide energy efficiency
guidance that is appropriate to Customer needs;
3.7.4.1 Installers engaged to undertake gas meter work are appropriately
registered with Gas Safe Register;
3.7.5 Training standards take into account changes in the market and to
products/services, legislation and regulation;
3.7.6 Installers abide by current accredited installation standards; and
3.7.7 Installers are able to offer guidance that is responsive to the needs of
Vulnerable Customers (e.g. Priority Services Register).

Also, in the section on Provision of Energy Efficiency Guidance it states expectations that:

4.7.1 Energy efficiency guidance is offered at all customer installations,
informing customers about energy efficiency schemes and grants, how to
save energy by monitoring it using the Smart Metering System, and
products and services available that can improve their energy efficiency;

4.7.4 The energy efficiency guidance is appropriate to the Customer’s needs;
4.7.5 The Installation visit is used to promote the Green Deal;
4.7.6 Customer requests for information on energy efficiency products and
services that cannot be fulfilled during the installation visit are
appropriately actioned by the Member, or the Customer is referred to an
appropriate contact;
4.7.7 Should the Customer decline energy efficiency guidance at the visit, and
requests such guidance to be given at a later date, Members will record
this to ensure this is followed up as appropriate;
4.7.8 Where possible, when giving energy efficiency guidance to Vulnerable
Customers or those with specific needs, appropriate steps are taken to
ensure a carer or the person with legal responsibility over the Customer is
present (if required by the Customer);
4.7.9 Energy efficiency materials provided for Vulnerable Customers and those
with special needs is tailored for the needs of specific customers.

And crucially in the section under Sales and Marketing the expectations are:

For Members engaging in any sales and/or marketing activity at the time of a
meter installation, they must ensure that;
4.8.1 Sales and marketing is conducted in a fair, transparent, appropriate
and professional manner;
4.8.2 A Customer’s inexperience, vulnerability, credulity or loyalties are
not exploited;
4.8.3 No high pressure tactics are used;
4.8.4 The discussion is ended immediately at the Customer’s request or if
the Customer clearly indicates that contact is inconvenient,
unwelcome or inappropriate;
4.8.5 The benefits of energy-efficiency products or services are not over
stated;
4.8.5.1 Must provide a credible estimate (drawn from relevant
evidence) of performance of the energy efficiency products
or services;
4.8.5.2 Present the performance estimate in writing and retain the
record the estimate for a period of 12 months from the date
of the agreement;
4.8.6 Sales support materials must not give false or misleading
information;
4.8.7 It is explained to the Customer that only the products and services
available from (or through) the customer’s energy supplier are being
offered, and that others are available;
4.8.8 Details of the product or service must be are accurately presented;
4.8.9 Where there has been prior consent for sales to be completed
during the visit, the key terms and conditions of any agreement or
contract are explained, including the customer’s right to cancel the
contract and the period within which this can be done without
penalty;

Consultation with interested parties (Suppliers etc.) has just closed this week.
You can find the whole document linked here:
http://www.energy-retail.org.uk/smartmeters.html
and here:
http://www.energy-retail.org.uk/documents/InstallationCodeofPracticeJun11v019.pdf

This highlights a few key things for me around the expectation on the installers.
Firstly to be appropriately qualified in the technical and safety aspects of the installation. This is really a ‘no-brainer’. Of course they will be qualified engineers and not ‘sales-people’ trained to install a meter.
Secondly, that the installers are knowledgeable enough and trained to respond to customer needs in providing energy efficiency guidance which, will be of real benefit and in support of The Green Deal.
Thirdly, providing such advise is not the same as giving a sales-pitch and that there should be clear expectations on Suppliers/Installers to respond appropriately to the customers needs.

This seems like a good balance to me and I applaud the work that the Energy Retail Association are doing to ensure best practice is followed. As I previously commented a simple blanket approach of “no sales – full stop” would be unnecessarily restrictive. The proposals by the ERA are a far more sensible and beneficial approach for all involved.

If Which? needed any further evidence that SmartMeters are an utter con then they have it in Industry Insider’s posting.
Will Which? now state openly that they wholly oppose the Smart Meter programme?

Doug Berry says:
20 July 2011

Have a look at what is happening with smart meters in the USA. Will the same happen here?

http://goldsilver.com/video/smart-meters/

Damn Young says:
22 July 2011

Sorry folks, its me again.
Well done that man! You are awake.
I just posted more on the issue on my own site: twoshortplanks.org
I am planning to raise the issue in my home town, by wearing a ‘Say No To Smart Meters’ sandwich board, and maybe get some publicity.

Steve Bolter says:
22 July 2011

Why does Which? put a picture of a toy power meter, with a facility for calculating the cost of using energy at that rate for a month (but only if the consumer enters the appropriate rate) alongside an article on Smart Meters. It suggests that Which? has not a clue about the nature and purpose of Smart Meters.

A true smart meter is an energy meter with the facility to allow it to be used with tariffs which vary according to the balance of demand and low carbon electricity supply. The current rate is transmitted to the meter and the meter registers the energy used at that rate. Some smart meters can switch certain loads off and on, depending on the rate being charged.

For example the system could be set so that when electricity is cheaper than gas the immersion heater is switched on, but when electricity is more expensive than gas it would be switched off to leave water heating to the gas boiler. On a cold winters evening with a large area of high pressure centred over England, there would be no wind or solar energy available and the price fixed would be high, switching off the immersion heater. On a mild windy day the electricity would be cheap and the immersion heater would be turned on. The system could be set to charge a car when the price is low.

The object of installing such meters is to allow people to adopt such tariffs to minimise the need for CO2 producing, climate changing fossil fuels. Just installing without drawing the customer’s attention to the availability of variable rate tariffs is missing an opportunity to cut CO2 emissions. The only restriction should be on the immediate sale of a particular company’s tariff.

It is clear from previous commen that many people do not realise that mart meters are about more than cutting out the meter readers. Which? should be educatingf, not scaremongering.

I absolutely agree with Steve Bolter when he says that Which? should be educating and I share his concern about the potential confusion between SmartMeters and Energy Monitors by many of the public and Which?

I’m largely in agreement with Steve’s other points too but (as I and others have said elsewhere on this convo) I do have some concerns which Steve’s post doesn’t address:

1) The consumer should not be paying for the SmartMeter programme – either overtly or worse still covertly. If the consumer is to pay then the change should be 100% optional but when energy companies make the obscene profits that they do they should actually be footing the bill, and especially if the roll out is compulsory.

2) the idea of remote switching of appliances does not sit easily with another current convo which addresses the unreliability and unsafety of appliances being in use when unattended. The best way to save energy is to manually switch off and disconnect appliances when they are not needed and to manually switch them on only when they are needed. This approach is also the safest (as outlined by government safety advice and fire brigade advice and indeed by most appliance manufacturers’ advice, though the latter usually in very very small print).

3) Concerns are raised about SmartMeters effectively being “bugs” in our homes, about potential safety issues surrounding the radio waves used by them and about the ethics of the staff training programme (which has been quoted above in detail) for the installers. Any one of us may disagree with any or all of these concerns, but whilst ever ANY members of the public hold these concerns they should not be forced into having a SmartMeter against their will.

Incidentally, I’m grateful for Jenny’s response to my previous post, but disappointed that (again) Which? is not championing those consumers with concerns (however far fetched we may think they are) – is is precisely those consumers who desperately need organisations like Which? to help them to get the assurances and explanations that they need. I thought that was supposed to be Which?’s raison d’etre?

As I’ve posted before, I WAS a huge fan of the SmartMeter programme and have signed up with my energy company to be one of their first customers to have a SM, but the more we find out about them the less convinced I am I have to say.

Damn Young says:
23 July 2011

What’s the difference Steve?
Is educating people about a danger scaremongering?

Hi Steve, you say that Which? puts a picture of a toy power meter next to an article on smart meters – I can’t find the article that you’re referring to. Please could you add a link and I’ll have a look and make sure it’s changed if necessary.

We are currently working hard trying to educate people about smart meters, and have a whole online guide explaining the difference between smart meters and energy monitors.

If there is more you’d like to know we’d be really interested to hear what you think would be useful – obviously we want to make sure that we have enough info on this topic that people understand what smart meters are, as well as the difference between a meter and an energy monitor, which seems to be the biggest source of confusion at the moment.

For those interested in the data issues, we are also campaigning on that at the moment. Our lawyers and energy policy team are working to push through our recommendations on the data collected by smart meters.

We are going to post another conversation soon (as Patrick mentioned) on the benefits of smart metering, which I hope will also deal with some of your other points, so I don’t want to pre-empt too much. But what I’d really like to say is that we are taking people’s concerns on board – we’ve been working on smart meters for a long time, as we were aware that the roll-out was imminent. There are some issues that need to be straightened out to make sure that consumers get the benefits of smart meters without being penalised on cost, and in the meantime (I would say this because I’m in the Digital Team!) we’re really keen to get as much information as possible online about smart meters, so people understand exactly what they do (and don’t do).

Steve, I’m a bit worried that you think we are ‘scaremongering’ – I think our articles always show a balance. We rarely go completely ‘black or white’ on any issue, and particularly in this case it’s more complicated – we think smart meters will really help consumers, but we are worried about some of the ways the roll-out’s being carried out. If you send me a link to anything that you think is ‘scaremongering’ I’m happy to take a look and add links to clarify points, etc.