Smart meters and energy monitors explained

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What is the difference between a Smart Meter and an Energy Monitor?

We have found that lots of people do not know what's "watt" when it comes to energy and smart metering so hopefully this guide will help!

What is an Energy Monitor?

An energy monitor is a simple device which provides you with information about how much energy your home is using. There are many different brands and types of energy monitors and some utility companies will provide you with a basic energy monitor for free, to help you reduce your energy consumption. Energy monitors are very useful devices for helping consumers work out which devices in their homes are using most energy and have been proven to make people 'energy aware' and to help reduce energy usage.

Most energy monitors allow you to view your real-time electricity usage in units of energy used (kWh), cost and carbon emissions. Some have additional features, such as the ability to set daily electricity usage targets or alarms to alert you when you have used a set amount of electricity.

How do energy monitors work?
Most energy monitors are made up of three parts: a sensor, a transmitter and a display. The sensor clips on to the mains power cable connected to your electricity meter. This monitors the magnetic field around the power cable to measure the electrical current passing through it (in amps). The sensor is plugged into the transmitter which sends the current readings wirelessly to the display unit. The display does some maths and displays a range of information, which differs according to which energy monitor you have. Most energy monitors will tell you your home's instantaneous power usage in kilowatt hours (kWh), how much this is costing in pounds and pence as well as estimating the volume of greenhouse gas emissions (normally in KG of CO2) associated with your energy consumption.

The confusion between energy monitors and smart meters is probably something to do with the fact that some utility companies have been handing out energy monitors for free. Some people therefore think they have already got a smart meter, when in fact they have an energy monitor.

Where can I get an energy monitor?
You can buy energy monitors from Smart Home Energy or in many shops. We sell Wattson energy monitors directly, and believe these are some of the most aesthetic and sophisticated monitors available. There are also several other brands which are cheaper, such as the OWL USB and OWL micro which have slightly less functionality.

Free energy monitors
You can also get a free energy monitor if you sign up to certain energy tariffs, such as British Gas’s EnergySmart tariff or Southern Electric’s iplan tariff. However it makes sense to check the details of the tariffs and the costs of the energy monitor very carefully as it may well be cheaper to buy your own rather than switch tariff just to get a free monitor.

What is a Smart Meter?

A Smart Meter is an advanced electricity and or gas meter that is installed by your utility company in place of your existing meter. Smart meters measure your energy usage and send readings back to your energy supplier, via the internet, in order to avoid 'estimated' bills.

Smart meters also offer additional possibilities for the future, such as improved ‘time-of-day tariffs’ offering cheaper rates at off-peak times to smooth out national energy usage through the day. The idea is that, as products in our homes get more sophisticated they will be able to make intelligent choices about when to switch themselves on and off (for example you freezer or washing machine may be able to select the cheapest time to run) in order to help save you money. However, in the short term, smart meters will not save you money on their own, as they will require you to make choices about when to turn things on and off yourself. In contrast smart meters are estimated to save energy suppliers more than £300m a year, by removing the need to take meter readings and deal with bill disputes.

The government plans to have a smart meter in every UK home by 2019. British Gas plans to install 2 million smart meters by the end of 2012. However, there is much debate about the benefits of smart meters to the consumer, since the government has allowed utility companies to pass on the costs of installing the meters (estimated to be £11 billion!) to the public. At the moment, the smart meter roll-out is being led by the energy companies without any checks in place to make sure that costs don't increase. Which? magazine believes the roll-out is flawed and is calling on the government to stop the smart meter roll out. They think the government must answer some key questions including 'How much will consumers pay?', 'How can we minimise the cost?' and 'How do consumers feel about smart meters?'.

Big Brother Watch warns that there is "still no concrete privacy protection in place" and is worried that smart meters will "give prying eyes an unprecedented look inside our homes". Meanwhile, Private Eye reported in an article in April 2012, that new government guidelines demand that smart meters are able to receive software updates over the air "which is bad news for British Gas. It will have to rip out the 200,000 meters it has installed over the last two years because they are not 'smart' enough to meet the guidelines." They say the new guidelines "allow customers to block transmission of everything bar their monthly usage figures".

Private Eye goes on to explain how a German firm's meters were found to be so insecure that hackers could easily intercept minute-by-minute reports and work out whether customers were home or not! They also claim that the FBI have warned that "millions of customers around the world are hacking their own meters to reduce their bills. One widespread method involves using a cheap optical converter to reprogramme the meter." They go on to quote the FBI as having said "many customers have found they can simply turn off their meters by putting a magnet on top. Indeed a spot check showed that 10% of one utilities customers had cottoned on to this wheeze".

How can I get a smart meter?
You can not buy a smart meter yourself, smart meters need to be installed by your energy company and not all utilities are installing them yet. If you really want one you could switch to a different energy company, and onto a specific tariff which will get you a smart meter. First Utility is offering a free smart meter to anyone who switches to its Smart as Standard duel fuel or electricity tariff. It says it aims to install your smart meter within a maximum of 60 days from your supply going live.