Not so smart: bad meter installations leave users in debt and in the dark

Not so smart: bad meter installations leave users in debt and in the dark

Consumers are left footing the bill when a much-vaunted new technology goes wrong

technology goes wrong
Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer with their ‘Smart Energy’ bus. They toured the UK persuading households to use a smart meter.
Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer with their ‘Smart Energy’ bus. They toured the UK persuading households to use a smart meter. Photograph: Dan Goldsmith/PA

Valerie Cooper has always budgeted carefully in order to pay her utility bills on time. Now she faces cancelling a holiday to celebrate her husband’s 70th birthday after her supplier, Shell, turned her £1,450 credit into £666 arrears overnight. The cause was the botched installation of a smart meter which was supposed to save her money.

“An engineer came in October 2017 and by 8pm he was still having problems trying to get the new meter to pick signals up,” she says. “He took it out and put our old meter back in and returned next morning. The smart meter still didn’t work so he fitted another one – which already had a reading on it.”

Fearing that the inherited meter reading would affect her bills, Cooper informed Shell, which told her to photograph the screen and email it. She did so repeatedly and spent the ensuing months asking vainly for an updated bill. In the meantime, she continued to pay her usual monthly direct debit of £104 and was told that she was £1,450 in credit. Then, 18 months after the abortive installation, the updated bill arrived demanding £666. “I am retired and disabled, my husband is worried to death about it,” she says. “We can no way find that sort of money and I don’t believe we owe it, since they haven’t read the meter for nearly two years.

Cooper is one of many householders who have found themselves paying a high price for the government’s £11bn smart meter rollout, which is supposed to send data automatically to suppliers and abolish the uncertainty of estimated readings. Some have had to foot the bill for repairs after technicians damaged their property. Others, like Cooper, have faced fantastical bills because their new meter failed to function. And hundreds have found that their meters stopped working when they switched supplier to cut costs.

It offered to reduce the debt by £300 as a goodwill gesture and spread the balance over an affordable repayment plan. “We’d like to apologise to Mrs Cooper for the stress caused by our customer service failures,” said the company, whose website promises that smart meters give back control to the customer. “After looking into her account we found that her meter exchange was initially not updated on our systems, which is the reason why her account was billed incorrectly.

“Clearly, we didn’t do a good enough job to promptly fix the issue, but we have registered her meter exchange on the system.”

Suzanne Godfrey has been left with disabled heating and hot water systems after EDF sent a technician to install a smart meter, and she has been told she is liable for repairs. “During installation they turned all the power off and then back on but couldn’t restore power to the underfloor heating or secondary hot water loop,” she says.

“They sent an electrician but he didn’t know how to restore the power. They refuse to send a specialist heating engineer and have questioned the quality and state of the equipment, which is only three years old and was working up to the moment EDF turned off the power.

“I’m stunned that a large company can request access to my home, carry out work that causes a problem and then walk away from it.”

EDF says that customers are sent warnings to turn off sensitive equipment, including boilers, before a smart meter installation – Godfrey has denied receiving this – and explained that it will not guarantee to refund the cost of a heating engineer as the system may have had an underlying fault.

Meanwhile, Samuel Crisp was left without heating or electricity through one winter’s night after having a smart meter installed by Ovo. It transpired that the meter had been accidentally set to a pay-as-you-go setting and, after running through the emergency balance, his supply was disconnected even though his online account was £300 in credit. Ovo awarded him £150 as a gesture of goodwill.

A smart meter by a thermostat
Seeing energy use live on a meter was intended to help save money, but estimates of potential savings have been revised down. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Critics claim that corners are being cut in the rush to meet official targets. In 2016, the government announced that it expected suppliers to have offered or installed smart meters to all customers by 2020, a target that’s proved unrealistic.

The initiative is in response to the European commission’s 2009 electricity directive, which envisaged smart technology being offered to 80% of homes across the EU by 2020. The UK opted for 100% coverage by the same date and handed responsibility to energy suppliers, rather than gas and electricity network operators, who have the workforce and infrastructure to install whole streets at a time, instead of home by home.