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What Is A Smart Meter? Smart Meters Explained

January 24th, 2020

What is a smart meter?

These are meters which work in a ‘smart’ way, meaning that they automatically monitor your usage and feed the data back to your supplier without you having to take a reading or be involved in the meter reading process.

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How do smart meters work?

They use a radio signal to relay information back to your energy supplier. These digital sensors have no mechanical workings and there is little likelihood of them wearing out over time.

As with any new technology, many of you are quite curious as to how it works and we’re often asked the question: how do smart meters work? They are really no different to other ‘smart’ devices in your home. The meters have AC (alternating current) sensors in them which read the voltage and amperage being used throughout your home.

Disadvantages and advantages

One of the obvious disadvantages is that the technology can fail, which will require an engineer or representative from your energy company to come out and repair or replace the device. Since the technology is still relatively new, it may be more susceptible to breakdown than the older, established devices that it replaces.

Another disadvantage is simply the initial inconvenience of the installation process. This can take up to an hour and the engineer may need to access hard-to-reach spaces. If the engineer has any difficulty in reaching the required location, this might involve removing cupboards or doors to give them access. In addition, there is the inconvenience of having to be in for the appointment which may mean taking time off work.

According to the Government website the principal advantage of having a digital meter is that they, "put consumers in control of their energy use, allowing them to adopt energy efficiency measures that can help save money on their energy bills and offset". By this, the Government is referring to the accuracy of the bills which is, of course, up to date at any given moment. Gone are the days of making ‘estimated readings’ only to find that you have grossly underestimated your consumption.

Smart meter teething problems

When digital meters were first introduced, there were some fairly significant issues. In practice, many of the first generation of meters were unable to connect and send data back to suppliers. As with all new technologies, there can often be unforeseen issues which don’t reveal themselves until they go live.

Some consumers highlighted smart meter problems when changing energy suppliers, according to the consumer champion, Which?. They noted that when customers switched energy suppliers, "70% of their meters lost their smart functions", they also found that "three in 10 people found that both their meter and in-home display stopped working when they switched supplier".

Suppliers are fully aware of the problems and plan to move all first generation meters onto the national smart metering system, which means that customers should be able to happily switch suppliers without any such issues in the future.

Are smart meters free?

Any UK energy supplier will install your meter free of charge as it is beneficial for them for you to have one, thanks to their accuracy and lower maintenance costs. The wider ongoing maintenance and technology upgrade costs are covered by your overall energy prices, so you shouldn’t see any increase in costs following installation.

Are smart meters dangerous?

Some people believe that the radio transmission element of the meters creates a number of hidden smart meter dangers and, understandably, many have asked, are smart meters safe? Public Health England has made it clear that the radio signals emitted by these devices are minimal and "do not pose a risk to health".

Other people have expressed wider health concerns, querying links to cancer, insomnia, anxiety and other ailments and have asked, are smart meters dangerous?. Smart meters have been in widespread use since 2006 and there have been no substantiated reports of any such health risks. It would appear that some initial dissatisfaction with digital meter installations in the UK led to bad press and a high number of complaints.

As so often happens with the introduction of new technology, the press seized upon the negativity and it spiralled, eventually leading to some labelling the meters as "dangerous", which is simply not the case. Public Health England has made the following statements:

"All the evidence so far suggests that the radio waves produced by digital meters don’t pose any risk to the health of people who have them in their home".

"Smart meters aren’t communicating all the time – just in occasional short bursts when they’re actually sending information".

"You would get higher exposure to radio waves from any device you use closer to your body, which emits more power and transmits for more of the time – such as a mobile phone".

Smart meter companies

Every energy supplier has the ability to install a smart meter. They will use their preferred digital meter firm for the installation and will do their best to make the process as simple and convenient as possible. At the time of writing, the following energy suppliers in the UK are able to arrange a smart meter installation for you:

British Gas has the ability to operate smart meters from EDF, Co-operative Energy, Spark Energy, SSE and Scottish Power. Bulb states that it can operate "a proportion of meters across a range of suppliers".

First Utility, Ovo Energy and Utilita can operate Secure-branded meters.

Npower, EDF Energy, SSE and Eon state that they don’t currently operate first-generation meters from any other firms.

Should I get a smart meter?

Both the Government and energy companies want to see a full roll-out of digital meters in 2021. So, from a consumer point of view, are smart meters good?.

There is no doubt that the technology is impressive and convenient. They can give us greater control as to how we use energy in our homes, based upon the timely information they provide. It is no longer the case that the technology is likely to fail as the initial teething problems have since been ironed out.

In reality, regardless as to which smart meters are involved, the technology really does make life more convenient for all concerned. There are no quibbles relating to estimated energy usage and you can benefit from a greater understanding as to the amount of energy you consume on a daily basis.

One interesting test following installation is to switch off all unnecessary appliances to see your home’s ‘resting’ consumption. This can provide some idea as to the likely minimum usage each month so that you can budget accordingly.

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