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Smart meter review: what do they actually do?

smart meter review
On the grid: smart meters send readings straight to the utility firm

If you haven’t already got them, your utilities company is probably trying to shove smart meters at you every five minutes. Until you get them in your home, however, you might be a bit unsure about what they actually do, what benefits they bring and what the downsides are too. Here, then, based on my experience with the smart meters provided by Octopus Energy, is what you can expect.

What do smart meters look like?

Smart meters come in two parts. There’s the part that replaces the current electricity and gas meters that you would normally take your meter readings from. My electricity smart meter looks like this:

There’s a similar looking unit connected to the gas supply.

Then there’s the in-home display, which shows you how much gas and electricity you’re using, what your current bill total is and other historical data. The unit I’ve been supplied with by Octopus Energy is a rather old-fashioned, monochrome screen affair, as pictured below. Other providers seem to supply smarter, colour screen devices.

In-home display

The meters and the in-home display are connected wirelessly through a communications hub. They should all be installed by the utilities company. You don’t have to do anything.

What does the smart meter do?

Just like your previous meter, the smart meter measures how much gas and electricity you’re using. Instead of the rotary display on old-fashioned meters, the data is displayed on a digital display.

But you shouldn’t ever need to look at that meter. Because the meter uses wireless communication to beam meter readings back to the utility company and to your in-home display, which is where you find out how much energy you’re burning through.

The smart meter uses the mobile phone network (an old data standard called GPRS, for the techies in the house) to send the data to the utility firms, so you don’t have to worry about having to connect your smart meter to the Wi-Fi or anything like that.

What does the in-home display do?

This helps you keep abreast of how much energy you’re using. The features of in-home displays will vary from unit to unit, but here’s the type of information you should receive:

  • A running total of your current gas/electricity bill
  • Historic usage data over the past day/week/month
  • Information on your current electricity and gas tariffs

Perhaps the most useful screen on my in-home display is the one that shows how much electricity/gas you’re currently using on a dial ranging from low to high. It also shows you the cost per hour. Using that data, you can get a rough idea of how much it costs to switch on individual appliances. A few seconds after you switch on the appliance, the screen updates with the new running total. The electric radiator in my home office, for example, costs about 18p per hour to operate during office hours (see the section on variable tariffs below). That’s handy to know.

What are the advantages of smart meters?

  • No more meter readings*. All the data is sent straight to the utility firm, saving you that monthly chore. (*See our section on SMETS1 and SMETS2 meters below, though.)
  • Variable tariffs. As the meter is now able to send hourly readings to your utility company they can offer variable tariffs, where the cost of electricity fluctuates during the day. Some tariffs reward you for turning on power-hogging appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines at night, for example, when electricity demand is lower. (Again, more on variable tariffs below.)
  • You’re better informed. With the old-fashioned meters stuck in a cupboard that you only visit once a month, at best, you don’t really monitor your energy consumption. With the in-home display, you get a much more accessible view of your energy usage, how much bills will actually cost, and historic energy consumption.

What are the disadvantages of smart meters?

  • There’s no masking your real usage. On the old meter system, if you didn’t submit a meter reading the firm would normally revert to estimated bills. If your actual consumption far exceeded the estimate, or if you (ahem) low-balled a meter reading, you could get away with a smaller bill in the short-term. With smart meters, there’s nowhere to hide. The machine’s not going to lie for you.
  • How long will it last? Nobody ever worried about how long old-fashioned meters would last. They were just meters. But smart meters have different standards, which means moving to a new utility firm might render your meter redundant (see below) and that in-home display will also need upgrading from time to time. Who will bear the cost of that? That will almost certainly be you, either directly or in the hidden form of increased bills.

What’s the difference between SMETS1 and SMETS2 meters and which should I get?

SMETS1 are the first-generation meters that have been rolling out for the past few years. SMETS2 are the newer variety, which are only just starting to be rolled out now in 2019. Indeed, the smart meters I had installed only a couple of months ago were still SMETS1.

What does this matter? Well, at present SMETS1 meters cannot be transferred from supplier to supplier, which means if you leave your current utility firm you must revert to taking meter readers from the smart reader itself. They won’t be sent automatically. This is not the least bit smart.

SMETS2 meters, on the other hand, send all their data to a central body called the Data Communications Company (DCC), which then passes that on to your utility firm. That means if you switch suppliers, the DCC merely needs to reroute your data to the new firm.

The good news is they’re hoping that a firmware upgrade to SMETS1 meters might allow them to also send their data to the DCC, making them transferable too. Fingers crossed.

How do variable tariffs work?

Companies such as my provider, Octopus, can use smart meters to offer variable or ‘agile’ tariffs.

As you can see in the graph shown below, the cost of electricity varies depending on the time of day, and even from day to day. The idea is to encourage you to use more electricity during the off-peak hours, when demand on the grid is at its lowest.

If you’ve got kitchen appliances with timers that allow you to put the dishwasher on at 2am, when electricity costs 9.47 p/kWh, instead of at 6pm when it’s going to set you back 28.19 p/kWh, then happy days.

On an agile tariff, your electricity bill is broken down in almost mind-numbing detail. My bills from Octopus include a daily breakdown of how much energy we used, presented in graph (shown below) and table form.

It means my monthly bill runs to a faintly ludicrous 65 electronic pages. By the way, Octopus, a PDF is far from the ideal format for presenting such data, even if my inner geek does appreciate the granular info.

I’m experimenting with a variable tariff to see if I can make sufficient change to my family’s power consumption (“don’t turn that bloody thing on yet!” is a common refrain in my house) and make a saving.

Full credit to Octopus – the top of its bills are already telling me how much we could save if we switched to a fixed tariff, but I want to give this experiment a few months longer before I surrender.

Now read this: How do I control Ikea smart lights with Alexa?

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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  • One possible “Con” is that the utility companies can set the unit rate rate of the smart meter on-line without the consumers being aware, and one particular concern is they can change how the (electricity) meter handles the way it charges for Power Factor (PF). LED’s and other electronic devices (chargers etc) have notoriously bad PF’s, at the moment (unlike commercial metering) this isn’t taken into account, if it were, the current LED’s would suddenly not look such a good idea, as their running cost would be much higher (see BIGCLIVEDOTCOM on YouTube for a full technical explanation).