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Are Smart meters just dumb when it comes to switching energy supplier?

Smartmeters should make energy saving easier, but will the make switching easy? First, let’s have a look at what they do… a smart meter (in theory) should make your energy usage far more transparent as you will be able to monitor usage in real-time through a device called a ‘In Home Display’ (IHD) unit. This box of tricks talks to your smart meter and displays energy usage in, what is hoped, an easier to understand way. Switch on the electric fire and see your energy usage suddenly shoot up. Turn on a LED light bulb and I doubt you’d notice anything. The thing to remember is that these Home Displays aren’t that smart – for instance, they can’t distinguish between your fridge compressor starting up and your TV being switched on. They will only give you an overall picture of what your home is using, rather than on a product-by-product basis. This makes spotting those energy hungry appliances within your home a little tricky – that’s where Sust-it can help!


So what’s the difference between an ‘In Home Display’ connected to a smart meter and your existing electricity meter? Convenience! Scramble under the stairs or in the garage and you’ll find a good old dumb electricity meter, turn on your washing machine and it will flash (or spin if you’ve got an old meter) showing you that your using more energy. It just doesn’t show you this in pounds/pence (Sust-it energy calculator can do this) and of course the meter is usually hidden from view. Having a display sitting on your kitchen worktop showing the money cranking up as your daughter dries her favourite top in the tumble dryer, might start to make you more energy aware, that’s until the novelty wears off and it gets lost in the kitchen drawer, or batteries run out! Anyway the energy companies are only obliged to keep it working for twelve months, by which time you will have given up hope of ever changing your kid’s behaviour or perhaps you’ve switched energy supplier again.

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It’s all well and good knowing what your using, however, what about those dreaded over estimated bills and the meter reader guys turning up when you’re at work. Now this is where smart meters really do come into their own. Smart meters talk to your energy supplier through mobile phone transmitters or the Internet; giving them information on how much energy you’re actually using and billing you according to usage not just estimates.

There have been a lots of concerns raised about the safety of smart meters, as they do emit radio waves, like mobile phones and wifi. These could be potentially harmful to people who are sensitive to electromagnetic fields. In America there has been campaign against the smart meter rollout on health grounds and information security. On the health front you need to take your own view on radio waves, if you’re happy to use a mobile phone and have wifi at home it shouldn’t be an issue, however I have seen an image of a block of flats in US with a large bank of smart meters all sending out separate signals, with bedrooms being directly next-door! Would you be happy sleeping in a room with twenty or thirty mobiles continually calling out 24/7 next to the headboard of your bed?

And then we come to security …the Government insisted on security measures in order to keep your consumption data safe and also it has to be kept anonymous for research projects. So hopefully your data should be safe, or as good as your energy supplier’s data security measures. May be you shouldn’t be that worried about someone knowing when you’re boiling a kettle? Although, I guess you might be more concerned if there was a way to identify unoccupied properties through energy usage. It all feels a bit Big Brother.

Smart meter data will be great for your energy supplier to show you a whole host of charts and graphs of your energy usage. These may help you to identify areas where you could reduce your energy consumption. I expect that the energy companies will see this as a tool to retain customers – “we helpfully itemise our bills” – but don’t forget they make money from you consuming energy and they are legally obliged to install smart meters for free.

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Now the big question, do smart meters make it smoother, faster and easier to switch energy supplier? The simple answer is NO!  You could even end-up in the perverse situation were you have a smart meter installed, then switch supplier and it doesn’t work, it becomes a normal dumb meter again! Why is this? Unfortunately, the policy makers haven’t agreed a communications standard between smart meters so they speak the same ‘language’ regardless of what brand of meter is installed. How dumb is that? Your new energy supplier may well be able to give you a better energy deal, but you’ll be back on estimated bills and crawling around looking for your smart meter to take a reading!

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