What are smart energy meters and monitors?

You may have heard about the government's plans to roll out smart metering across all homes in Britain, and your current energy supplier may have offered you an energy monitor. But what are they and what does it all mean?

What's the difference between a smart meter and an energy monitor?

Quite a big one actually. Here is how it works:

Energy Monitors are devices that monitor the electricity being used in your home, helping you identify areas where you can cut down your energy use and reduce your electricity prices. You can buy one of these inexpensive gadgets online or in electrical outlets, or better yet - ask if your supplier will send you one for free! The gadgets work by placing a magnetised ring around the electricity meter 'tail' - which is the short section of fat cable that connects the meter to your property, and through which all the electricity you use has to pass (a special optical reader device might be necessary for monitoring gas consumption). A transmitter will send your consumption information in regular short intervals to the display unit, which will translate these signals into pence and pounds and show them to you.

Smart meters are a new type of digital energy meter which the government aims to have in every home across Britain by 2019. The biggest immediate difference to your old meter will be that the smart meter does not have to be read by you or the supplier. The information will be sent electronically to your supplier (normally by wireless technology), allowing you to be billed for the energy you actually use, rather than estimates.

Smart meters typically come with an extra energy display that works much like the energy monitor described above, which allows you to see how much energy you are using, compare it against how much energy you used yesterday or last week, and also breaks down when you used it. This will allow you to see how much certain appliances such as the washing machine or kettle are costing you per use. You will not be charged for installation of your smart meter, although the technology standards are not yet fully agreed - so if you switch to one now you may need an updated one in a few years' time.

What is the benefit of having a smart meter?

It is quite conceivable that as the technology improves, smart meters will increasingly play a role in home automation tasks and make your life easier. For example, you should be able to monitor your energy consumption remotely, set consumption targets using your computer or smart phone and use the meter's intelligence to help you achieve these targets.

A strong benefit of smart meters is their ability to support all sorts of tariff types, which opens the door to offering consumers bespoke energy tariffs that match their actual usage patterns. Equally important, smart meters should allow consumers to switch energy suppliers faster, because reassigning the meter to a new supplier and downloading past consumption data could be done electronically in an instant.

What's the catch?

Smart meters and energy monitors will only tell you how much energy you use in total, they cannot (yet) pinpoint with ease which of your household gadgets is guzzling most juice.

Some consumer groups have voiced privacy concerns and are highlighting the threat of overreach by energy suppliers. The technology could make it possible for your supplier to 'reach' into your meter and control the amount of energy you consume, or even to disconnect the supply without visiting your home. This could be done in the case of an unresolved billing dispute, or as a preventive measure to protect against blackouts should there be an issue with the energy supply in your area.

While the government is supporting the rollout of smart meters, its initial enthusiasm has also cooled somewhat. There are strong concerns that the widespread adoption of smart energy meters might open the UK energy grid up to cyber-attacks, which would not be a laughing matter at all. It is quite conceivable that a hostile government or criminal organisation could attempt to paralyse the UK by shutting down its meters! This security concern in particular is one of the main reasons for the long delay in the rollout of smart meters.

It is also the case that not all energy tariffs are compatible with smart meters so if you are a savvy shopper who switches regularly, then you might find that your swish new smart meter that came with your last switch has become dumb- and you'll be back to providing meter readings the old-fashioned way. Still - you should be able to switch regardless because having a smart meter in your property does not tie you to any particular energy supplier.

How can I get a smart meter?

Contact your current supplier who will be able to tell you when they are installing these in your area. Alternatively, shop around using our energy price comparison tool now. There are some tariffs that come with free smart meter installation, so you could be enjoying your new meter, and cheaper gas and electricity bills within 6-8 weeks.

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