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Types of electricity meter

Find out more about electricity meters, the different types available, and which ones could save you money on your bills.

Amy Smith
Amy Smith
Updated 16 June 2020  | 4 min read

Everytime you use electricity, your meter starts running. They keep track of how many kilowatt hours of electricity you’re using. There are six types of electricity meter:

  • Standard meters
  • Dial meters
  • Digital meters
  • Variable-rate meters
  • Prepayment meters
  • Smart meters

But which is best for you, and can you save money switching to a different meter?

Key points

  • Standard meters are the most common type of electricity meter in the UK, and show how much energy you’ve used in kilowatt hours (kWh)
  • Variable-rate meters, such as Economy 7 and Economy 10, allow you to access cheaper rates by using electricity at off-peak times
  • Customers using prepayment meters typically pay more for energy and may find it harder to shop around
  • Smart meters make it easier to keep track of how much electricity you’ve used, and take away the hassle of submitting readings to your energy supplier

Standard meters

Most UK homes have a standard electricity meter. These show your energy usage in kilowatt hours (kWh) using a simple mechanical display. It's easy to take a reading – just make a note of the black numbers, reading from left to right.

There might also be red numbers. Ignore them – they represent figures after the decimal point, and your supplier doesn't need to know about them.

Dial meters

Dial meters work similarly to standard meters, but are presented as a series of clock-like dials instead of numbers.

You need to take note of the numbers that each dial is pointing towards (again, ignoring any red numbers). If the needles on some of the dials are pointing between two figures, record the number the needle has just passed.

Digital meters

These electronic meters display their readings on LCD screens. You might need to press a button to display the figure. Take note of the first five figures, and ignore the final figure if it begins with 0.1

Economy 7 and Economy 10 meters

Some suppliers provide tariffs designed for people who use most of their energy at off-peak times, usually at night. These are known as Economy 7 and Economy 10 tariffs and are sometimes referred to as variable-rate meters.

Economy 7 tariffs offer cheaper electricity during seven designated night-time hours. Economy 10 tariffs have the same night-time hours, but you get three discounted daytime hours too. It means you can benefit from a total of ten cheaper hours, so long as you stick to the allocated times.

If you're on an Economy 7 or Economy 10 electricity tariff, your meter will display two different figures. One for energy consumed during 'normal' times, and one for energy consumed during the cheaper hours. Since each figure relates to a different unit rate, your energy supplier needs to know both numbers to provide you with accurate bills.

Prepayment meters

With prepayment electricity meters, used for ‘pay-as-you-go’ tariffs, you pay for your energy in advance. You’d usually use a card or key to add money to your meter. Sometimes you can top up with an app.

Most prepayment meters are digital. They display remaining credit so you know when to top up. If you need to provide a reading, pressing a button on the meter will change the display so that it shows you the figure you need.

If you run out of credit, your electricity might automatically just shut off. But most modern meters are fitted with an ‘emergency credit’ function, which gives you extra time to top up. Others have a ‘no disconnect’ mode, that stops the meter from cutting off when you can’t physically get more credit - in the middle of the night, for example.

This type of meter can be expensive, because the unit rates on prepayment meters are usually higher than for standard credit meters and direct debit customers. According to Ofgem, in August 2020, the cheapest prepaid tariff, at £982, was almost £100 more expensive than the cheapest standard credit tariff (£883). It was also £95 more expensive than the cheapest direct debit tariff, at £788).

Prepayment customers also miss out on the best offers, like fixed-rate tariff deals. If you want to cut your energy bill then discuss the options with your provider. See if you're able to move away from a prepayment meter.

Smart meters

As the name suggests, smart meters are intelligent devices that provide detailed information on how and when you use your energy.

They also communicate with your energy supplier, sending them accurate updates on how much energy you've used. This means there's no need to take manual meter readings. The smart meter does it all for you, and you'll only be billed for the energy you actually use.

Smart meters come with an in-home display. This shows you how much energy you use in real time, and how much it's costing. By providing you with this information, smart meters give you better control over energy use. You might also be able to get this information through your online account with your energy company, or its app.

Smart meters spell the end of estimated billing. They put you in control of your spending and make you more aware of which appliances use the most energy.

At the minute, it’s a little fiddly to keep your smart meter operating when you switch energy suppliers. Unless you can get a second generation one, that is. These are still being rolled out, and most suppliers are currently offering first generation smart meters which don’t work between suppliers.

You can have a smart meter irrespective of the type of meter you have. They’re compatible with standard, prepayment and variable-rate ones.

Which electricity meter is right for you?

With so many types of electricity meter available, it can be difficult to know which one is right for you. Things you need to consider include: how much energy you use on a daily basis; whether your home uses a storage heater; and whether you're willing to restrict your electricity usage to off-peak times.

Here are a few common living situations that might lend themselves to different types of electricity meter.

If you live with lots of people and want maximum flexibility

It's usually not practical to place restrictions on how and when people use electricity in large households (such as big families or shared houses where everyone has different habits). So, a standard meter might be best.

If you're keen to save money by being economical with electricity

Using most of your electricity during off-peak hours means you can benefit from the savings of a variable-rate meter (such as Economy 7). Your home should ideally have a storage heater installed. This will allow you to pre-heat your water overnight when energy is cheapest.

Installing a smart meter is another great way to save. You’ll see in real time which appliances use the most electricity. You can then take steps to be more energy efficient, which will reduce your impact on the environment. For example, by replacing older appliances or limiting your use of less efficient appliances.

Find out more about how to save energy here.

If you’ve struggled to pay your energy bills in the past

You may only have the choice of using a prepayment meter. This is because you have to pay in advance, so the supplier is guaranteed to get their money. However, paying for energy this way can be expensive.

You can still shop around and change your tariff, or even switch providers, to make sure you're getting the best deal.

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