Does your smart gas meter suddenly die when you cook a Christmas turkey? It can really happen because millions of vital batteries are running low
Millions of homes using ‘smart’ meters to monitor their gas supply could be shut down without warning this winter. This is part of the problems that have plagued smart meters since its introduction just over a decade ago.
So far, about 19 million homes have meters installed – although up to 14 million have so-called first-generation devices that can sometimes get ‘dumb’ and only function like a traditional meter if you change suppliers.
While electric smart meters are connected to the National Grid, the gas meters are powered by batteries designed to last at least a decade. This means that thousands of batteries could fail in the coming months. Once the gadget dies, in some cases the gas supply will automatically shut off and a technician will need to replace the battery unit before reconnecting the supply.
‘Fiasco’: The rollout of the smart meter is plagued by problems. Now gas meters can even close the supply
Retired airplane controller Derek King has suffered the inconvenience of his smart gas meter passing away, leaving him temporarily out of gas. He only discovered that the smart meter stopped working when his heating did not switch on normally.
Says the married 73-year-old from Rushden, Northamptonshire, “I can’t believe there was no fail-safe mechanism. When the meter died, the gas was suddenly cut off without any warning. It could have happened on Christmas Day with a turkey in the oven, or with someone more vulnerable than me, maybe alone. ‘
Derek called local gas line supplier Transco on the recommendation of a boiler technician he spoke to who thought the problem with his gas supply was due to an external gas leak. But the Transco engineer quickly identified the problem as a ‘dead’ smart meter. He replaced it for free with an old-fashioned meter without batteries. It meant that Derek was without gas for a day.
Experts say as many as 11 million devices will be vulnerable to failure in the coming years.
Alex Henney is a former government adviser who collaborated with former Secretary of State for Energy, Cecil Parkinson, on the privatization of energy in the late 1980s. He says, “Potentially leaving people stranded without gas in the middle of winter is indicative of the incompetent way this whole installer was run. It must be discontinued immediately. We should have waited for all smart meter technology to be fully tested before it was imposed on land. ‘
He adds, “This whole smart energy meter fiasco is a massive waste of money that hits poor people the hardest – because houses are paying the bill for this ridiculous project with higher energy bills.”
The smart meter project has cost £ 13.5 billion so far, spending over £ 220 million on marketing to encourage everyone to accept a smart meter. Smart Energy GB, the organization overseeing the rollout, says smart gas meters use lithium-ion batteries and should have a lifespan of at least ten years. It admits that during the rollout of the early smart meters – known as ‘Smets 1’ units – it was up to individual suppliers to determine whether the gas would turn off or stay on if a battery fails.
But it says all equipment should emit what’s called a “ dying breath ” signal when a battery is running low to alert the power company to send a technician to replace it. A spokesperson for Smart Energy GB said: ‘A battery failure should be very rare as the battery of a smart meter is expected to have an average life of 15 years. If a battery is low, suppliers can arrange for a mechanic to install a replacement before it runs out. ‘
Gordon Hughes is a professor of economics at the University of Edinburgh and a former senior adviser on energy and environmental policy at the World Bank. He says, ‘When the early smart gas meters were driven out, many experts thought the batteries would last longer than the meters. The gas supply would have been designed to turn off when the battery is dead, as companies feared fraudsters would take advantage of the situation – and get free gas. ‘
On Friday, British Gas said its older meters’ are fully BEIS compliant [Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy] specifications’ and that they ‘must continue to supply gas should the battery ever fail’. At that stage it would receive an ‘automatic warning’ that the battery was faulty.
Npower insisted that “ the throttle doesn’t change when a battery is dead ” – in other words, the throttle won’t turn off. Eon said that when a gas meter battery begins to lose power, it is “informed as part of the remote communication that takes place between the meter and our systems.”
Smart gas meters are the latest issue in the rollout of the devices. The £ 13.5 billion project started in 2009 and all homes should have a smart meter by this year so that energy suppliers can remotely track how much power is being used.
But it is currently four years late. It was originally planned to be completed this year – with smart gas and electricity meters in all 27 million homes. Claims that smart meters lower energy bills have been criticized as misleading. While smart meters make it possible to install a device to monitor energy usage, the new technology will only help consumers save money if they are encouraged to change their usage habits. The judgment on this remains open.