Smart meters explained: why these gadgets will soon be measuring your gas and electricity

All you need to know about the switchover

The use of smart meters is on the rise: they're good for consumers, they're good for utility providers, and the government wants them established across the country by 2020. So what makes these upgraded monitoring boxes tick?

Whether you've already received notice of an upgrade to these new boxes or you're wondering whether it's worth your while, you should find everything you need to know in our explainer, no matter where you get your power from.

What are smart meters?

Smart meter 1

Over the next few years, struggling to get under the stairs to read the gas or electricity meter and then reporting the figure to your energy company is going to become a thing of the past (apologies to those who don't like change of any kind). According to trade association Energy UK, as a nation we waste three million hours a year doing this - new technology is sorely needed, and it's on the way.

Just as our home appliances - thermostats, lights, fridges - are becoming smarter, so too are the meters that report details of our energy use back to the people who supply it. That means everything should work automatically, over the web, without any manual readings at all. Energy UK compares it to replacing telegrams with wireless broadband.

Exactly what your smart meter system looks like is going to depend on who you buy your energy from, but this is a nationwide scheme that all the companies are on board with. 46 million meters will need to be replaced in 25 million homes in the UK. Smart meters can work in both prepayment or credit mode depending on your circumstances.

What are the benefits?

Smart meter report

There are many benefits to smart meters besides saving you the trouble of peering under the stairs or waiting in for an inspector to call. Energy use will be measured precisely, rather than being estimated, so your bills will be more accurate and you're only going to pay for what you actually use.

And all this happens remotely, over the web, in real time - energy companies can track usage over time, across the population at large. That should enable them to collectively reduce their carbon footprint and bring down the country's energy usage (and carbon emissions output) as a whole.

It should also make it easier for you to switch between energy companies and tariffs, because you'll know exactly how much juice you're using. It's good for users, it's good for the energy companies, and it's good for the environment, so it's no wonder that the government wants to get everyone using smart meters in the next five years.

How do I get one?

Smart meter installer

Your energy company can tell you that: some firms have already started the process of rolling out these meters to customers, but all of them will do soon. Typically you'll need to make an appointment with an engineer, who will come to your home and get everything switched over to the new system.

Once that's done, in most cases you're going to be able to check your energy usage over time on the web and on your smartphone, and even see which appliances are drawing the heaviest load. Where you live will make a difference as well as who you get your gas and electricity from - houses will be fitted before flats and towns and cities are going to be upgraded before rural areas.

This is a huge undertaking by the government, Ofgem and the energy companies, and with so many different types of homes and energy setups to consider it's not going to happen overnight. If you want details on how your specific energy system is going to work with a new smart meter, get in touch with the company you buy your energy from.

What else do I need to know?

Smart meter 2

You shouldn't have to pay anything for your new meter: it's classed as maintenance of your current system and is included in your current bills. What's more, you should still be able to use other smart kit (like a Nest or a Hive) alongside it - we can't speak for every home configuration though, so check with your energy supplier. If you use gas and electricity you'll get a meter for each, and everyone also gets a separate display unit to check readings.

Landlords, renters and some small businesses are also going to be eligible for smart meters, though again the timing of the roll-out depends on the energy provider and where you happen to be on their list. What's more, having a smart meter shouldn't prevent you from switching energy supplier, either before or after it's installed.

Before the installer leaves your property, he or she should make sure the smart meter is working and give you some quick instructions on how to use it. After that, you can enjoy a future of accurate power bills and efficient energy usage. Ofgem's Smart Metering Installation Code of Practice prevents any attempt at product sales during installation, unless consent has been given in advance.

Images courtesy of British Gas.