“It’s easier to save energy when you can see the energy you’re using”

In an article in the November/December issue of Energy in Business & Industry magazine, Andrew Warren, Chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, questions quite how successful attempts to use the residential smart metering system to alter demand peaks this winter can possibly be. 

There is no longer any requirement for an energy company to repair or replace the relevant “visual display unit” provided to householders, to enable each of us to see precisely when and how much fuel we are using. Once the unit is over 12 months old, any malfunctioning becomes the liability of each householder to rectify, at her or his own cost.  

Andrew is not aware of any other piece of electronic equipment on the marketplace that has quite such a limited “lifetime” guarantee. It appears to be nobody’s responsibility to check just how many of the 13 million “visual display units” in British homes are not working properly. 

The proliferation of smart meters should be a boon for domestic energy efficiency. But suppliers are shirking their responsibilities when your in-home display of your smart meter stops working.


So what happens when your screen goes blank?

Smart meters have now been installed in well over half of British homes. Those masterminding achievement of our “Net Zero emissions by 2050” target regard such meters as the absolutely pivotal component of ensuring that the building stock (45% of energy consumption) delivers. Shorter term, National Grid will be depending upon them to send accurate time signals to householders to avoid blackouts this winter.

Smart meters are a boon to energy companies. Originally, they had very limited knowledge of customer behaviour. But now are acquiring precise details of how much electricity and/or how much gas we are using at any given moment of the day. Which helps enormously with efficient load management.

In exchange, 13.66 million of we householders are able to use the screen provided to us by the energy companies, to see from minute to minute just how much fuel we are using. And, certainly according to the Smart Meter GB publicity campaign adjust our usage accordingly, thereby saving ourselves some money along the way. At one time, this campaign was claiming that just these meters were even helping us combat climate change.

That would be absolutely splendid. Apart from one complication. It assumes that the in-home display ( frequently called a VDU, or Visual Display Unit) installed by energy companies is still working.  And, from my experience, that is all too often , simply no longer true.

Householder’s responsibility 

When the VDU screen goes blank, it is astonishingly not up to the energy supplier to repair or replace .It is entirely up to the individual householder to be pro-active, if necessary,  purchase a replacement and arrange for a skilled tradesman to install it.

The indefatigable Green MP for Brighton, Caroline Lucas, obviously got wind of this.  Back in July she asked an apparently bland Parliamentary Question, “whether it remains policy that energy companies should repair or restore malfunctioning smart meter visual display units installed in homes.”.

To which the junior Minister (at the time) Graham Stuart replied in mid-October,  that “when energy suppliers install a smart meter in a household, they are required to offer the customer an In-Home Display (IHD). Energy suppliers also have an obligation to provide support for IHDs, including a repair or replacement where necessary, within the first year of installing a consumer’s smart meter.”

Twelve-month guarantee

Note that last phrase. Yes, the energy supplier has a responsibility to do something about it when the VDU malfunctions. But never if it has been in place for a day over 12 months. A derisory length of time, not determined by OFGEM. Or by the Government. It is only to be found in the Code of Practice signed between the energy companies and Smart Energy GB –  which is the publicity “campaign” entirely funded by (guess who?) the energy companies.

This is a disgrace. I cannot think of any other consumer electronic product for which the guarantee runs out after just one year. After which, the suppliers take no responsibility for whether it is working or not. It certainly doesn’t say much for each energy company’s reputation regarding the durability of the products they themselves choose to install.

Let alone a deal from which the supplier continues to draw so many benefits at their end. Because what every participating householder is doing is to provide these, frequently enormous, supplying companies with some very commercially useful information about our energy-related purchasing habits.

Additionally, every smart meter installed enables the energy supplier to cut back heavily on the number of people it employs, either directly or indirectly.

Not so long ago,  each householder enjoyed regular visits from the gas meter reader or the electricity meter reader (seldom simultaneously).  These have now just about all gone.

But arguably even more jobs have been lost within the telephone answering staff . It used to be that each energy company had so many telephone staff employed to deal with angry customers arguing that their estimated bill was grossly overcharging them. Every bill issued to a household with a smart meter installed will by definition be accurate. Negotiations over estimated bills have ceased.

Clunky and old fashioned

There are 9.275 million of the original SMETS-1 meters which have been installed. Even whilst this was happening, it was acknowledged that these meters were clunky and old fashioned. And it seems seldom continued working when the customer changed supplier. Which, at the time, the Government kept encouraging us all to do.

Today we have 13.2miilion SMETS-2 meters installed. Now the only people changing supplier are those whose energy supplier has gone broke, and at the behest of the regulator OFGEM, have been transferred unilaterally to one of the large surviving suppliers.  A transfer that, in my own case, overnight has seen a blank screen replacing a previously very useful 2-year-old VDU.  I suspect I am not unique; but it seems that nobody at all is monitoring this situation.

Nobody collates statistics about how many households are staring at a totally useless in-home display unit. Not OFGEM. Not the Government. Not Energy UK .Not Smart Meters GB. Not even the (utterly obscure) energy ombudsman, based in Warrington.

It may of course be that all the rest of these ageing VDUs are still functioning well. But that decision to adopt just a one-year guarantee really does imply a singular lack of confidence in their longevity.

Remember that as you see Smart Energy GB’s latest full page colour ads in all the biggest selling magazines, with an Einstein lookalike staring precisely at a fully-functioning VDU. And then reflect upon the ad’s pertinent strapline:  “It’s easier to save energy when you can see the energy you’re using.” Quite so.

3 thoughts on ““It’s easier to save energy when you can see the energy you’re using”

  1. Since publishing this article, I have received masses of responses from British householders whose “visual display unit” parts of their smart meter no longer functions- and have got no help from their energy supplier.
    And I have also received an official response from the relevant Government department, confirming that nobody within the UK government is making any attempt to establish just how many smart meter systems are no longer fit for purpose, as they don’t provide any visual assistance to householders.

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