GET SMART, says Maureen Fenton
For Maureen Fenton, finding out how much energy she and her husband Viv have used in a day is as much a part of her routine as brushing her teeth.
Before turning off the kitchen lights each night, she glances at the meter hanging on the wall above her coffee maker and sees — in pounds and pence — exactly how much the couple has spent on gas and electricity that day.
Maureen and Viv, who are both in their 70s, say having access to this information at her home in Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire, has been life-changing — and they love it.
To save money, Maureen no longer uses the oven and a hob at the same time when cooking, she only uses the washing machine if it’s full and she measures the exact amount of water she needs to boil for a cup of tea.
Careful consumer: Maureen Fenton is delighted with her smart meter which she claims saves her around £30 each month
In the two years since she had the device installed, Maureen reckons she’s shaved a third off her energy bills.
‘The smart meter has transformed my mindset,’ she says. ‘I’m now much more thoughtful about how I use appliances around the house and feel in control of what I’m paying for.
‘We’d generally spend around £90 a month, but now, it’s much more like £60 — as pensioners, that’s a really big saving.’
Maureen’s experience of using a smart meter is exactly what the Government was hoping for when it ruled that the devices should be fitted in every home by the end of 2020.
Unlike old analogue meters that have to be read manually, high-tech smart versions automatically capture information about your gas and electricity consumption, show it on a screen in your home — and transmit this back to your energy supplier via a wireless network.
When the Fentons had their meter installed by E.ON in February 2015, they were told it was an opportunity to save on their bills.
According to government estimates, the average annual household should save around £43 on their bills by 2030 by cutting their usage.
However, British Gas admits that the average saving per household currently stands at just £30 a year. That’s just 3 per cent of the average £1,135 bill.
This is important because the cost of the rollout is being added to all of our bills — not just those of people who get the devices installed.
Worryingly, sources at Big Six firms say the total figure could come in at £20 billion — which would wipe out the promised £16.7 billion savings we’ll get from cutting our usage.
Many people who are weighing up whether to get a smart meter are wondering whether the meagre savings on offer — all of which come from changes to your habits — are worth it.
Unlike analogue meters that have to be read manually, smart versions automatically capture information about your gas and electricity consumption, show it on a screen in your home
A heated debate has broken out between fans, such as Maureen, and sceptics who are steadfastly refusing to get rid of their old meters.
Some of those refusing smart meters worry about the safety and privacy of the devices. Others are put off by the huge pressure suppliers are putting on their customers.
Money Mail has exposed bullying tactics — which include making smart meters sound like a legal requirement, even though they are optional.
We launched a campaign to end these dirty tricks.
But the question that many homeowners want someone to answer is whether the new devices are worth it. For some of us, the thought of seeing our spending on gas and electricity totted up before our eyes is off-putting.
Maureen admits that, at first, she overreacted to the smart meter, monitoring how much it cost to turn on a light and checking it several times a day.
It’s even possible to set a daily usage limit, where the meter starts bleeping when you overshoot your target. But Maureen says there is no need to go this far: ‘I don’t want to become paranoid about what I’m using or be bossed around by a machine.
‘My husband and I use what we need to be comfortable. It’s just nice to know what it’s costing.’
Another benefit of smart meters is the prospect of cheaper tariffs.
Running digital meters is cheaper for suppliers than maintaining analogue ones.
Some firms are already offering discounts of up to £111 a year to customers who have smart meters installed.
Others are launching ‘time-of-day’ tariffs, where prices vary between periods of high and low demand. Green Energy UK, for example, charges five times more for electricity used during the evening peak than it does overnight.
In theory, you could take advantage by charging electronic devices and running appliances such as washing machines when rates are cheapest. But critics say this penalises pensioners and families who have fewer options about when they use energy.
The number of different types of tariff is expected to explode in the coming years.
One clear benefit of smart meters is ending the scourge of estimated bills and manual readings.
One Money Mail reader, who asked not to be named, says reading an analogue meter was his most hated chore: ‘I have poor vision and am in my 70s. Our meter was always hard to reach.
‘I’m glad I no longer have to kneel on a cushion with a magnifying glass and waterproof hat on to protect my hearing aids from the rain.’
Another, Lesley Palmer, switched to a rival provider for a cheaper tariff, but missed her smart meter so much, she switched back.
Maureen says: ‘The long jungle of numbers on traditional meters didn’t mean anything to me, even though I knew roughly what we were spending each month.’
DON’T RISK IT, says John Swanson
John Swanson refuses to have a smart meter in his home until they are proven to be safe
John Swanson, 65, refuses to have a smart meter in his home until the devices are proven to be safe.
He’s worried that shoddy installations are leading to gas leaks and fires. Last year alone, 366 dangerous gas incidents and 64 electrical safety issues were reported to the Health and Safety Executive after smart meters were fitted.
This is a tiny minority of the almost five million smart meters installed last year — but that’s no comfort to John.
‘Energy companies and the Government look at the big picture and say: “It’s only a few hundred homes”,’ he says.
‘But I only own one house — and if there’s even the smallest chance that it could be burned to the ground or blown to smithereens because meters aren’t being fitted properly, why would I take the risk?’
Some safety experts say the rollout has given engineers the chance to replace ageing analogue meters that have dangerous wiring or fuse boxes.
Smart Energy GB, the independent group set up to oversee the meter rollout, says installers flagged up more than 270,000 safety issues with old meters last year alone.
But John says the rush to fit the smart meters is dangerous. Suppliers are struggling to meet the 2020 target for putting the devices into all our homes — and he worries the engineers are in too much of a hurry.
John is one of hundreds of readers who have written to Money Mail saying they don’t want a meter in their home. Their reasons vary from safety fears to concerns about privacy or their data falling into the wrong hands. Others say they worry about the effects on their health.
Another common objection is the thought of a power firm being able to cut off your supply remotely.
John takes a monthly reading and sends it to First Utility, his provider, via its website each month. He lives alone in a five-bedroom property and only ever heats the room he’s in.
‘I don’t want to be patronised by a company that I pay for a service,’ he says. ‘How smart do you need to be to read a meter or work out how to save on your energy bills?
‘I know some meters are in awkward spots, but perhaps time and money should be spent on moving them to a more convenient place, rather than on new technology.’
Dozens of homeowners tell us they are refusing a smart meter because they fear their security could be jeopardised.
Pushy: Suppliers are struggling to meet the 2020 target for putting smart meters into all our homes
In truth, some of these concerns are unfounded. For example, the only detail the devices capture and store is a figure showing how much energy a home has used — and this is encrypted. Your name, address, bank account and other financial details are not stored or transmitted.
Even so, sceptics worry that if a burglar got hold of data about how and when you use energy, they might be able to work out when your house is empty and when you’re on holiday.
In reality, most meters as standard send a total monthly usage figure to suppliers just once a month.
You must then choose if you want your data sent more frequently. This can be as often as daily or even every half- an-hour — which would be necessary if you wanted a tariff where prices varied during the day or at weekends. If this data got into the wrong hands, it could be used nefariously.
Security experts say it’s also possible that the smart meters could be infected with a computer virus. This could spread to other devices in your home if they’re connected. The fear is that a hacker or foreign power could then cut your supply.
In the Royal Academy of Engineering’s evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, experts say the threat of cyber attacks is ‘real and pressing’. It said hackers could try to steal electricity or disrupt supply.
However, the Government says it has worked with security experts, including the National Cyber Security Centre, and is confident in its robust security for the smart metering system. So far, there is no evidence of hackers targeting smart meters or the information being used by criminals.
It’s also possible for a supplier to switch off your power supply remotely if you have a smart meter. However, they have no more legal powers to disconnect you than with the old-style meters.
Providers say they will only do so very rarely, such as when a customer is in serious debt to the company.
But that reassurance isn’t enough for the likes of Bob Ashton, 74, from Devon. He says: ‘The devices could be hacked, so I’d rather stick with an analogue meter and know where I stand.
‘My other concern is that once firms have your data, they’re going to use it to make a profit. They’ll start charging more at peak times, which is unfair. And, all of a sudden, a company and its engineers will know when you’re away on holiday and all the lights are off.’
Currently, the meters lose their smart functions if you move to another supplier for a cheaper tariff. One Money Mail reader, Peter, from Wokingham, found his smart meter was rendered useless when he moved from First Utility to Utility Point.
‘It’s a major flaw in the system,’ he says. ‘This project is costing customers a hell of a lot of money and it’s not delivering much.’
Almost all the meters installed so far are so-called first-generation devices known as ‘Smets I’.
They will need to be upgraded so they are able to transmit information to a range of energy companies. Until then, you have to choose between keeping the smart functions or moving to cheaper tariff if there is a price hike or your fixed tariff ends.
The second generation meters — so-called ‘Smets II’ — can be switched between suppliers. But, so far, just 290 have been installed in homes because of teething problems with the technology.
Peter says: ‘I had visions of just filling in a few online forms to switch and the meter doing the rest of the work. It’s turned out to be a big letdown.’
Other readers are convinced the radio waves coming from their smart meter are causing health problems. They report unpleasant symptoms that they attribute to the radiation.
One reader, who asked not to be named, says she has developed chronic migraines since her meter was installed last year.
Health officials say the level of radiation the devices emit is less than that of a mobile phone or wi-fi connection and is perfectly safe. A report by Public Health England found smart meters did not pose any significant health risks.