Why 4 million smart meters may have to be ripped out of homes
As many as four million smart meters may need to be ripped out and replaced, Money Mail can reveal.
This is because it may not ever be possible for them to work properly when customers switch supplier.
The Government has promised to launch a new system to fix the problem so that all customers can switch provider without issue, but it has been repeatedly delayed.
Now, an official report has claimed that their plan may not work for all of the meters affected.
Today, our special report tells you all you need to know about smart meters.
Junked: As many as four million smart meters may need to be ripped out and replaced because they won’t work with other suppliers
What is the problem with smart meters?
Under the Government-run scheme, suppliers have been ordered to offer all households and small businesses a smart meter by 2020.
The gadgets show customers how much they are spending on energy by the minute and allow suppliers to collect readings remotely, putting an end to estimated bills.
It is hoped they will encourage households to reduce their power consumption. But many people have said they are not comfortable giving suppliers access to so much information about when and how they use energy.
Customers can refuse to have a smart meter. But if suppliers cannot prove they made every effort to contact households, they will be hit with hefty fines.
Of the households who agree to get a new gadget, one of the biggest complaints is that their meter ‘goes dumb’ when they switch supplier.
This means that while the meters will still record how much power is being used, customers must go back to calling in their own readings and are no longer able to see how much energy they are using in pounds and pence.
The problem is that there are two types of meters — Smets1 and Smets2.
The older version of the gadget, Smets1, typically stops working when customers change provider because different firms are using different technology which is not always compatible.
This forces customers to choose between switching to a cheaper deal and losing the benefits of their smart meter, or remaining on a more expensive tariff.
The more advanced Smets2, on the other hand, will allow you to switch supplier without any issues. Suppliers were supposed to begin installing the newer version in 2014, but a series of delays meant they did not begin until 2017.
As a result, providers have ended up fitting a total of 12.5 million of the older style meters.
The Government said in 2012 that it would create a new system to connect all Smets1 smart meters so customers no longer experience problems when they switch. It is thought the meters will be enrolled onto the system remotely so engineers do not have to visit people’s homes.
But the new Smart Data Communications Company (Smart DCC) service has been repeatedly delayed. The latest start date is May 2019, but ‘there is risk of further delay’, according to an official report by the spending watchdog revealed last week.
Flawed plan to solve the smart meter problem?
All of the Smets1 meters installed have been split into three groups.
The solution for the first of these three groups is currently being tested.
But in the National Audit Office report it says that the Government has not yet decided if a third of the smart meters — around 4.2 million — will ever be enrolled onto this new vital system when it is launched. ‘It is awaiting cost and feasibility information,’ it says.
On top of this, ministers estimate that a further 2 per cent of those they do enrol on to the system (around 160,000) will not be successfully transferred. And this is considered to be ‘an optimistic assumption’, according to the report.
It goes on to say: ‘The Department [of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] says it has high confidence in the delivery of the project. But, given the complexities involved and the fact that migrating Smets1 meters into the DCC is novel, it is not certain that the process will work as intended for all Smets1 meters.
‘We consider that the Department should be careful not to suggest that successful enrolment and adoption of all Smets1 meters is inevitable.’
If the meters cannot be enrolled, it means that if customers want to move to a cheaper supplier their meter will stop working properly.
And, according to the report, any meters in ‘dumb mode’ must be replaced by the end of 2020.
There are currently 943,000 smart meters operating in dumb mode, according to the report.
If customers stay with their existing supplier they will not need their meter replaced. And some providers’ technology is compatible, meaning the meter would continue to work in smart mode.
However, the report says that many customers may choose to request a newer version of the meter in the future, regardless, because they have extra controls that may help people save money with the uptake of electric vehicles and heat pumps.
Why is the smart meter revolution still mired in chaos?
Problems: Nicola Dean says her smart meter doesn’t work during the coldest months
When it comes to smart meters, the nation is divided.
Some people say they love being able to see how much energy they are using around the house and have saved money as a result.
Others claim the new gadgets have caused nothing but problems and don’t work properly.
Many Money Mail readers say they simply have no interest in getting one.
They have concerns about how their data will be used, whether their details will be safe from hackers, or they are happy with their traditional meter and don’t like the way energy companies harass them with phone calls and letters about the new meters.
They say suppliers sometimes even book in appointments to install smart meters without waiting for customers to respond.
And increasing numbers of people are angry that many energy firms reserve their cheapest deals for customers with smart meters. It means those who say no to having one can end up paying hundreds of pounds more every year.
Here, readers share their experiences with the new gadgets the Government wants us all to have by 2020.
Broken and useless: the not-so-smart meters
When 35-year-old Nicola Dean’s meter was fitted by British Gas in 2015 it worked for the first year, but over the past two winters hasn’t functioned during the coldest months.
‘It just says there is no network and doesn’t show energy use,’ says Nicola, a hospital theatre practitioner from Hampshire. ‘When it is bitterly cold, it’s the one time you really want to know what you are spending to heat the house so you can budget.
‘I’ve still got to go outside in the cold to do the readings,’ she adds.
A British Gas spokesman says: ‘We are sorry Ms Dean had problems with her smart meter sending readings to us. This has now been resolved.’
Retired probate clerk Jan Carter, 71, was keen to get a smart meter so she wouldn’t have to poke around in a dark cupboard each month to read her meter. With the new gadget, her readings would be sent to her supplier automatically and she could relax in the knowledge that her bills would be accurate.
But her hopes were dashed when it emerged the mobile phone signal at her home in Hope Cove, near Salcombe, Devon, was not strong enough to support a smart meter.
Jan says her supplier, EDF Energy, had repeatedly assured her it would work perfectly well, so last year she booked an installation. But when the engineer tried to fit the meter, he couldn’t connect it to the network.
Now, the gadget that is supposed to be showing her how much power she is using is instead sitting on a shelf gathering dust — and she still has to poke around in the cupboard to take her own readings. ‘It’s a bit of a shambles,’ she says. ‘I’m no better off than I was before. A complete waste of time and money.’
An EDF spokesman says: ‘While we understand this is frustrating for customers, network coverage is improving constantly and it is possible to reconnect meters remotely. As soon as we are able to connect the meter, we will do so.’
Laura Jameson, 36, a credit analyst, had a similarly infuriating experience. She moved house four years ago and found a smart meter had already been installed by E.on, and she enjoyed keeping an eye on her energy usage.
But when, a year or so later, she decided to move to a cheaper tariff with Scottish Power, the gadget stopped working and no longer showed her how much energy she was using minute-by-minute, so she put the useless gizmo away in a drawer.
Last month, she switched back to E.ON and assumed it would start working again, but she was told the smart functionality wouldn’t return.
‘What’s the point of it?’ asks Laura, from Cheshire. ‘Why go through with this expensive roll-out of smart meters that become redundant when you switch supplier?
‘All this money is being spent on technology that’s fundamentally flawed. All the wasted costs of installing these meters will likely be absorbed by consumers, adding to our ever-increasing bills.’
A spokesman for E.on says: ‘We’re currently unable to re-establish communication with previous customers’ smart meters, however this will be possible in the future.’
Pestered non-stop to make the switch
Pestered: Louise Baker says she was bombarded with text messages and calls pushing her to book an installation
Discovering that EDF Energy offers its cheapest tariff to customers with smart meters, Louise Baker, 51, reluctantly agreed to have one fitted.
Those who refuse pay an extra £97 a year for the next best deal.
But Louise says she was also fed up with being bombarded with text messages and calls pushing her to book an installation.
She adds that these continued even after she had agreed to a booking.
‘I had text messages on October 5, 7, 22, 24, 27, 29 and then November 2, 4, 9, 11, 14, 16 and 18,’ says Louise, a legal secretary from Somerset. ‘I also had several calls and six emails.’
Louise has an installation scheduled for December, but doesn’t know whether or not to go ahead as she has found out the meter may not work properly with her solar panels.
A spokesman for EDF says: ‘We are sorry Ms Baker felt pressured into having a smart meter fitted. At no point did we tell Ms Baker she needed to have one fitted to be eligible for a cheaper tariff.’
What do the people behind smart meters say?
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Stategy (BEIS) insists it is making good progress on a plan to enrol the final third of the Smets1 meters.
Claire Perry, the BEIS minister, says: ‘Millions have already chosen to have a smart meter and take control of their energy bills. We’ve said everyone will be offered a smart meter by the end of 2020 to reap these benefits and we will meet that commitment.
‘This world-leading upgrade to our national infrastructure is the cornerstone of our move to a smarter energy system of the future which will bring benefits to consumers and industry worth up to £40 billion.’
A Data Communications Company spokesman says: ‘Smart DCC has built the secure network that carries smart meter data, linking almost every home with more than 60 licenced energy suppliers. Suppliers are installing second generation smart meters onto it at an ever-increasing rate — up to 4,000 are being installed every day, connecting homes and small businesses.’
Robert Cheesewright, director of corporate affairs at Smart Energy GB, the body in charge of promoting the rollout, says: ‘We know that delays to the rollout are frustrating for consumers.
‘The Government has made it clear, if a consumer has a smart meter at home that is currently operating in traditional mode, it’s smart services will be restored and work with all energy suppliers by the end of the rollout.’
Households plagued by pushy letters
Peter and Rosemary Wright, 69 and 68, have also been plagued by pushy correspondence about the meters.
The couple, from Leicester, say they have no intention of getting one, but have been overwhelmed by letters about the gadgets from their electricity supplier, E.on.
Peter, a retired ambulance driver, says: ‘I must have had eight or nine letters and several phone calls — it’s all very heavy-handed. I got so annoyed I binned them. It felt like bullying, and in the end I told E.on to stop contacting me about it.
‘The wording of the letters suggested my current meter was soon going to be redundant. If I hadn’t known better, I would have been terrified and thought that smart meters were compulsory.’
The Wrights say they will not get a smart meter unless they are forced to because they are concerned about what energy suppliers will do with their data and the risk of the information falling into the wrong hands.
‘Smart meters mean that your energy supply can be cut off at the press of a button, so what would happen if someone hacked our energy supplier and did this?’ asks Peter.
‘If it can happen to your bank account, it can happen to your energy supplier.’
Stephen Hobden says he was annoyed at the pushy tactics of energy firms
A spokesman for E.on says the company has not contacted Peter about smart meters since March.
Stephen Hobden, 70, a retired undertaker from Stevenage, is similarly annoyed at the pushy tactics of energy firms.
He says he received an email from his supplier, E.on, last month with the subject line: ‘We need to change your meters.’
The email went on to say: ‘We have an obligation to change your electricity and gas meters to our self-reading smart meters as part of a Government-led nationwide upgrade programme.’
Stephen, who lives in sheltered housing, says: ‘I’m annoyed at the way energy firms are campaigning to get us to have smart meters. It is very pushy to say the least.
‘I worry that other people will think it’s compulsory because of the way suppliers are phrasing their letters. If someone received this email and didn’t already know about smart meters, they would probably fall into the trap of thinking it was an obligation, rather than a choice. I’m perfectly happy with the way things work now.’
A spokesman for E.on says the firm makes it clear to customers that smart meters are not compulsory.
But these great-grandparents love their smart meter
Great-grandparents Heather and Frank Philips estimate they are saving around £180 a year by monitoring the meter — it even prompted an energy-efficient cooker
However, great-grandparents Heather and Frank Philips have nothing but praise for the new gadgets.
The couple, from Dartford, Kent, may be in their 80s, but that has not stopped them from getting to grips with the new technology.
Frank, 85, a retired draughtsman, and Heather, 80, who was a stay-at-home mother, first got a smart meter from British Gas around 18 months ago.
They estimate they are saving around £180 a year by monitoring the meter — it even prompted them to buy an energy-efficient cooker when their oven needed replacing.
The couple, who have eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, are very technology-savvy, also using smartphones and a computer. They say they jumped at the chance to find out how much they were spending minute-by-minute.
‘It’s quite fun to switch appliances on and off and see how much energy each one is using,’ says Heather.
‘Frank always wants to leave the lights on so our two rescue cats, Homer and Rusty, can find their way home at night, but I think it’s ridiculous. Now we have switched to energy-saving lightbulbs so that he can do that without it costing us too much money.
‘We are much more careful now to watch how much we are using, which really helps when you are older and your income is limited.
‘I’m advising all my children and grandchildren to get smart meters, too. It has also been an absolute boon not to have to go outside to do the readings, or wait in for the meter man to come around.’
What you need to know before signing up to a smart meter
Q: What are they?
A: Smart meters automatically send readings to your energy supplier via a mobile signal every month. The meters also communicate with a small digital screen you can keep in your home, which shows how much energy you use in pounds and pence.
Q: Are they compulsory?
A: No, you can refuse. Ignore any letters or emails from your supplier that imply smart meters are a legal requirement.
Q: How much do they cost?
A: You do not have to pay to have a smart meter fitted; households shoulder the cost of the rollout through their energy bills. The Government says that by 2030, households will be saving £47 a year as a result of the gadgets.
Q: Can I switch supplier?
A: Yes, but if you have one of the older versions (a Smets1) it could go dumb. This means you may have to go back to submitting meter readings, and the digital screen in your home will stop working. If you have a newer Smets2 model, you should be able to switch without issue.
Q: Why is the mobile signal so important?
A: the meters use mobile networks to send suppliers readings. Suppliers are currently unable to install smart meters in around three in ten homes. This includes many people in rural locations or mobile blackspots. However, the Government says that by the end of this year, more than 95 per cent of households will have a strong enough signal, rising to 99 per cent by the end of 2020.
Q: Can they help me control my heating remotely?
A: Smart meters are not the same as smart thermostats, which allow you to switch your heating on and off using your mobile phone while you are out. Companies such as Hive and Nest offer these thermostats for around £200.
Q: Can I change my mind?
A: If you don’t like your new meter, your supplier is unlikely to change it back to a traditional one. But it can switch off its smart functions so it behaves like a regular meter, and you can go back to giving readings yourself.
Q: Is my data safe?
A: Privacy campaigners warn that smart meters give firms access to a ‘honeypot’ of data that tells them when you are at home and how you use power. Some fear they could be targeted by hackers and potential burglars. The Government says the meters are secure and have been developed by experts including those at GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre.