Smart meters continue to spread like a rash across the country as energy companies alert households to the advantages of knowing how much gas and electricity they use from day to day.
Especially useful, they say, when family budgets are under pressure like never before.
But the new-age meters, now in 60 per cent of homes, are not without their faults, and may not be as fail-proof as regulators and fervent smart-meter fans suggest.
A Money Mail investigation found that many households with smart meters are experiencing problems with the devices.
These include some truly disturbing issues — for example, people being billed for energy used by properties hundreds of miles away, or meters going rogue, resulting in huge bills which customers then must fight to get cancelled.
Dumb tech: Faulty smart meters have resulted in people being billed for energy used by properties hundreds of miles away
Battles made worse by the woeful customer service at most energy suppliers.
Late last year, Turner Prize-winning artist Sir Grayson Perry was suddenly hit with energy bills totalling £39,000, based on a smart meter installed at the country studio he rarely uses.
Former BBC journalist Jon Sopel also received a five-figure monthly bill relating to a smart meter at his home.
In Sir Grayson’s case, it was only after he took to social media that his energy provider took his complaint seriously.
Other problems experienced by Money Mail readers include annoying glitches. These include smart meters going dumb and then not providing them with the near real-time energy usage data they were promised.
In most cases, when households complain that their smart meters are no longer working, their providers are not interested in fixing the problem.
This is a result of the suppliers’ fixation with hitting new installation targets set by energy regulator Ofgem. Targets that, if missed, result in fines.
Late last year, six companies were fined a combined £10.8 million for missing 2022 Ofgem targets.
Several experts say the introduction of smart meters, which began 12 years ago, has been badly managed.
Gordon Hughes, a former senior adviser on energy and environmental policy at the World Bank, is a fan of smart meters in principle.
But he believes that the computer systems required to support them are only as good as the quality of the data input.
A failure to verify data properly, Mr Hughes says, was behind the billing errors experienced by Sir Grayson, Mr Sopel, and readers such as Jilly Bond (see below).
He also believes that many of the smart meters already installed are not built to last, resulting in an ‘accelerating rate of hardware failures’ (meters going dumb).
As for Ofgem, he accuses it of introducing some ‘stupid policies, resulting in energy suppliers having no incentive to fix dumb meters’.
Shock bills: Turner Prize-winning artist Sir Grayson Perry
Mike Foster, chief executive of trade association the Energy and Utilities Alliance, agrees. He says the introduction of smart meters has been an abject failure.
‘All consumers are paying for the installation of smart meters through their bills,’ he says (it is part of the standing charge).
‘Suppliers have not generated the savings they thought they would as a result of failing to achieve a comprehensive roll out — and most importantly, consumers have not benefited at all from lower bills that the smart-meter future was meant to achieve.’
Among the worst of many smart-meter problems Money Mail readers have reported, is the misbilling problems suffered by six flat owners at a Victorian property in Ealing, West London.
They had an SSE smart meter installed early last year for the lighting of the property’s common areas — stairs and exterior.
Monthly bills used to work out at about £20, but when the smart meter was installed, they began to rise and rise, reaching a staggering £600 a month.
It was only after they contacted SSE that they were told the reason why. The readings that SSE received from the smart meter were for a meter 270 miles away.
In an email sent to one resident, SSE said: ‘The [meter] reads we’re receiving remotely are for a meter up in Sunderland and the system that is used industry-wide to receive reads appears to be getting confused with that meter.’
SSE ended the email by saying it was ‘unsure’ how the issue would be resolved.
Jilly Bond, an actress and accomplished audio book narrator (she has recorded works such as Jilly Cooper’s Pandora and Helen Dunmore’s The Siege) owns a flat in the London house with husband Julian Gartside, a speech and language therapist.
She says: ‘We are constantly told that technology cannot go wrong, but as we have seen with the Post Office Horizon scandal, it can fail.
‘Sadly, it is always private individuals who suffer while large institutions hold on to the money mistakenly taken from customers.’
Although the incorrect billing problem has now been resolved, the smart meter is no longer transmitting readings.
Jilly and the other flat owners contacted the Energy Ombudsman, which looks into disputes between suppliers and customers.
In most cases, when households complain that their smart meters are no longer working, their providers are not interested in fixing the problem
Its data shows that smart meters are a constant source of complaints. It told Money Mail that meter mix-ups are an issue it regularly encounters — especially on new build estates.
In late November last year, the Ombudsman ordered SSE to refund the overpayments.
Although it has so far made a three-figure refund, Jilly says it only accounts for half of the amount overcharged.
SSE also applied a £75 ‘goodwill’ credit to the account for the poor service it has given the flat owners.
While SSE has confirmed that the smart meter was incorrectly linked to a supply elsewhere, it has yet to offer an explanation as to how this happened.
Mr Hughes says the problem ‘almost certainly’ resulted from the wrong smart meter identification being put into the system.
Other readers have had issues with smart meters going rogue and producing inaccurate readings.
One, who wishes to remain anonymous, says her smart meter has issued ‘absurdly high readings’ since it was installed last year.
At times, it has told her that her monthly consumption of electricity is equivalent to that used by two five-bedroom houses combined — she lives in a one-bedroom flat.
Every time she queries the readings, she is told that smart meters do not lie. She has resorted to switching off the smart function and submitting monthly manual readings instead.
David Jarvis, a retired engineering consultant from Chester, is on his fifth smart meter in six years.
Shock: Londoner Jilly Bond was billed for another property
Most stopped being smart and went dumb, while one inflated his energy usage by 20 per cent, resulting in compensation from his energy supplier.
He recently questioned the reliability of his gas smart meter, resulting in an independent inspection carried out by testing firm SGS.
It said the meter was operating within permitted accuracy limits — that is, plus or minus two or three per cent of actual usage.
David accepted this, but was stunned to learn of such accuracy parameters. He says: ‘I find it incredible that a measuring device used to generate readings which energy bills are based on may not be 100 per cent accurate after all.’
He adds: ‘Maybe smart meters are not among the nation’s greatest miscarriages of justice — the concept behind them is admirable. But the fact that they can give out inaccurate readings is rather alarming.’
Like David, many readers are angry that their smart meters no longer work, resulting in them having to take manual readings to receive accurate bills.
Some 2.7 million smart meters are currently classed as ‘dumb’. It is not just that the meters stop being smart that is annoying — it is the reluctance of energy providers to fix them.
David Doig, a retired human resources analyst who lives near Edinburgh, is a fan of smart meters, but not when they fail to work.
He had a new smart meter installed in May last year, measuring both gas and electricity usage. Although the electricity side worked from day one, it refused to give readings for the amount of gas used.
British Gas, his energy supplier, initially told David that it would start working within a matter of days. Then he was promised that the problem would be resolved by September. Today, he is still waiting for his meter to be 100 per cent smart.
‘Maybe British Gas should return to using meter readers and issue people like me with quarterly bills,’ quips David.
British Gas insists that it has installed millions of smart meters ‘without any problems’.
‘The meter’s gone dumb — but my supplier just doesn’t want to know’
It adds: ‘If anyone has an issue, they can get in touch, and we will work to resolve it.
‘Sometimes, we can fix it remotely, in some cases it may take a bit longer or require a visit from one of our engineers. We will always prioritise those who are vulnerable.’
Barry Gratwicke, who lives just outside Brighton in East Sussex, was among the first people to have a smart meter installed in his home.
‘I wanted to do my bit for the country,’ the retired local government officer says.
But the meters went dumb as soon as he decided to switch energy supplier to secure a better deal — a fault common with most first-generation smart meters.
Although he has tried to get a succession of energy providers to turn his meters smart again, none has stepped up to the mark. ‘They don’t want to know,’ he says. ‘They bat the issue away.’
Caroline Abrahams, director at charity Age UK, says smart meters can provide a ‘whole host of benefits’ for energy customers — including the ability to keep track of energy usage. But equally, she says, they can cause a lot of problems, especially if after-care service is lacking.
She adds: ‘Energy suppliers must ensure they provide better installation support and fix smart meters swiftly in cases where they have stopped working.
‘If an older person reports a billing mistake, it is crucial that suppliers quickly investigate and correct any anomalies.’
Gillian Cooper, director of energy at Citizens Advice agrees. She says: ‘Things can sometimes go wrong and when they do, suppliers aren’t getting smart meters working again fast enough.’
‘If problems persist, then Ofgem must hold firms to account.’
Ofgem told Money Mail: ‘When suppliers are at fault, we expect them to do everything in their power to fix them.’
Smart Energy GB is ambassador for smart meters. It said the network underpinning smart meters would keep evolving, supporting a ‘smooth transition to the next generation of communications services for smart meters’.
- Has your smart meter billed you for energy used by someone else? Have you had billing problems? Email jeff.prestridge @dailymail.co.uk
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