Smart versus traditional: the low-down on energy meters

Smart meter or traditional meter – what’s the difference?

Have you been thinking about swapping your traditional energy meter for a smart meter? We review what to expect and the benefits of each option, leaving you to decide whether to make the switch.  

Before diving into the different functions that each meter offers, let’s look at their main purpose and explain the breakdown of your bill. 

Analogue electricity meter with dialsCredit: Shutterstock/Paul Maguire

Traditional analogue meters

Traditional analogue meters

Traditional gas and electricity meters measure the amount of energy you use over time. Energy suppliers will send you a request to submit a meter reading on a regular basis and with this data they calculate your bill based on your actual usage

Depending on your supplier, you could be asked to take a meter reading every three months. If you forget, your bill will be based on an estimated reading that considers the time of year and your previous year’s use.  

A traditional meter records your energy usage continuously, which means it doesn’t store any data. Any household with a mains gas and electricity supply can have standard gas and electricity meters, or just an electricity meter if you don’t have gas (around 4 million homes across the UK don’t have a gas supply).

Woman with pen and notepad taking a electricity reading at homeCredit: Shutterstock/Yevhen Prozhyrko

Making your traditional meter work harder

Making your traditional meter work harder

While traditional meters work perfectly well, if you’re savvy, you can make them work a little harder, helping you to budget and stay on top of your energy consumption

1. Stay up-to-date with your reading

When prompted by your energy supplier, make sure to submit your meter reading on time. This will avoid an estimated bill that might not match what you’ve used – meaning a bigger bill later or paying too much too soon.

2. Monitor the electricity you use

If you don’t already own one, it could be worth investing in an energy monitor to track your electricity consumption.

This is based on a sensor connected to your main electricity line which measures the current passing through. This data is then transmitted to the monitor which usually allows you to see your energy use in kilowatt hours, along with your carbon emissions and energy cost. You can turn appliances on and off to get a sense of how much difference they make to your energy use. Unfortunately, monitors aren’t available for domestic gas meters.  

One disadvantage of these devices, according to The Green Age, an energy saving consultancy, is that the data isn’t 100% accurate because it’s collected via a sensor rather than direct from the electric meter. Nonetheless, the monitor will still give you an indication of your energy usage.  

Another option is a smart plug with energy monitoring. Use this to plug in an individual appliance and it will show you the energy usage. A smart plug also comes with other functionality such as timers to turn the appliance on and off.  

Unlike smart meter monitors, which are free of charge, you’ll need to buy a smart plug or an energy monitor for a traditional electric meter. Prices vary depending on what functionality is provided, so consider what features you’ll find helpful before you buy. Expect to pay £10+ for a basic monitor or a smart plug, and over £100 for extra bells and whistles.  

Smart meters

Smart meters

Smart meters are the new wave of energy meters being introduced across Britain. The government is behind the rollout, which is designed to help consumers reduce their energy consumption, bills and carbon emissions. More than 54% of the meters currently in use across England, Scotland and Wales are smart meters, and the government wants them installed in all homes by 2025. 

Just like standard energy meters, smart meters record the amount of energy you consume, but rather than submitting a meter reading to your supplier, the data is sent automatically through a secure network to your energy company. According to Ofgem, your smart meter stores data about your energy use every 30 minutes. This means you pay for what you use rather than relying on estimated bills. 

You can also keep an eye on your energy use via an in-home display. Unlike an energy monitor for a traditional electric meter, you don’t need a smartphone or wi-fi for it to work. Instead it connects wirelessly via a low frequency radio network.  

Smart Energy GB, a non-profit campaign group promoting smart meters, explains the benefits of an in-home display: “At a time when energy prices are rising, many people will be looking for ways to better manage their usage at home. The in-home display which comes with a smart meter can help people make energy savings by showing them their usage in pounds and pence in near-real time. 

“An energy monitor may be able to perform a similar function for electricity usage, but unlike a smart meter, they cannot show you your gas usage and nor do they communicate with your supplier, meaning you won’t receive benefits like accurate bills.” 

Usually, the information provided by the in-home display is all people need to identify where they can cut down on energy, help budget, and see how much they are spending. However, if you like all the detail, you could invest in a consumer access device (CAD). But unlike in-home displays, which come free with your smart meter, they come at a cost. As an example, you can expect to pay £69.99 for a Hildebrand smart meter display and CAD.

Smart Energy GB argues that having a smart meter can save you money. It cites a poll it ran in April 2022 which found that those with a smart meter who used it to help them adjust their energy use believe they saved an average of £366.24 over a year.  

Smart meters can also help energy suppliers monitor where in the country demand is surging. This takes into account fluctuations caused by the time of day, seasonal changes or irregular events such as extreme weather. Demand can also be swayed by televisions programmes, referred to as “TV pickups”. For us, that means being able to have a cuppa during peak viewing times.  

There are two types of smart meters – often referred to as first and second-generation smart meters. First generation meters arrived in 2013, but many stop sending automatic readings to your energy company if you swap supplier. Second generation smart meters are cross-compatible – meaning if you switch, readings continue to be sent to your new supplier. 

Smart meter in-home display on kitchen worktopCredit: Shutterstock/Vitalij Terescsuk

The breakdown

Smart meters vs energy meters

Smart meter 

  • Data is stored every half hour 
  • Energy consumption is sent digitally to your supplier 
  • Bills are always based on what you’ve used 
  • Energy consumption is shown in near real-time, within a few seconds of use 
  • Your supplier can see when there is a problem with supply and rectify the issue 
  • Connections and disconnections are done remotely

Traditional energy meter 

  • No data is stored 
  • Readings have to be taken manually 
  • An estimated bill is issued when a meter reading is not provided 
  • Usage is usually tracked on a monthly or quarterly basis 
  • There is no real-time response to problems with supply  
  • Connections and disconnections must be done manually 

Whether standard or smart, all energy meters monitor the amount of gas or electricity you use, allowing your supplier to calculate how much to charge you. Units are measured in kilowatt hours (kWh) on your bill. Electricity units are either based on a single unit rate or a dual fuel rate, which provides you with two meter readings. The dual fuel rate is often called Economy 7. 

Although gas meters measure in units of hundreds of cubic feet, or cubic meters, the energy is sold in kilowatt hours, the same as electricity.  

Your unit rates for gas or electricity will depend on factors such as where you live, your supplier and your tariff. The Centre for Sustainable Energy has a useful guide to understanding your gas or electricity bill. 

Camilla Sharman

Written by Camilla Sharman she/her

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With her 30 years of experience, Camilla Sharman has covered a wide range of sectors within the business and consumer industries both as a feature, content, and freelance writer.  As a business journalist, Camilla has researched articles for many different sectors from the jewellery industry to finance and tech, charities, and the arts. Whatever she’s covered, she enjoys delving deep and learning the ins and out of different topics, then conveying her research within engaging content that informs the reader.