All About Smart Meters

A smart meter measures both when and how much electricity is used at your premises and is necessary for solar, battery and other new energy products.

All About Smart Meters
Photo by Robert Linder / Unsplash

Virtually every household in Victoria already has a smart meter, and they are being progressively rolled out across other parts of Australia.

In general, no matter where you live in Australia, when your old meter reaches end-of-life, it will be replaced with a smart meter.

Here's everything you need to know about smart meters.

What can a smart meter actually do?

Smart meters record your consumption data by time, and send this information back to your energy distributor and retailer wirelessly in the form of kWh consumption per 30 minute time block.

You can access your 30 minute timed consumption data through your distributor's web portal, or by requesting the data from your retailer.

It's also possible to get more granular data by using a companion device that can monitor the optical display on your smart meter, record the consumption data, and make it available to you via a bluetooth mobile app. Be aware that the vendors of these companion devices are harvesting your consumption data, and will find ways to monetise it.

Smart meters can switch the electricity supply on and off remotely, without needing a field technician. They can also measure the power quality at your premises and automatically notify your electricity distributor when there's a power outage at your location.

Why should I upgrade to a smart meter?

The key benefits to having a smart meter are:

  • Smart meters are required for the key new energy products and services, including solar and battery storage systems
  • A smart meter can be read remotely via a wireless network, which makes it practical to move to monthly billing rather than quarterly. Many of the most competitively priced plans require monthly billing, which is understandable since monthly billing improves cash flow for the retailer. Better cash flow is one of the key ingredients that makes it possible for them to offer the very best available prices.
  • A smart meter gives you more opportunities to switch to a better priced plan. More frequent meter reading and billing means more opportunities per year to benchmark your energy usage and expenditure, and to switch to a better plan if warranted.
  • A smart meter supports time-of-use tariffs, so there's potential to take advantage of plans that offer cheaper pricing during off-peak times, and there's also opportunity to explore 'demand shifting' where its possible to gain benefit by moving your consumption into off-peak hours where possible - eg by running washing machine at night etc.
  • A smart meter is a source of detailed information about your energy use. This information can help you understand and adjust your usage or find the best deal for you.
  • A smart meter allows electricity distributors to detect outages more quickly and monitor the quality of your electricity supply. This will help to minimise the number and length of electricity supply outages.

How do I get a smart meter?

You can request a meter upgrade through your retailer at any time. This is typically a chargeable item.

Some retailers offer energy plans that require a smart meter to be installed. Some of these retailers include a free smart meter upgrade when you take up their plans.

If your current meter is faulty or at the end of its life and needs replacing, then the replacement meter will be a smart meter, even if the original meter was a manual meter.

Are there any health concerns with smart meters?

No. Smart meters are safe to use and to be around.

All smart meters are manufactured and installed according to Australian Standards. They must comply with the electromagnetic exposure limits developed by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). The same limits apply to things like mobile and cordless phones, Wi-Fi routers and baby monitors.

Smart meters use a low-power networking system called Zigbee - which is considerable lower power than a mobile phone.

For more information, see ARPANSA's webpage on smart meters and health.

Are smart meters a privacy concern?

Smart meters collect more detailed and granular consumption data than traditional meters.

Even though a smart meter records and sends 30-minute increment usage data to the network, its actually possible to harvest real-time consumption data from a smart meter through a companion device that uses an optical sensor to read the flashing real-time load indicator light on the meter.

Even 30-minute usage data can provide some personal insights - for example it could be used to determine times at which people are at home and using appliances.

Household appliances tend to have signature load profiles - for example a dishwasher will typically have two discernable load spikes in a wash cycle - the first when it heats water for the wash cycle, and the second during the drying cycle. More granular real-time consumption data can be used to identify these load profiles and provide insight into what appliances are being used in the household and at what time.

Some international jurisdictions have restrictions on how smart meter data can be used, and have banned its sale for marketing purposes. There are no such laws in Australia.

Be aware that providers of the companion meter devices that can deliver real time consumption analytics via a bluetooth mobile phone app will get access to your real-time consumption data, and they have every incentive to find ways to monetise that data.

Do I have to upgrade to a smart meter?

Under the Power of Choice Reforms that came into force from late 2017, energy consumers can no longer choose to install a new traditional meter. All new meter installations must be digital or smart meters. There's no requirement to immediately upgrade existing old meters, but when they need to be replaced, it will be with a smart meter.

Retailers are required to give at least four business days’ notice before installing or removing a meter, or any other infrastructure that can impact your energy supply.

Some energy consumers dislike that a smart meter will send consumption data wirelessly to the network. If your meter is due for replacement, you can request a 'non-communicating meter' to be installed. This may cost more since your retailer will have to do manual time readings.

NSW Smart Meter rules

Energy customers in NSW must install a digital or smart meter on their property if and when their traditional meter breaks or becomes faulty.

Customers can only refuse a smart meter installation if their existing meter is still in good working order.

You can voluntarily to switch to a smart meter by contacting your retailer.

VIC Smart Meter rules

Smart meters are mandatory in Victoria and virtually every home is already equipped with a smart meter.

QLD Smart Meter rules

Similar to NSW, smart meters are not mandatory in Queensland. However, only smart meters can be newly installed to replace a broken or faulty traditional meter.

If you live in QLD you can voluntarily request a smart meter installation through your retailer.

Will I have to pay for a smart meter?

Smart meter upgrades cost about $600, but retailers may take different approaches to how they charge you for a new meter.

They may charge you a lump sum which could appear in your next bill or they may choose to charge you a monthly fee. This fee should appear on your bill as well. Retailers may also decide to absorb the cost of providing new meters to customers as part of the electricity usage charges.

In general, where the retailer is paying for the installation costs, this usually applies only to standard install costs - if you require additional works such as rewiring, or asbestos removal from your meter enclosure, those additional works would be charged for.

The retailer must disclose any upfront costs to you before they install the new meter.

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