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How accurate are business energy smart meters?

How accurate is your business energy smart meter? Would you rely on it to make important energy decisions? As well as communicating meter readings directly to your supplier, smart meters also help you understand your business consumption. But if we are to use this feedback to save energy and money, we need to have faith in consumption numbers. Reports of faulty smart meters have somewhat undermined the smart meter roll-out, which aims to put a smart meter in every home and small business by 2020. In this blog post, we assess the validity of these reports and try to answer the broader question of whether you should get a smart meter for your business.

The smart meter roll-out

Smart meters do all the same things that the traditional meters do, but they also communicate up-to-date gas and electricity readings to your supplier and display information about energy consumption in real time. The Government originally wanted every household to be equipped with a smart meter by 2020. Amid concerns about the accuracy, cost and security of the meters, however, the Government downgraded this target so that every home needs to be “offered” a smart meter by 2020. Comparethemarket research suggests that one in five people no longer want a smart meter. They cite a whole variety of issues, but are their concerns valid? Some of the criticisms are, at the very least, exaggerated.

Smart meters let you track business energy consumption

People have raised concerns about the radio frequencies and electromagnetic radiation produced by smart meters, but current evidence suggests that exposure to these waves does not pose a risk to health. Other concerns are more legitimate. The roll-out is expensive. And although homeowners and small business owners don’t pay for smart meters up front, the roll-out has pushed up monthly prices. Research completed by First Utility found that UK households face a 42% increase in bills to support the smart meter roll-out and other green energy initiatives. When they were first introduced in 2009, smart meters promised to bring more accurate readings, cheaper bills and simplified charges. But the roll-out has been marred by issues. One particularly serious problem concerns the accuracy of meter readings and bills. With one study claiming that smart meters can be out by almost 600%, how much faith can you have in the accuracy of your meter?

The benefits

The benefits of smart meters are supposed to outweigh these issues. As well as gearing homes up for a smarter energy future, when time-of-use tariffs will become more commonplace, smart meters allow homes and businesses to track their energy consumption and save money.

Collecting data allows you to alter behaviour

But if smart meters are going to let us think about accuracy and modify behaviour, then the readings need to be accurate. Some recent examples suggest that smart meters are not as accurate as they purport.

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Inaccuracies in smart meters

There have been several examples of British smart meters going haywire. One SSE customer went viral when his smart meter display showed that he owed the company more than £30,000.

This was a one-off error, and the mistake was quickly identified and resolved by the energy company. But there is evidence of more widespread errors in smart meter functionality. After noticing a large number of people claiming that their bills either increased or decreased after they got a smart meter installed, a team of Dutch researchers decided to test the accuracy of smart meters under lab conditions. Testing nine electronic meters manufactured between 2004 and 2014, the researchers found that five of the meters gave readings that were much higher than the actual amount of power consumed on a test rig. Some of the meters were almost 600% out on the amount of power consumed. Two meters gave readings that were 30% lower than the actual amount of power consumed. The researchers identified energy saving equipment like dimmer switches and energy-saving light bulbs as the cause of the problem for some meters. This modern equipment confused the energy meters because the electricity consumption took on an erratic waveform. They concluded that the designers of these energy meters had not made sufficient allowances for this kind of energy-saving equipment. The scientists behind the study did not name any of the meters that they tested but they did confirm that some of them have been sold and installed in the UK.

Are all smart meters inaccurate?

It is hard to say whether the smart meters would have been as wrong if they were tested with real-world use, instead of in lab conditions. One of the researchers quoted in The Telegraph said: “The study was carried out in a laboratory setting. If you looked at ones in homes I don't expect they would be 500 or 600% out. But what we have shown is the reading can clearly deviate a lot from the power customers are actually consuming.” It is also unclear whether someone using one of these smart meters would have been over or undercharged for these discrepancies. Doug Stewart, chief executive at Green Energy UK, told The Telegraph: “Around 15% of households in the UK already have smart meters which could be affected by this issue. It is alarming, but it does not necessarily mean people have lost money. Smart meters are essentially a 'second check' as energy suppliers keep a record of energy consumption and if there is a discrepancy, they will know.” But even if customers are not overcharged – people will not be able to make decisions about their energy consumption and moderate their behaviour if they don’t have access to accurate information via an onsite display. Richard Bonelle, Energy Manager at Utility Helpline said: “It is clearly a problem if meters do not work with equipment that is designed to reduce energy such as dimmer switches and energy-saving lightbulbs. “An individual or business owner may invest in this equipment to help bring down their energy costs, but if a smart meter shows no change in energy consumption then they are unlikely to keep pursuing this change.” The researchers did not test any of the latest generations of smart meters. Without recent scientific evidence, it is difficult to say whether ultra-modern meters have solved this particular problem, but it is true that smart meters are improving. In June 2017, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy revealed that the smart meter rollout process was around 15% complete, with 7 million smart meters installed in the UK.

How can check if your smart meter is giving accurate readings?

You can get a smart meter checked out professionally, but it will cost you if your hunch is wrong. Suppliers are required to investigate faulty meters. If you believe that yours is faulty then you can contact your supplier who will send someone to carry out a preliminary check. If this doesn’t turn up any problems or you are unsatisfied then you have the right to request a lab test carried out by independent experts. Gas meters can’t easily be tested on site so will normally be sent out to a laboratory. Suppliers will charge you for removing the meter and replacing it while the disputed meter is tested. These costs will only be refunded if it is revealed that the meter is inaccurate, so it can pay to be sure before you call in the energy company. Dodgy meters aren’t as common as you might think. Around 24% of gas meters that are tested have been faulty and only 7% of electricity meters tested since 2003 have been faulty. These figures don’t refer to smart meters, but they are meters that have been referred so there is more likely to be a problem with them.

A smart meter lets you take advantage of cheaper time of use tariffs

Testing a smart meter yourself

Without specialist equipment, it will always be difficult to be 100% sure about your smart meter, but there are some telltale signs that you can look out for which may indicate that you have a faulty meter. Some things to look out for include:

  • If you are using a similar amount of energy overnight, in the evening and in the middle of the day, this may indicate a problem.
  • If electricity consumption stays the same hour by hour or day by day this may also indicate a fault.
  • If bills are erratic it could show a problem.
  • If you turn off all the appliances in your home or place of business and it still shows significant amounts of energy are being consumed, this could indicate that there’s a problem.

How smart meters can help you take charge of consumption

Smart meters can be used to reduce business energy consumption and cut costs. For businesses, reducing energy consumption should be a four-stage process.

  • Data collection

Using smart meters and other input data to gather relevant consumption information.

  • Data analysis

Using tools, techniques and expert help to extract meaning from data.

  • Communication

Effectively passing on insights to staff and other stakeholders.

  • Action

Act to get results. Reducing your consumption relies on having data that you can rely on, otherwise, you will not be able to formulate strategies and act on these. Utility Helpline Energy Manager Richard Bonelle said: “Energy costs can be a huge burden on business finances, especially if you’re operating in energy-intensive sectors. Smart meters make it easier to buy and use energy more efficiently. Many small and medium-sized companies are not large enough to realise the full potential of smart metering. A survey of 1,000 SME business leaders found that 87% of small and medium-sized businesses didn’t have a smart meter installed 61% of respondents reported that they have never made use of smart meter information.” Practically, you can use this framework to answer certain questions about your consumption. For example, you can collect information about nighttime electricity consumption to ascertain whether you are wasting energy overnight. If you monitor data from your smart meter over a long enough period, you should be able to identify a baseline of electricity consumption and you will then know if any power is wasted over and above this on some nights. If you start noticing any big differences, for example consistently high electricity consumption during mild weather, this may indicate that you should be turning the air conditioning off in your office block. Similarly, hotels could try and eliminate energy waste by monitoring their occupancy levels and squaring this against energy consumption. Consistent consumption may indicate that power should be switched off in unoccupied rooms. To run an effective consumption reduction campaign, it is important that you communicate effectively with staff members. It is all well and good having the smart meter data, but if you fail to communicate information about waste with your staff then they will not know the details of where they should be cutting back. This feedback function is essential for energy savings. Good feedback needs to be clear, easy to interpret and understand. For example, it is better to tell workers that ‘this machine costs £1,000 per month’ rather than ‘this machine uses 0.945 KwH of electricity per cycle’. By publishing and distributing information about total energy usage week by week or year by year, you can set measurable efficiency targets. And, importantly, you can track tangible results from actions which can often feel futile to the employee.

Smart meters make it easy to switch energy suppliers

Smart meters make it easy to switch suppliers

One of the best things about smart meters is that they make it easy to switch suppliers. While most first-generation smart meters lose their ‘smart’ functionality when you change suppliers, second generation smart meters work across different suppliers and don’t revert to a ‘dumb’ state when you make the switch. Small and medium-sized business owners frequently cite the hassle involved with switching suppliers as one of the major factors that stops them from seeking a better deal. New generation smart meters eliminate this hassle and allow for a seamless switch, sending information directly to your supplier and eliminating the need to go down to the basement to look it out. And if you have an experienced business energy broker like Utility Helpline fighting your corner for you then it makes the whole process a lot easier. Utility Helpline compares more than 70 tariffs from 20 different suppliers to try and find our customers the best deal. We also offer a variety of energy consultancy services including energy monitoring services, energy health reports and much more.

Get in touch today to learn more about our services and find out how a smart meter can benefit your business. Call: 0800 043 0423.

Published by Utility Helpline on (modified )