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Keypad prepayment meters - paying for energy

This advice applies to Northern Ireland

A keypad prepayment meter allows you to pay as you go for energy. You pay by buying credit over the phone, online or at a paypoint in a local store. If you don't top up your keypad, you'll run out of energy.

A prepayment meter can be a good way to budget for your energy if you are on a low income or your income goes up and down a lot. Keypad tariffs are normally one of the cheapest ways to pay. This page explains how prepayment meters work and the benefits and drawbacks of paying for your energy this way.

How prepayment meters work

Keypad prepayment meters have electronically coded keys which are specific to the meter. You are given a plastic card with your Keypad Meter number, which you need in order to buy top ups.

Your supplier will tell you how you can buy top-ups and how to load credit on to your meter.

Electricity meters

Your electricity meter will be either:

  • a single rate meter where your electricity is charged at the same rate whenever you use it, or
  • a two or three rate meter where electricity is charged at different rates at different times of the day (Economy 7, Powershift)

Your keypad meter allows you to check how much electricity you have used and gives an estimate of how many days’ credit you have left, based on last week’s usage. If you run low on credit you will hear a low-volume warning noise. When you turn this warning noise off you will automatically get some emergency credit to tide you over until you can topup again. If you run out of emergency credit after 4pm on weekdays, at the weekend or on certain bank holidays you will be given ‘friendly credit’, which means that your supplier will continue your supply. Northern Ireland Electricity will read your meter every three months to make sure that your account is up to date.

Reading your keypad prepayment meter 

Gas meters

Gas meters only have a single rate. You will pay the same price regardless of when you use gas in your home.

You have to top up your gas prepayment card at a paypoint in a local store. You cannot top it up by phone or online.

When you insert your card into the meter, it will confirm the amount of credit on the card and update the credit total.

Your meter will display a “low” message if you are running out of credit and you need to top up. If the credit runs too low, the meter will notify you by closing the gas valve and stopping the supply. You can access £1 of emergency credit, but before restoring the gas supply you must switch off all appliances.

Advantages

The advantages of using a prepayment meter are:

  • it is usually one of the cheapest tariffs
  • it can be a useful way to budget if you're on a low income
  • it can be used to pay off arrears if the key or meter is programmed to pay off debt when it is charged.

Disadvantages

There are several disadvantages to using a prepayment meter:

  • if you can't afford to buy tokens or recharge your card or key, you won't have any energy
  • your nearest charging point may not be near you. Allow for the additional cost of getting there when you're thinking about the cost of using a prepayment meter
  • you can't spread the cost of the larger winter bills over the whole year
  • the meter can be set to recover arrears. This means you'll have to pay for using energy and for your arrears at the same time
  • you'll have to pay more towards the arrears when you're using more energy.

In case of an emergency, check the opening hours of the shop or Post Office where you normally buy your credit for gas and electricity and also the location of the next nearest outlet.

Going away on holiday? Make sure you charge your cards with plenty of money to ensure your supply is not interrupted over the holidays and don’t forget to buy enough credit a few days before the bank holidays.

Your prepayment meter will have a certain amount of emergency credit if you run out which you’ll need to pay back next time to top up your meter.

How to get a prepayment meter

You can ask to switch to a prepayment meter at any time. Contact your supplier.

If you are in debt to your supplier, they might require you to pay for your gas and electricity by prepayment meter as a condition of you getting an energy supply. This may be your only alternative to disconnection, especially if you have already tried paying off your debts with a payment plan. An engineer will need to visit your home to install the meter.

You can ask to switch to a prepayment meter at any time.

More help with your options if you’re in debt to your energy supplier

If you lose or damage your prepayment card or key

If you lose or damage your keypad card, you needn’t worry as it can’t be used with any other meter and you won’t lose any credit. If you need to replace a prepayment card or key, contact your supplier for details of how to get a new one. You can top up your electricity meter without a card - ring your supplier for instructions how to do this. You can buy a replacement card for your gas prepayment meter at a local paypoint store.

How to contact your electricity supplier

How to contact your gas supplier

Tampering with a prepayment meter

If your supplier thinks you have tampered with your meter, they may remove it and disconnect your supply. If you’ve stolen from or tampered with your meter, you may be prosecuted for theft and your supplier may try to recover the money. If this happens to you, you should get help.

Next steps

What to do if you think your prepayment meter is faulty

What to do if your prepayment meter runs out of credit and you can’t afford to top it up

If you need more help

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