When Smart Meters Aren’t

In a process that took ten years, from 1986 to 1996, the Conservative government privatised energy supply in the UK and turned it into a competitive marketplace. The British public resigned themselves to a lifetime of scouring pricing leaflets and frequently changing energy suppliers in order to get the best deal. This became simpler with the introduction of comparison sites like uSwitch and nowadays most switches can be completed online with very little effort on the part of the customer.

Of course, one of the crucial reasons why this works is that nothing actually changes on your premises. Your gas and electricity are still supplied through the same meters. The actual changeover is just a flick of a switch or a turn of a tap in a distribution centre miles from your house.

I’m a member of the Money Saving Expert’s Cheap Energy Club. This makes my life even easier. They know all about our energy usage and a couple of times a year I get an email from them suggesting that I could change a bit of money by switching to a different plan.

They also set up deals for their customers. They have enough clout that they can go to big energy suppliers and say “we’ll give you X,000 new customers if you can give them a good fixed deal on power”.

And that’s how I switched to British Gas in February 2016. I got a good fixed deal through the Cheap Energy Club.

The next innovation in British power supply was the recent introduction of smart meters. These are meters that can be read remotely by the suppliers, eliminating the need for meter readers. Because it’s automatic, the suppliers will read your meters far more frequently (daily, or even more often) giving customers a far better picture of their usage. You even get a little display device which communicates with the meter and gives minute by minute information about how much power you are using.

Last August I investigated getting a Smart Meter through British Gas. They came and fitted it and everything seemed to work well. All was well with the world.

Then, a couple of months ago, British Gas announced massive price hikes. This didn’t bother me at the time as I was on a fixed deal. But that deal was going to end in October – at which point my electricity was going to get very expensive.

A week or so later, I got an email from the Cheap Energy Club telling me what I already knew. But also suggesting a few alternative plans. I glanced through them and agreed with their suggestion of a fixed plan with Ovo. My power would go up in price Рbut by nowhere near as much as it would with British Gas. I clicked the relevant buttons and the switchover started.

Ovo started supplying my power this week and sent me an email asking for initial meter readings. I contacted them on Twitter, pointing out that I had smart meters, so there was no need for me to send them manual readings.

Their first reply was vaguely encouraging

But actually, that turned out to be untrue. The truth is that there are (currently) two versions of the smart meter system. Everyone who has had a smart meter installed up until now has been given a system called SMETS1. And SMETS1 meters can only be read remotely by the company who installed them. There’s a new version called SMETS2 which will be rolled out soon, which allows all companies to read the same meters. And there will be a SMETS1 upgrade at some point (starting late 2018 is the best estimate I’ve been able to get) which will bring the same feature to the older meters (and by “older”, I mean the ones that have been installed everywhere).

Of course, the SMETS1 meters can be used to supply power to customers of any company. But only working as dumb meters which the customers have to read manually. And, yes, I know this is very much a first world problem, but it would be nice if technology actually moved us forward!

I see this very much as a failure of regulation. The government have been in a real hurry to get all households in the UK on smart meters. At one point they wanted us all switched over by 2020. I understand that target has now been softened so that every household must be offered a new meter by 2020. But it seems that somewhere in the rush to make the meters available, the most obvious requirements have been dropped.

The power companies keep this all very quiet. The market for power supply in the UK isn’t growing particularly quickly, so they’re all desperate to grab each other’s customers. And they won’t tell us anything that would make us think twice about switching supplier.

Ovo will come out and fit new smart meters for me. And (like the original British Gas installation) it will be “free”. Of course, they aren’t giving anything away and customers are paying for these “free” installations in their power costs. It would be interesting to see how many households have had multiple smart meter installations.

Of course, if you’re switching to save money (as most of us are), then I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t switch if your smart meters will no longer be smart. But I’d suggest asking your new supplier if they can use your previous supplier’s smart meters. And making a loud “tut” sound when they say they can’t.

And when you’re offered new smart meters, don’t get them installed unless they are SMETS2.


More on uSwitch

The people at uSwitch saw yesterday’s blog post and were rather pleased that I was so happy with their service. To show their thanks, they’ve written to me with an offer for my readers.

If you use this link to visit their site and change energy supplier before the end of June 2009, they will send you an Amazon voucher for ¬£10. You’ll also (obviously) need to give them a valid email address so they have somewhere to send the voucher.

I don’t yet have a policy for promoting products on this site. Perhaps I should think about that if offers like this become more common. I should, however, point out firstly that I have no connection to uSwitch (I’m just a satisified customer) and secondly that I’m getting no payment for mentioning them again – the offer is just for my readers.

So, once again, here’s the link to use. The offer is valid until the end of this month. Which gives you about two weeks to make use of it.


Buying Power

How do you buy your power? Or, more specifically, how do you decide which company to buy your power from?

Here’s how I do it. Ever six months or so I go to uSwitch and spend five minutes researching who does the cheapest gas and electricity for our usage. If I find something that is much cheaper than our existing supplier then I’ll change. Most of the time I can make the change over the internet by simply following a link from the uSwitch site. Most of the time the differences are so small that it’s not worth changing.

One thing that I will never do is to sign on for a new power supplier from people who knock on my door and try to tell me a new supplier without giving me time to investigate their offers. Firstly, I think it’s incredibly rude to disturb people whilst they are at home, but mostly it’s the hard-sell tactics that I object to.

We had one last week. He was from npower, but they are all as bad. I noticed him as I was walking home, but realised that he was walking away from my house. When I got in, my wife said that he had knocked at the door but she had ignored him. But an hour or so later he came back. I answered the door and he immediately launched into his nonsense. Apparently, most of my neighbours had realised that he could save them money so they had all signed up. He didn’t have price data for my current supplier but he knew that he could save me money. I tried to explain to him how uSwitch works, but it seemed to just confuse him.

In the end I told him that I refused to do business with any company who called on me uninvited as I considered it rude. He started to argue that it wasn’t rude, but realised that he was wasting his time and retreated.

Ususally I just let these things go, but on this occasion I decided to take it further. Firstly I checked with Uswitch and, as I suspected, my supplier (Scottish Power in case you’re interested) we still the cheaper than npower by about a tenner a year. Then I emailed npower customer services to complain about them sending out uninformed and unethical sales people.

Today I got a reply from them. They were sorry to hear that I felt their sales representative was attempting to mislead me. They were also sure that normally “the standard of service offered by our Sales Team is professional and of the highest standard”. They also pointed out that if I sent them my address they would pass my details to their “Marketing Supression Team” which would stop me getting further visits.

That last item got me thinking. Of course, it’ll be an improvement if I get no more sales visits from npower. But there are many other power companies who delight in trying to mis-sell their services in this way. The absense of the npower team will scarely be noticed. Wouldn’t it be good if there was a industry-wide “Marketing Supression” list that all of the power companies signed up to. I can’t be the only person who gets annoyed by this.

I have no idea how effective these sales calls are. It must work to some extent as it’s a relatively sales method. I know those people won’t be paid much (and most of it will be commission), but there are a lot of them. I’m surprised that people listen to their nonsense, and I worry that they are preying on people who don’t have the presence of mind to think about what they are being told and therefore take it at face value. I suppose that if you’re told that “most of your neighbours are switching” and you’re not given a chance to check that out before signing, then some people will just accept it.

Until we can get an industry-wide marketing suppression list (or, better, banning this kind of selling) can any one recommend any good tactics for annoying these people?

And please, make use of uSwitch.