Should you get a smart meter?

The government is pushing for us all to get a smart energy meter – seven million have been fitted so far. But what do they do, and should you get one?

The government is pushing for us all to get a smart energy meter. Seven million have been fitted so far, but the Conservatives want that figure to reach 26 million by 2020. However, having a smart meter isn't compulsory despite the pushy letters you may have received from your energy provider. So what do they do, and should you get one?

A smart energy meter automatically takes your meter reading several times a day and sends it to your energy provider. The meters can replace both electricity and gas meters and provide you with far more accurate bills. If you don't have a smart meter, your energy firm relies on you to provide meter readings, or pays meter readers to trawl the streets knocking on doors to get readings. Fail to provide regular readings and your bills will be based on estimates, which could mean you are overcharged for your energy use.

The other reason to get a smart meter is that you can get a display unit for your home that shows you how much energy you are using and more importantly, what it's costing you. The idea is that you'll see just how much you are spending at any given time, and rush around the house switching things off, shaving money off your bills and cutting down on energy consumption.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

The question of how much you could save is another matter one government report reckons smart meters will save the average household £43 a year by 2030, whereas another puts the saving at just £11 a year. The average installation cost for a smart meter is £67, with most households requiring one for electricity and one for gas. You don't have to pay for the installation, but the costs are likely to be added to your bills.

Another cost will be for replacing smart meters they only have a 15-year lifespan, compared with traditional meters, which cost around £15 and last for about 50 years. Looking at those figures, it might look as though the real winners in the smart-meter revolution are the energy firms themselves. "The smart-meter story is increasingly looking like the emperor's new clothes everyone but the government can see the programme's flaws," Dan Lewis, energy policy adviser at the Institute of Directors, told The Times last year. "Consumer bills are going to pay for the £11bn programme, but the benefits will go to the suppliers and the meter manufacturers."

There are also cybersecurity concerns around smart meters. They are "dangerously insecure", says Netanel Rubin of security firm Vaultra, and open to being hacked, reports the Daily Mirror. Moreover, due to technical issues, around 250,000 smart meters are not currently operating in "smart mode", which means that they are essentially still only providing the service of a traditional energy meter, according to the latest report from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. On a more positive note, while early adopters of the technology found that their smart meters refused to work when they tried to switch energy provider, second-generation smart meters should work with any energy firm.

Overall, the government's goals are laudable to save consumers money while encouraging more efficient energy consumption. Unfortunately, the negative publicity has had an impact, with one in five people saying they don't want a smart meter, notes comparison site Compare the Market, and it remains to be seen whether the problems with the current system can be resolved. As it stands, bear in mind that it is up to you whether you want to have one installed and ensure that if you do, it will actually work in "smart mode", or else you might as well stick with your old meter.

In the news this week

If you are a trustee, take note, says Vanessa Houlder in the Financial Times. "Sweeping new rules that came into force this week" are targeting trusts as part of a money-laundering crackdown. Trustees have to tell HMRC exactly what assets are held in the trust, as well as divulging the identities of trustees and beneficiaries a potentially onerous duty for those unfamiliar with HMRC reporting. The new rules, which are designed to help the government identify the misuse of trusts, apply to all trusts, including some set up in wills, that incur tax liabilities. Trustees need to update the register for each year that the trust generates a "UK tax consequence". They have until 5 October to register new taxable trusts and until 31 January 2018 to provide information on existing trusts.

If you are happy to trust a computer to look after your investments, you could save a huge amount on advice and investment fees, say Faith Archer and Ali Hussain inThe Sunday Times. Costs with traditional wealth managers often run to 2%-3% a year, while online competitors typically charge 0.3%-1.3%. Over the long term, this can make a big difference. The likes of Nutmeg, MoneyFarm, Wealthify and Scalable Capital usually keep fees low by investing in passive funds trackers or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that simply track an underlying index rather than trying to beat it. Over the past 12 months their performance compares favourably with traditional investment managers, but as Mark Polson of consultancy Lang Cat notes, these firms have "not been around long enough to be tested by a major market crash".

As of 2018, if you are one of the 75% of people who book your holidays online, you too will be covered if the firm holding your money goes bust, says Zoe Wood in The Guardian. Until now the protection for holidaymakers offered by the government-backed Air Travel Organiser's Licence (Atol) only applied to those who bought package deals through a tour operator. As of next year, all holidaymakers should be covered within 24 hours of booking, regardless of whether flights and hotels have been booked separately or together.

Ruth Jackson-Kirby

Ruth Jackson-Kirby is a freelance personal finance journalist with 17 years’ experience, writing about everything from savings and credit cards to pensions, property and pet insurance. 

Ruth started her career at MoneyWeek after graduating with an MA from the University of St Andrews, and she continues to contribute regular articles to our personal finance section. After leaving MoneyWeek she went on to become deputy editor of Moneywise before becoming a freelance journalist.

Ruth writes regularly for national publications including The Sunday Times, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and Good Housekeeping among many other titles both online and offline.