Just how smart are these energy meters? Hundreds of thousands of households left in billing limbo by clever gadgets
- Smart meters designed to stop people overpaying due to estimated bills
- Customer given an 11-month wait to fix faulty smart meter
- Then smart meter company cancelled three days before appointment
- Readers report wild swings in energy usage measured by smart meters
- Energy giants left with backlog of complaints from updating systems
Hundreds of thousands of households are still trapped in ‘billing limbo’ – unable to pay promptly for energy usage because of errant computer systems introduced by suppliers.
Many of the billing problems stem from the installation of ‘smart meters’ that have been heralded by both the Government and the European Union as improving how energy is delivered to people’s homes and the monitoring of usage.
These meters will be rolled out more widely across homes from next year. Sending automatic readings to suppliers, they should bring to an end people overpaying for energy because of inflated estimated bills.
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But a number of people have already contacted The Mail on Sunday to say they have been left exasperated by the poor service they have received post installation of a smart meter.
They claim that these new meters are not an elixir to inaccurate billing woes.
Jeffrey Simmons, an 80-year-old retired cab driver, who lives with wife Cynthia, 78, had a smart meter installed at his two bedroom bungalow in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.
But it has continually failed to send automatic readings to his supplier Ovo Energy.
The problem first came to light over Easter last year and a visit was set up by specialist meter firm Lowri Beck to fix the fault. But Jeffrey was told the first available appointment was March this year – 11 months later.
He waited patiently but the company cancelled just three days before a visit was due.
In the meantime, Jeffrey was paying for how much gas and electricity Ovo Energy estimated he had used – £74 a month for dual fuel – rather than how much he had definitely used.
‘So much for smart meters,’ he says. ‘The Government insists we now have them to make it easier for people to keep on top of their energy usage but I’ve got one and it doesn’t even send readings. Ovo was friendly but said there was nothing staff could do.’
A spokeswoman for Ovo says Jeffrey’s meter was set up incorrectly. To compound the problem, Jeffrey’s complaint was not passed on to the right department.
She says: ‘We’re sorry Mr Simmons’ smart meter was not properly installed. Usually, the process is completed within a few hours. Together with our suppliers, we’ve investigated what went wrong and fixed the problem.’
Not so clever: Smart meters are being rolled out across the country, but customers complain of errors
‘Wild swings in energy use on my smart meter’
Meanwhile, a Norfolk-based reader is taking issue with the quality of the handheld device that came with his smart meter, which shows odd patterns of energy use.
Smart meters are wall-mounted units that transmit data to suppliers, but they come with mobile home display units indicating how much energy is used in real time and in pounds and pence.
The pensioner, who is in remission after battling throat cancer, says: ‘The main problem has been wild swings overnight from being under-budget to being over-budget for no reason and with no additional use of electricity.
‘At 3:20pm on April 19 the device showed I was 29 per cent under budget. I went to bed early that day as I was not feeling well.
‘At 5:06am on April 20 it showed I was 14 per cent over budget. But nothing – not a light or heating – was left on overnight.’ He has been reassured that his meter is accurate but not to rely on the mobile display.
He adds: ‘I now look upon the device as one of my sideboard ornaments – sitting among dried herbs, spices and a salmon-fishing reel.’
Preparation for a wider rollout of smart meters has prompted energy companies to update their computer systems but customers are suffering the fallout from such rapid change.
Co-operative Energy is currently facing a customer backlash from a recent botched update of its computer systems, resulting in more than 200,000 users being required to re-register to access their online accounts.
It is fielding around 400 calls a day from customers experiencing re-registration problems.
Energy Goliath npower has had a backlog of late bills triggered by a computer system overhaul in 2013, with around 90,000 bills outstanding in the first two months of this year.
This is a reduction from the 414,000 late bills it ratcheted up in mid-June last year.
In March this year, ScottishPower was subject to a 12-day sales ban by energy regulator Ofgem for its failure to mop up customer complaints fast enough.
An ‘IT bug’ also affected Ovo Energy late last year, leading to customers receiving inaccurate bills. There are no guarantees that switching supplier will help you avoid billing problems but some companies have built a reputation for good service.
In the most recent customer satisfaction survey conducted among more than 9,000 customers by consumer group Which?, ecotricity and Good Energy rank first and second respectively, followed by Ebico, Ovo Energy and Utility Warehouse.
Bottom of the table was npower, and ScottishPower was second last.