Millions missing out on smart meter benefits due to faults and poor supplier service, warns Citizens Advice

Despite over half of British homes now having a smart meter, new research from Citizens Advice suggests millions of households are being let down by meter problems suppliers are failing to fix. 

The charity says new rules are needed to ensure energy suppliers identify and fix problems as quickly as possible.

Citizens Advice is particularly worried that people could end up with huge unexpected bills if their supplier isn't able to take an automatic reading for an extended period of time. 

Among the key findings:

  • 20% of households with a smart meter - 2.86 million households - still had to regularly submit manual meter readings because their device isn’t doing that automatically

  • Nearly a third (31%) experienced issues with their in-home display (IHD) -the screen that helps people track their energy usage and costs

  • A quarter of people who asked Citizens Advice for help with smart meter issues had billing problems

  • Those unhappy with installations were nearly two-thirds less likely to adopt smart energy services and products critical for net zero, like time-of-use tariffs and heat pumps

Meter problems have led to some racking up debt due to readings not being sent automatically. In some cases, shock £1,000+ catch-up bills were sent to customers after meters went unchecked by suppliers for over a year.

Current rules allow suppliers to back bill customers for a whole year, whether they have a smart meter or not. Citizens Advice says this period must now be cut to 6 months for smart meters to avoid year-long catch up bills caused if meters fail to send readings.

Franc’s story

Franc Kolar is a 71-year-old van driver living near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. A faulty smart meter landed him with a shock catch-up bill of almost £5,000. His supplier assured him the meter would work in his home, which was the main reason he switched to them. 

Franc said: “I switched suppliers because my old company’s smart meter didn’t work in my cellar. Occasionally I got a text from the new supplier asking if I can send a manual meter reading, but I thought it was probably just a standard reminder message sent to all their customers. I didn’t send readings because I was promised their smart meters were absolutely spot-on. 

“The next thing I knew the bill just mounted and mounted. Eventually I thought: ‘What if? ‘I’d better give them a reading, just in case’ and so I did it. I suddenly got a bill saying I was £4,700 behind; I couldn’t believe it! I was shocked. I’d been paying my bills all along but they were estimated. I've been paying back £450-600 every month for a good couple of years now. 

“It definitely has affected my trust. I keep thinking anybody can just come to the door now and tell me anything. It would be the same with solar panels. I would think people are there only to sell things.”

The tip of the iceberg

Government figures show by the end of last year over 10% of smart meters weren’t working properly. Citizens Advice says this is just the tip of the iceberg - its new research suggests even more households are actually struggling with a whole range of meter issues, such as having to give regular manual readings or issues with their in-home display. 

The charity wants suppliers to be forced to meet new Guaranteed Standards of Performance, which would ensure the causes of smart meter issues are diagnosed in a timely manner and a repair plan put in place. If suppliers don’t meet these standards, affected consumers would be automatically compensated.

It also wants to make sure consumers aren't left waiting in limbo when suppliers blame issues on the Data Communications Company, which is responsible for the data network the tech relies on, leaving smart users unable to get some issues resolved directly. 

When things go wrong, consumers often struggle to find out what the problem is, who’s responsible and how long it will take to fix it. Citizens Advice wants to close what it calls an “accountability gap” between suppliers and the Data Communications Company, so all issues can be diagnosed in a timely manner. 

Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

"The whole point of smart meters is to empower households to save energy and money, but in reality millions are missing out on those benefits due to problems with technology and poor supplier service.

"Energy companies are very keen for customers to get a smart meter but when issues arise they are often nowhere to be found. That has to change.

“Suppliers have been far too sluggish in fixing issues with problem meters. New obligations and stronger accountability measures are needed to restore public trust in this vital tool to reach net zero.”

Notes to editors

  1. Citizens Advice's findings are from a Savanta poll conducted in between August and October 2023, with a representative sample of 4000 domestic energy consumers across the UK.

  2. Millions of households are being let down by meter problems suppliers are failing to fix: i). 20% of households with a smart meter - 2.86 million households - still had to regularly submit manual meter readings because their device isn’t doing that automatically. ii) Suppliers have an obligation to take all reasonable steps to ensure smart meters work properly - and cases coming to Citizens Advice and the EHU generally show that when people raise issues it takes multiple attempts to get issues resolved (EHU statement on this provided in the full report).

  3. Official figures can be found here. These include the number of meters that suppliers report as operating in 'traditional' mode. This means the meter has lost smart functionality and needs to be read manually.

  4. Government figures show by the end of last year over 10% of smart meters weren’t working properly: Citizens Advice research suggests that if you factor in more of the issues impacting consumers with smart meters there are more not working properly than the government’s official figures suggest. 20% of smart meter users say they have to give meter readings regularly and 31% have experienced problems with their IHD.

  5. Full findings are available in our report, Get Smarter: Ensuring people benefit from Smart Meters.

  6. Citizens Advice is made up of the national charity Citizens Advice; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.

  7. Our network of charities offers impartial advice online, over the phone, and in person, for free.

  8. Citizens Advice helped 2.66 million people face to face, over the phone, by email and webchat in 2022-23. And we had 60.6 million visits to our website. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.

  9. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 16,000 trained volunteers, working at over 1,600 service outlets across England and Wales.