Energy bills: why are so many smart meters in Britain turning ‘dumb’?

As energy prices spiral upwards, many households are eager to monitor their gas and electricity usage in real time – and, crucially, how much it is all costing them – with this feature one of the big attractions of smart meters.

Last month, Guardian Money published a letter from a reader whose Shell Energy smart meter stopped working just as the new higher energy price cap took effect in April, and we asked other readers to tell us whether they were also experiencing “a loss of smart-ness”.

The answer was a resounding yes. The hundreds of letters we received coincided with the publication last week of government figures that revealed millions of smart devices are being read manually.

Officials say there are now more than 28.8m smart and advanced meters in households and small businesses across Great Britain, but close to 3.6m are in what the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) calls “traditional mode”, potentially because the homeowner has switched to a supplier that is “currently unable to operate the meter in smart mode”, or there are network communication issues. However, BEIS says the number operating in traditional mode is falling.

We have looked into the issues readers raised about specific energy providers, as well as other questions about smart meters.

When will my smart meter become smart again?

The original letter to our Consumer Champions was about Shell Energy, and our request prompted lots more customers to write in. Jennifer, a Shell Energy customer whose meter also went dumb in March, spoke for many when she said the inability to monitor her usage, and therefore her spending, was a source of concern.

“I can’t instantly see how much a particular action – such as putting the heating on for an hour, or having the oven and grill on for 40 minutes – is costing me since the increase in energy prices,” she says. “It may be that I could afford to put the heating on more, or perhaps there are things I am doing which are costing a lot which I could cut down on … which is surely the whole point of a smart meter?”

A man looking at the website logo for energy company Shell Energy on his phone
Several Shell Energy users wrote to report problems with their meters. Photograph: True Images/Alamy

Some Shell Energy customers say they were advised that their problem was due to the “unreliable signal” where their device was positioned, while others with problems say their meters stopped working when they were moved to the company from a failed supplier or when the price cap changed.

Shell Energy says: “As is the case across the industry, a small proportion of smart metering equipment can lose communication. Where the cause of the fault can be identified and is within our control, we work to resolve the issue as swiftly as possible. Where the issue is beyond our control, we work with our industry partners to try to address these.”

It adds: “We are not aware of any smart meter issues caused by customers moving to our system from failed suppliers, or by the change in the price cap. These events may reveal a symptom – that is, we find out there’s an issue because new tariff information isn’t showing on the IHD [in-home display], but these events are not a cause in themselves.”

The company also says that “when we talk about smart metering equipment not working properly, it is a communication issue and not a supply issue – the supply of electricity and gas to the property, billing and direct debits are all unaffected”.

Smart meters 2.0?

CS, an EDF Energy customer, reports that his smart meters had also stopped working, and says he was told his first generation, or SMETS1, meter was to blame. The same reason was apparently also given to some E.ON customers whose meters had malfunctioned.

SMETS1 stands for “smart metering equipment technical specification 1”, and these were the first wave of meters fitted in homes. The industry has now moved on to installing SMETS2 devices.

“I was not aware that smart meters needed upgrading and am slightly concerned that manual readings may inflate my bills versus smart meters in a period of sharp price increases,” CS says.

With more than 2.8m smart meters on its books, EDF says it had been fitting SMETS2 devices since late 2018. It added that at the outset of the smart rollout programme, all UK energy customers were fitted with SMETS1 meters, which lacked the ability to always operate effectively when a customer moved between suppliers.

The company says there is an industry-wide scheme known as enrolment and adoption (E&A), which is specific to SMETS1 meters and involves enrolling them in a new secure network. “This aims to give SMETS1 meters the same functionality as SMETS2 meters without the customer having to go through the inconvenience of another meter exchange. The majority of our SMETS1 customers have already successfully enrolled.”

The charity Citizens Advice has developed an online tool to help you check what type of smart meter you have, and to troubleshoot.

Gillian Cooper, its head of energy policy, says some of the early meters can lose their smart functionality when you switch. “This can happen, for example, if your supplier has collapsed and you’ve been moved to a new one,” she says. “If you haven’t changed energy suppliers and you’re having trouble with your smart meter, you should contact your energy company for support.”

Unidentified installer fitting a new gas smart meter
Some readers have had trouble with just their gas smart meter. Photograph: Ron Bull/Alamy

My supplier is blaming the Data Communications Company. What is it and could it be its fault?

The DCC is the “digital spine” that connects smart meters to energy suppliers and is the new network EDF is describing. The network is owned by Capita, and a number of readers, including customers of Shell Energy, E.ON and Octopus, say they were told their problem was an issue with the DCC.

Geoffrey Towne, one of several Octopus Energy customers who wrote to us, reports that both his meters went “dumb” on 16 March. When he reported the fault he was told: “In February a large volume of communication hubs have lost communication with us. This is a high-priority defect which is being investigated and dealt with by the DCC.”

Octopus tells Guardian Money that it is aware of a problem caused by a software bug that was affecting a specific type of meter. “The issue stems from a software bug in the firmware of the communications hub of this smart meter type, which leads to a loss in connectivity. However, this is not a big issue – it only affects about 1,000 of our smart meter customers,” the company says.

It adds: “We’ve been working with the DCC on this and developed a solution that doesn’t require a complete smart meter replacement. It will be rolled out to all our affected customers over the coming weeks.”

There are 11.8m SMETS2 and 8.7m SMETS1 meters on the DCC network. Millions of the first-generation meters had stopped sending automatic readings before being enrolled in the smart network and, as more of them are migrated on to it, some of the connection issues reported by readers should be resolved.

The migration is complex, and involves retrofitting more than 500 technology variants.

A DCC spokesperson says 20.5m meters are now on the smart meter network, and that the overwhelming majority are “operating as they should”.

They add: “As with any network of our scale and high growth, a small number of devices can experience temporary issues, which we resolve, working closely with energy suppliers and meter manufacturers.”

Are smart meters a waste of money?

The suggestion that they are not as smart as advertised – the current promotional push features Albert Einstein as a brand ambassador – has led some readers, such as Peter Holmes, to conclude the meters are a “waste of money”.

“I’ve had a problem with a smart meter since changing to Shell Energy,” he writes. “I’ve reported it twice but it still hasn’t been fixed. I had second generation smart meters installed by EDF, but when I switched to Green, the electricity meter stopped communicating, though the gas one was fine.”

However, when Holmes later switched to Shell, he says the gas meter restarted communicating but the electricity meter stopped again. “Personally I think smart meters are just a massive waste of money. Smart meters have had no impact on my energy usage whatsoever,” he writes.

Russell Wing, who says his smart meter has never worked, adds: “We have tried at least five times across multiple suppliers to get it working. On the plus side, it does have a nice display with a backlight, so it’s easier to take the readings.”

With smart meters that she says only worked properly for a short period of time, Ecotricity customer JN wonders whether the whole project is greenwashing and a way to shed staff.

“It certainly doesn’t save me any money as I’d kept a close eye on what I was using anyway, and I dread to think what scarce minerals are used in making the meters and gadgets,” she writes. “The arguments for installing them are greenwash in my view.”

The rollout of smart meters to 30m homes is forecast to be completed by 2025, and BEIS describes the replacement of traditional gas and electricity meters as an essential national infrastructure upgrade that would help make the country’s energy system “cheaper, cleaner and more reliable”.

A BEIS spokesperson says the rollout is “making good progress”, adding: “Customers who have a smart meter are more satisfied with their energy supplier overall, but we want all consumers to have the best possible experience and will continue to work closely with industry so that customers can fully benefit from smart services.”

The cost of the project is spread across everyone’s bills as part of the standing charge. Smart Energy GB, the government-backed campaign tasked with educating Britons on the merits of smart meters, says the devices gave consumers greater visibility and control over their energy bills.

“This is especially important in the current climate with so many households concerned about rising energy costs,” a Smart Energy GB spokesperson says.

“Having a smart meter also puts an end to manual readings and estimated bills, so consumers are only ever paying for energy they have actually used.”

The upgrade of the country’s energy infrastructure was the “most ambitious and complex our generation has seen”, they add. “The tech is vitally important for Britain to reach net zero. The accurate energy data that smart meters provide is helping to generate the right amount of power at the right time, reducing costly waste in the system and flattening peaks in demand.”