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All about smart meters

By OVO Energy Wednesday 19 October 2016

Smart meters are a hot topic in the energy industry right now, and rightly so. They are a game changer when it comes to understanding the way we use energy – and that understanding can help us reduce the amount of energy we waste.

The government wants every home to have a smart meter by 2020. Whether you currently have a prepayment meter, or pay for your energy monthly by Direct Debit, sooner or later you’ll be offered a smart upgrade by your energy provider.

But what exactly is a smart meter? How do they work? In this blog we explore some of the key issues, talk a bit of science, and dispel some myths.

A smart meter is simply the newest kind of gas or electricity meter. It’s digital and connected to the internet, so it can ‘talk’ to your energy supplier. That means you’ll never need to submit a meter reading again.

It also means you won’t get any more estimated bills, as your provider will always know exactly how much energy you’re using. Once you have a smart meter, you’ll only pay for what you actually use. The meter can also help you to keep an eye on your energy use, see where you could be wasting energy (and money), and use that information to reduce your energy bills.

Depending on the kind of smart meter you get, and whether or not it comes with an In-Home Display (IHD), you’ll be able to see instantly how much of a difference it makes when you switch on an appliance such as a hairdryer or kettle.

The government believes this information could help you to cut around £26 a year off your energy bills by 2020, and £43 a year by 2030. These amounts aren’t huge compared to what you could potentially save by switching supplier, but smart meters can help with this, too – they’ll make the process easier and faster while reducing mistakes.

Energy companies will also save money, as they’ll no longer need to send engineers to read your meters.

How do smart meters work?

Smart meters communicate through two wireless networks: the HAN (home area network) and WAN (wide area network). 
The HAN is a secure network like the wireless systems that already link devices in our homes – computers with printers, for example. It enables smart electricity meters to collect readings from their paired gas meter, and to communicate with any other devices or computers they’ve been linked to, as long as they’re within range.
Smart gas meters are less smart than their electrical counterparts, as they can only send information to their paired electricity meter. They can’t communicate with any other devices or with energy providers. 
The WAN (wide area network) is like the networks used by mobile phones. Smart electricity meters use it to send info to energy companies.

Smart meters and Pay As You Go

If you’re a Pay As You Go customer with a prepayment meter, switching to a smart meter could have a lot of benefits for you.

As smart meters communicate wirelessly, you can top them up anytime, anywhere, without having to go to a PayPoint. Instead, you can do it online, by phone or even (if you’re an OVO customer) in our OVO Energy app. No more rushing out to the shop or worrying that it might be closed.

With our OVO Smart PAYG+ energy plans, you can still top up at PayPoints if you want. However, you don’t then have to go home and add the credit to your meter, as your smart top-up card uses the WAN to send it remotely.

Meter myths

Now let’s look at some of the mysterious (and misguided) myths about smart meters.

1. Are smart meters a risk to your health?
Some people worry that smart meters (like mobile phones, wifi and satellite TV) will emit low frequency radio waves that could be harmful to people who are sensitive to electromagnetic fields. 

The government has been researching this for over 10 years and say there’s no evidence of any health risks. They’ve introduced strict product standards to make sure smart meters are safe, and they’ll continue to check for any ill effects as more and more homes get their new meters.

2. If I have a smart meter installed, will it make it harder to switch suppliers in future?
Having a smart meter doesn’t make any difference to your right or ability to switch to a new energy company whenever you want. However, you may find your smart meter loses some of its smartness when you switch. It might even revert to being a traditional meter – which means you might have to submit meter readings to your new energy company. 
Ofgem (the industry ‘watchdog’ that looks after energy customers) has brought in some rules to help customers find out whether their meters will stay smart when they switch supplier. These rules state that any energy company installing a smart meter must tell the customer that they could lose meter functionality if they switch providers.

3. Will a smart meter protect my data as well as my traditional meter currently does?
Energy companies must keep the information in smart meters secure. They are bound by rigorous safety and encryption standards. Once you have a smart meter, no matter what stage of its journey your information has reached, you can be sure it’s protected.

For example, at OVO we keep smart meter data safe with encryption, controlled access and other security. The only people who see the info are authorised OVO staff. We keep it for as long as necessary, and then delete it immediately. When customers leave us, we can still see the data from when they were an OVO customer, but not their energy use with their new provider.

4. Do smart meters cost more?
Smart meters are installed completely free, unless your energy provider has to carry out complicated building or engineering work because of the way the meter is sited in your home. If so, your supplier may have to make a charge, but they should discuss this with you before starting work. 

Energy companies will aim to recoup normal installation costs over the meter’s lifetime, which could be up to 25 years. However the energy savings you could make should outweigh any small extra charges on your bills.

5. I’ve heard smart meters make weird noises, is this true?
The very first smart meters were occasionally accused of making a high-pitched whine, or ticking, but nowadays they use the same kind of technology as mobile phones and tablets, so they don’t make any noise at all.

6. Do I have to change the pricing plan I’m on?
You shouldn’t need to switch to a different plan, contract or tariff when you get a smart meter. If you’re currently on a prepayment or Pay As You Go plan, your smart meter will be set up as a prepayment meter. If you pay for your energy monthly, you’ll get a credit meter.

OVO’s commitment to smart meters

At OVO, we’ve been encouraging our customers to upgrade to smart meters for a while, and we’ve now installed over 100,000.  

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