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If you’ve ever researched electricity providers (also referred to as retailers) or wanted a better idea of how much power you consume, chances are you’ve heard about smart meters.

But what are these devices, how do they work, and can they help you save on power? We answer these questions and more in this article.

What is a smart meter?

A smart meter is a power-monitoring device that replaces traditional electricity meters and provides you (and your energy retailer) with insight into your energy usage. Smart meters record and send energy usage information data in half-hourly blocks to your energy provider to measure the amount of electricity you use.

Also known as type 4 meters or advanced meters, these digital devices can do more than track your power usage. They can:

  • remotely turn power supply on or off;
  • measure the power quality at your home; and
  • notify distributors (the companies responsible for maintaining infrastructure such as power lines and electricity poles) of power cuts.

There are also other meters available that aren’t smart meters. For example, basic meters only record data every three months, while type 5 meters can still record half-hourly data, but can’t do things that type 4 or advanced meters can do.

smart meter

How does a smart meter work?

In a nutshell, smart meters record how much electricity you use, when you use it and send this information to your electricity distributor. They eliminate the outdated model of three-monthly actual readings or estimated readings, where your bill and energy usage were estimated based on your previous usage pattern.

Depending on which state you live in and the type of meter you have, it could work differently.

According to the Victoria State Government, advanced smart readers (which are most common across Victoria) work through a four-step process:1

  1. Every 30 minutes, your smart meter measures how much electricity your household is using.
  2. Your smart meter sends this information to your energy supplier or distributor, providing them with up-to-the-minute snapshots of your electricity usage.
  3. Your energy provider gives you access to this data as well, via in-home displays (if available) or web portals linked to your smart meters.
  4. This information allows you to better understand your energy usage patterns, help you work out ways you can reduce electricity usage, and consequently, save on your power bill.

Type 4 meters operate slightly differently and are more common in New South Wales and Queensland. While they still record half-hourly information about your energy usage, the fastest they currently send data to distributors is every 24 hours. Once this information is available, your provider will share it with you.

How much does a smart meter cost?

There’s no single cost for smart meters, as it can vary between electricity providers. Some may waive upfront costs or installation fees but include other fees as part of your bill. Others may set their own servicing and maintenance fees.

Always discuss these costs with your provider and compare your options.

Am I eligible for a smart meter and how do I get one?

Whether or not you’re eligible for a smart meter will vary depending on a series of factors. These include:

  • If smart meters have been rolled out across your area (for example, smart meters are now installed in nearly all Victorian homes2)
  • If you’re moving into a new build home (retailers must install smart meters for new all connections3)
  • If smart meters are required for your new electricity plan
  • If you are installing a solar PV system
  • If an existing meter needs to be replaced.

Contact your energy provider to see whether you’re eligible to get a smart meter and what the next steps are. Your electricity retailer is responsible for providing meters and will do so if you’re offered a product that requires a smart meter to be installed or if your current meter needs replacing.

person using app with smart meter

What are the benefits of using a smart meter?

There are many advantages to utilising smart meters in Australia, both for electricity retailers and customers.

Not only are smart meters one of the more effective ways to keep track of your energy usage, but they can also improve the level of service your energy retailer can provide. If you meet other eligibility requirements, smart meters may allow you to access time of use tariffs to possibly save money. here are six major benefits that you can get from using smart meters, including:

Removing the need for manual meter readings

A smart meter’s core function is to transmit your household’s energy usage levels to your electricity provider. According to the Government of South Australia, you may incur costs for manual meter readings as smart meters become more common.5

Communicating important updates to customers

It might surprise you to learn that your smart meter can also act as a simple communications device if you have an in-home display, have registered for SMS or have an online account or app that can view your energy information. Energy providers can send out public warnings about major power outages in your area and the estimated restoration time.

Identifying outages and faults in the service

Thanks to your smart meter’s continuous two-way dialogue between your household and your energy retailer, it can also help your distributor quickly identify if there are any faults in the service. This minimises downtime and helps streamline the reconnection process in the event of a blackout, ensuring your provider can get your power up and running again as quickly as possible.

Performing connections and disconnections when moving

Smart meters can remotely perform some key tasks on behalf of your energy provider, such as connecting and disconnecting your energy when moving. This makes moving to a new home quicker, easier and cheaper, as your meter is read daily. It also means you can switch retailers sooner since you don’t need to wait weeks or months for the distributor to manually physically read the meter and transfer the account.

According to the Victorian Government, smart meters can also slash disconnection and reconnection fees, as companies don’t physically need to come to a property to turn power on or off.1 However, this can only occur if it’s safe, otherwise they’ll still need to physically attend the property. Distributors can still set their own fees for this service, which can also vary between states.

Monitoring your energy

You can monitor your energy usage in real time with web portals, smart meter apps and in-home displays, which gives you more control over your usage. For example, they can help you figure out the best and worst times to use appliances with high-energy usage. You can also set up your system to receive warning messages for excessive energy usage.

What’s more, if you have solar, you can monitor what percentage of solar you’re using and change your usage patterns to take advantage of your solar panels electricity generation.

Timing your smart appliances

With smart meters, you can time when your appliances will start or turn them on remotely to manage energy usage if you have smart appliances and wifi connection.

Man using phone to time smart appliances

How can smart meters save me money?

Smart meters give you more options for saving money; chiefly, through electricity tariffs. Essentially, when electricity demand is high (i.e. weeknights), it can be most expensive to ‘buy’ from the retailer. When demand is low, it costs less. Adjusting your behaviour using data from your smart meter is one way to save – providing you have the corresponding tariff to go along with it.

If you have a single rate tariff and not a time-of-use-tariff, adjusting your behaviour won’t impact your electricity bill because you’ll be charged the same amount for electricity during the day and night. You can still look into energy-saving devices to reduce your overall consumption.

With traditional basic meters (also known as type 6 meters) that are only read once per quarter, your retailer won’t have any idea what time of day you used energy throughout the billing period. As such, you can only access single rate tariffs.

With smart meters, on the other hand, you may have access to time of use tariffs, as your provider will have the ability to monitor your usage throughout the day, and charge accordingly.

Mother and daughter using smart meter to save energy

If you are eligible for a time-of-use tariff, you can take advantage of this by:

  • Avoiding heavy usage in peak periods (e.g. Monday to Friday evenings, but check your contract to confirm when your specific peak periods are) by not turning on heavy power appliances (e.g. clothes dryers, washing machines, ironing, dishwashers, water heaters and pool pumps).
  • Utilising lower off-peak prices (e.g. overnight on Saturday and Sunday, or before 2pm weekdays, but check your contract to confirm when your specific peak periods are) by doing washing or ironing at these times.
  • Using shoulder periods whenever possible, measured in between peak and off-peak periods, which costs a bit less than peak charges.

How do I read a smart meter?

While smart meters can track your electricity usage, they’re not something you can read manually. Instead, the meter service provider will receive information about your electricity consumption and then make this information available to you.4

You’ll usually be able to access this information online by logging into an account with your electricity provider. You usually have the option of viewing your hourly, daily, weekly and yearly usage.

How do I read a smart meter for solar power?

Smart readers track your home’s entire electricity usage, including that created from solar power. Your meter service provider will obtain data about your electricity usage, how much solar power you’re generating and consuming, and if any excess energy is being sent to the power grid.

They will then make this information available to you, usually via an online account or app.

 

Frequently asked questions

How do smart meters work with solar panels?

Smart meters can also compare the percentage or volume of solar energy you’re using at different times of the day. This can be helpful if you ever want to determine the best time to directly use your solar energy for your home and high-usage appliances.

Whether you receive a percentage or volume will depend on the type of data your retailer provides you with through their online account.

It can also help you figure out which part of the day would you’d be better off storing energy into a battery and feeding it into the grid. You’ll then have access to this information through your electricity provider’s website or smart meter apps.

Are smart meters safe?

Yes, smart meters are typically safe to use. There’s no verified scientific evidence that the low levels of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Energy (RF EME) exposure from meters cause health problems.6

All smart meters must meet the electromagnetic exposure limits set by the ARPANSA, which aim to protect Australians of all ages and health statuses against all known adverse health effects that RF EME exposure can cause.6 They also need to be installed and manufactured in accordance with Australian Standards.3

Is smart meter data private?

Yes, your personal information and smart meter data remains private. Energy data and personal information are protected by the National Electricity Law and the Privacy Act 1988.3

With the introduction of the Australian Government’s Consumer Data Rights (CDR) in 2018, businesses must give customers better access to their transaction, usage and product data in a digital format (i.e. available through smart meters). The legislation also allows customers to have more control over the data that other businesses (i.e. energy providers) hold on their usage of products and services, with strong privacy safeguards and standards in place.

What does a smart meter look like?

Smart meters look similar to the older electricity meters you’re probably used to. While they’re similar in size, you’ll notice that most smart meters don’t have a dial and have a digital display. Of course, the exact appearance can vary between models and providers.

Are smart meters compulsory?

Smart meters are becoming increasingly common across Australia and there are some cases where they will be your only option. For example, they’re automatically installed for new buildings and are often used to replace old or broken meters.

However, if you have an existing meter that still works, you aren’t required to replace it with a smart meter – even if that’s what a provider is requesting.3 You can opt for communication functions to be disabled and for a provider to continue manual readers, but this can come at an additional cost.

Who is responsible for the meter?

Your electricity retailer, distributor or meter provider is responsible for your meter, depending on the state you live in. If you have any concerns, your retailer should be your first point of contact. The meter can’t control power outages or issues, and in these cases, the electricity distributor should be contacted.

Does my provider have to install a smart meter if I want one?

If your home or property has a manual reader that still works, your provider doesn’t have to install a smart meter at your request.7 In these cases, you can switch to a different provider that offers smart meters. Compare your options before deciding on a new provider.

Do I need to install another smart meter if I switch providers?

Generally, no. Providing your plan doesn’t require a new meter, your distributer or meter data provider will continue to transmit electricity usage and data to the new provider. However, some providers may request that a new meter is installed e.g. to accommodate a solar PV installation or to allow monthly billing.

Check with a provider directly to understand their protocols.

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Sources
  1. Victoria State Government: Environment, Land, Water and Planning – ‘Smart meters and how they work’ – Accessed 07/10/2020
  2. Victoria State Government: Environment, Land, Water and Planning‘Smart meters’ – Accessed 07/10/2020
  3. Australian Government: Australian Energy Regulator – ‘Smart meters’ – Accessed 07/10/2020
  4. Energy Australia – ‘Understanding your meter’ – Accessed 07/10/2020
  5. Government of South Australia – ‘Smart meters’ – Accessed 07/10/2020
  6. Australian Government Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency – ‘Smart meters and health’ – Accessed 07/10/2020
  7. New South Wales Government – ‘Smart meters’ – Accessed 07/10/2020

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