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Meter types explained

Your gas and electricity meter records how much energy you use, so your supplier can issue you with an accurate bill. You'll need to be familiar with the device in your meter box so you can read it, either to pass readings along to your supplier or, with a smart meter, to monitor your own energy use.

Know Your Meter, Know Your Bill

The type of meter in your property can also impact the way you pay for energy and, if your financial circumstances and energy needs have changed, you might want to consider switching to a new energy tariff with a different meter type.

Meanwhile, the £11 billion smart meter rollout will bring 53 million digital, next generation meters to homes and small businesses across Britain. The initial deadline for installation was the end of 2020, but the rollout is now behind schedule and over budget. However, millions of Britons are already benefiting from the accessible displays and automatic meter readings of these smart meters, and your supplier may come knocking soon offering you one, free of charge (at least upfront: the rollout will ultimately tack £374 onto the bills of the average dual-fuel household over the next few years).

So familiarise yourself with your meter now, but be aware it could soon be changed.

A taxonomy of meters

Meters can be divided into classes based on several factors: how you pay for energy, how the rates you pay are assessed, and how they display readings.

Meters aren't one simply type or another: you can have smart pre-payment meters and credit variable rate meters. Your meter will be a combination of the types below: for instance, a dial variable rate credit meter.

Let's take a closer look at the classes, so you can identify what's lurking in your meter box.

Meters based on how you pay for energy

Credit meters

Most British homes will have a credit meter, which records the amount of energy you've used in kilowatt hours and show a figure that represents this on a mechanical display (but possibly digitally on an LCD screen or on dials). This is the type of meter you'll have if you pay for your energy on credit, with a monthly bill sent to your home, or direct debited from your account. Unless you have a smart meter, you'll need to pass those numbers onto your supplier, or welcome a meter reader to take the reading for you, so they can issue you with an accurate bill for your energy use over the previous month. If you fail to provide a meter reading, you'll receive an estimated bill and be charged a sum commensurate with your previous typical use. If you do get an estimated bill, you should submit a meter reading as soon as possible to avoid being overcharged for your energy.

Prepayment meters

Four million British households pay for energy in advance, via pre-payment tariffs, often because previous debts to their supplier or a poor credit history has prevented them from obtaining a credit tariff or because their landlord has installed one to prevent the tenant from running up energy debts. Others will simply live in a property with a legacy pre-payment tariff, possibly requested by a previous resident. Because to get a pre-payment tariff, you'll need a pre-payment meter (and vice versa). Pre-payment meters are topped up, often with a key or card to which you can add money at a newsagent, and have a display show you how much credit you have remaining.

Smart prepayment meters, offered by some suppliers, have a digital display and can be topped up online or via an app.

Pre-payment meters give you absolute control over the amount of energy you consume and the amount you spend on it. You can only power your home if you top up the meter so some households use it to keep to a strict budget. Ofgem found that in 2017 "tens of thousands" pre-payment customers self-disconnected-some because they simply forgot to top up the meter but thousands because they couldn't afford to do so.

But although they provide control and can help you budget, pre-payment gas and electricity tariffs are among the most expensive ways to buy energy. If you have a pre-payment meter and aren't in debt to your supplier and have a good credit history, you can request to have a credit meter installed. All Big Six suppliers will do this without charge.

Meters based on how you're charged for energy

Standard meters

Most British consumers pay the same per-unit rate for gas and electricity no matter when they use it. They'll have standard meters, one for gas and one for electricity, each with one reading to record.

Variable rate meters

Around 3.5 million households in Britain have time-of-use tariffs, like Economy 7 or Economy 10, which provide them with discounted electricity during certain hours, usually overnight. These tariffs are particularly useful for people who heat their homes with electric storage heaters, which draw on electricity during the evening, when it's cheap on time-of-use tariffs, and release it as thermal energy during the day.

If you have a time-of-use tariff, you'll have a variable rate meter, which will record two separate figures for your electricity use: one for on-peak consumption and one for your discounted off-peak consumption. You'll need to provide both your supplier.

Time-of-use tariffs only apply to electricity. If you have one, you'll have a variable rate meter for your electricity and a standard meter for your gas.

Meters based on how they display readings

Mechanical meters

These meters show readings on a series of rotating numbers: typically five and then a sixth, often in red, after a decimal point and which you can ignore. Like with all previous generation meters, these numbers will be fairly incomprehensible to you and aren't a direct representation of your energy use.

Digital meters

Digital meters display readings on an LCD screen, as a series of five numbers followed by a decimal point and a sixth number, which you can ignore when taking readings.

Dial meters

Dial meters displays readings on six dials, each corresponding to a place in the meter reading number. You'll have to read them separately and in order, noting down each number, but ignoring the sixth dial and any dials in red.

Smart meters

Smart meters are next generation meters, which show your energy consumption, in real time and over time, on a digital display. But rather than simply showing you six opaque numbers, it displays your use in kilowatt hours and pounds and pence. You won't have to take manual meter readings anymore-these will be automatically relayed to your supplier-but you'll want to keep track of the information the smart meter displays. It can help you see exactly how much you're spending on gas and electricity and identify places you can make savings. And you don't have to open your meter cupboard to access this information anymore: in addition to on the smart meter itself, it will also be displayed on a digital in-home display and, with some suppliers, on a smartphone app.