Smart meters are similar to standard gas and electricity meters but have additional features and functions. Smart meters differ from traditional meters in that they offer two-way communication, which means they can wirelessly send and receive information.
Smart meters can:
let you know how much energy you are using;
automatically send meter readings to your energy supplier;
allow you to change from prepayment mode to credit mode and back again;
spot meter tampering; and
detect when power has been lost.
Under industry rules set by energy regulator Ofgem, energy suppliers are required to ‘take all reasonable steps’ to ensure that a smart meter is installed before the end of 2020. There is currently no requirement for suppliers to install a smart meter on request, but if you would like one you can contact your supplier to discuss availability in your area.
There might be coverage issues, meaning that readings can’t be sent to your supplier. Signal loss will happen when signal has to pass through the walls of a building. It may be that prior to arriving to install a smart meter, the supplier checked the signal strength for the area and it was okay. That check only shows the signal strength from the roadside, not the signal strength within the building. It is usually only once the supplier has put the electricity meter and communications hub on the wall that the installer realises that the signal strength is poor. The industry is working on a solution to try and resolve these issues. The industry is aware of the need to have this solution in place by the end of 2020.
No communications network works perfectly at all times. If a customer loses smart meter functionality, as the Energy Ombudsman when looking at a complaint we will consider whether the energy supplier has taken reasonable steps to try to resolve the issue and what ‘detriment’, if any, the loss of functionality has caused the customer. We may not be able to require a supplier to correct signal issues in the short term.
The communications hub is typically situated within or near to the electricity meter. If the gas meter is too far away it may not be able to communicate with the communications hub. Often this only becomes clear once the meters have been installed. The energy industry is working on ways to try to achieve communication between the gas meter and the communications hub when there is a significant distance between them. Currently there is no simple solution and customers in this situation may have to be patient until the industry develops a solution.
An in-home display gives consumers information about the energy they are using. Its this device that allows consumers to see their ongoing consumption in pounds and pence.
Communications issues can prevent the smart meter from connecting to the in-home display. A drop in signal can result in the in-home display showing inaccurate information. For example, we have seen cases where due to signal drop, not all of the energy the customer has used is displayed on the in-home display. This causes confusion when the customer receives their bill, as typically the usage and total cost on the bill is higher than that shown on the in-home display. The bill is usually accurate as it is based on readings from the meter. While this can cause confusion, it does not necessarily mean that the billing is wrong or the meter is faulty.
Also, when there is a distance where the meter is located and the property (e.g. flats) the signal from the meter may not reach the in-home display – resulting in the customer not having real-time consumption information. The energy industry has developed a solution to this problem, but it is not yet widely available. It is not clear when this issue will be resolved but suppliers need to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the smart metering system is in place and working by the end of 2020.
You can refuse to have a smart meter installed in your home if you do not want one. However, choosing not to have a smart meter will mean you will miss out on many benefits.
One of the benefits of smart meters is that bills are no longer based on estimated meter readings. Estimated billing can result in consumers later receiving large ‘catch-up’ bills, leaving them with a debt to repay. Smart meters send meter readings to your energy supplier, so they can produce accurate bills.
Estimated bills and backbilling are common reasons for complaints to the Energy Ombudsman. We believe that smart meters will reduce the problems that we see from estimated billing.
We wouldn’t expect an energy supplier to change a smart meter to a traditional meter without good reason. And as the energy industry moves towards a smart and flexible system, manufacturers are less likely to produce traditional meters. This means energy suppliers may not have any traditional meters in stock.
If the energy company does not have any traditional meters available, and there are exceptional circumstances which mean the smart functionality should be removed, a suitable alternative would be to have the smart meter installed with the smart functions turned off. By doing this the meter will act like a traditional meter but by having the smart functions switched off the consumer will miss out on the benefits offered by smart meters.
If the energy supplier does have traditional meters in stock, it would be up to the individual supplier to decide whether they will replace a smart meter with a traditional meter. The installation and removal of meters costs money. If the energy company agrees to replace a working smart meter, it is entitled to charge you the costs for doing so.
As our society has become more technologically advanced, there has been a significant increase in the number of devices that emit radio waves. These devices include laptops, Wi-Fi routers, mobile phones, computer monitors, game consoles, baby monitors, and smart meters.
There has been a lot of scientific research carried out over several decades examining the effects of exposure to radio waves on health. In light of this body of research, Public Health England, the agency responsible for protecting people from health hazards, has stated:
“The evidence to date suggests exposures to the radio waves produced by smart meters do not pose a risk to health.”
Based on the statement made by Public Health England, we as the Energy Ombudsman have no reason to believe that smart meters are a risk to health. Therefore, it is unlikely that we would require an energy supplier to replace a smart meter on health grounds unless you can provide medical evidence that the smart meter is causing harm to your health.
Energy suppliers need to liaise with the Data Communications Company (DCC) to resolve some communications issues. Energy suppliers have experienced long delays waiting for the DCC to resolve queries and this can impact on the time taken to resolve consumer complaints.
Ordinarily, when we uphold a complaint we ask the energy supplier to put things right for the customer within 28 days. Where an energy supplier is waiting for action from the DCC this may not be possible, but we would expect the energy supplier to keep you updated.
First and second-generation smart meters are similar in that they record how much energy a consumer uses and allow two-way communication with the energy supplier. One of the key differences is the cross-compatibility of second-generation meters, which comes down to the communications network they use. Cross-compatibility means a smart meter will keep its smart functions across all energy suppliers, so if you switch supplier the smart meter will continue to work in the same way.
A national communications network has been purpose built for smart meters and is managed by the Data and Communications Company (DCC). This national network was not ready when energy suppliers started installing smart meters. In order for consumers to have the benefits of smart meters, energy suppliers used third-party communications networks. All first-generation smart meters use a third-party communications network to send metering information to the energy supplier. Second-generation smart meters use the purpose-built national network.
With first-generation smart meters, it is possible that consumers will lose smart functionality when transferring between suppliers. But this problem will be resolved in the future as a technical upgrade will allow first generation smart meters to connect to the national network.
Economy 7 meters record day and night consumption separately. Consumers will pay a cheaper rate for night-time consumption and a higher rate for day-time consumption.
In general, Economy 7 Smart Meters are available to consumers. But some Economy 7 meters are linked to heating systems, with storage radiators or boilers only able to charge overnight. The meters that support such a set up are known as 5-terminal Economy 7 meters.
Energy suppliers should now be replacing traditional meters with second-generation smart meters. But no manufacturer is currently producing second-generation 5-terminal Economy 7 meters. The industry is working on a solution to this but lack of availability may mean consumers with 5-terminal Economy 7 meters are not able to receive a smart meter at present. As the deadline to provide a working smart meter has not passed, there is no obligation for supplies to provide 5-terminal Economy 7 meters at this time.
There is also a shortage of traditional 5-terminal Economy 7 meters. If such a meter becomes faulty, there may be a challenge for a supplier in sourcing a working meter. However, as consumers can lose their heat and/or hot water because of a fault, we consider it to the supplier’s responsibility to find a replacement meter as soon as possible.