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Smart Heating vs Smart Meters: What’s the difference?

With energy prices set to rise by a staggering 60 per cent in the next six years, we’re being pushed to adopt smart energy controls and accept smart energy meters, but what are they? 

In simple terms, smart meters let you track your energy usage in real time, while smart heating systems let you control your biggest energy spend and hopefully save money. 

We won’t have any choice about getting a smart meter because the Government has told energy suppliers they’ve got to replace all of our existing meters with the new type – although the cost will be added to our bills. 

Smart heating systems are being given out for free by some energy suppliers, but most of the cost from £149 upwards, which you’ll have to balance against the savings they bring. 

Honeywell's Evohome smart heating control and the British Gas smart meter display
Honeywell’s Evohome smart heating control and the British Gas smart meter display

Smart Meters

Between now and 2020, UK energy suppliers will have to swap all of the UK’s 53 million gas and electricity meters for new smart meters, involving 30 million visits to homes and small businesses. 

What are smart meters?

There are two parts to a smart meter: the meter on your gas and electricity supply measuring how much you use, and an in-home display that shows your usage.

The meter part uses a mobile phone-style connection to send your data to your supplier in real time, and a wireless connection to communicate with the in-home display (it’ll probably be WiFi but suppliers don’t make this clear).

As yet, there’s no guarantee that smart meters will talk to your phone so you can see it on a screen you already own, or keep an eye on consumption when you’re not at home.
They can work in pre-payment or credit (billed) mode, and the in-home display will also show your current payment status. 

In pre-payment mode you can top them up online or by phone like a pay-as-you-go mobile, or buy credit tokens from shops. They can also be set so that they won’t switch off if you run out of credit overnight – presumably you’ll have to pay the difference before you can top up the next day.

A typical smart gas meter, which will replace your old gas meter
A typical smart gas meter, which will replace your old gas meter

What will smart meters cost?

They shouldn’t cost you anything up front, but the £215 cost of meters for each address, and the costs of setting up and maintaining the meter network, will be spread across your energy bills.

How much will I save with smart meters?

This is a thorny question: it’s estimated that most consumers will save just two per cent, which is just £26.56 on an average energy bill of £1,328. That’s more than eight years just to pay for the meters.

Can I get smart meters now?

The ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers – British Gas, E.ON, EDF, NPower, Scottish Power and Southern Electric – all have smart meter schemes where some customers can apply to get a smart meter now. 
Some smaller energy suppliers, such as Ovo, will also fit a smart energy meter when you switch to them.

Why should I want a smart meter?

If you’ve ever misread one of those stupid meters with the dials which spin in different directions, then had to argue about a crazy bill with your energy supplier, you’ll want one of these.

You may want to see how much your gas and electricity costs in real time, and you hate getting estimated bills because you’re never in when the meter reader visits.

The government claims smart meters will make it easier to switch energy suppliers to get the best deals, although there’s no guarantee your old supplier’s smart meter will work with your new supplier.

If you want to see detailed long-term energy consumption data, you’ll be able to download this from your meter over your home network.

Why shouldn’t I want smart meter?

You don’t want it to be easier for energy providers to disconnect you if you haven’t paid your bills – a warning on the meter’s display will be the equivalent of a Final Demand letter.

You don’t want the cost of the meters added to your energy bills, and you think the spec should enable you to see the information on your phone as well as in in-home display.

You don’t trust the energy companies with your usage data, or you’re worried they’ll use it to find new ways to increase your bills instead of making them cheaper.

There’s no plan to integrate smart meters into a dynamic energy market where customers can choose to buy their power in real time from whoever they want, instead of from a single energy supplier.

You’re a meter reader who doesn’t want to lose your job – and why should you?

You’re a tinfoil hat-wearing loon who thinks mobile phones and WiFi will melt your brain (but you still own a computer, TV and radio).

What else do I need to know about smart meters?

There will be no legal obligation on you to accept smart meters, and energy companies aren’t expected to take legal action to install them if you (or your landlord) don’t want them.

The government has told energy companies there can’t be any sales pitches during the installation visit, but the installers must also provide energy efficiency advice and will have to get permission in advance to talk to you about products you could buy to save energy – like smart heating systems. 

Hive from British Gas is the UK's most popular smart heating system, with more than 85,000 users
Hive from British Gas is the UK’s most popular smart heating system, with more than 85,000 users

Smart heating control

Find out more in Recombu’s round-up of smart heating systemsThe UK is not a warm country for well over half the year, and heating and hot water account for 80 per cent of our domestic energy bills. 

Smart heating lets you control not just when your heating comes on and how warm your house gets, but even the temperature of each room in your house. 

What is smart heating control?

All smart heating control systems  have three main components: the boiler and hot water controllers, the thermostat, and a ‘hub’ which connects to your broadband router.

Some of them have motion sensors so you can detect when there are people in the house who need heating, while others have wireless thermostatic radiator valves which control your radiators individually.

What will smart heating control cost?

If you pick up the right tariff, you can get Nest for free now with Npower, but the cheapest system above that is British Gas Hive at £149.

More complex systems like Heat Genius and Honeywell Evohome start at £249, but you’ll need to spend around £700 or more to fit out a typical home with multi-room heating controls.

How much will I save with smart heating control?

Typically around 20 per cent, which on a typical heating bill is about £250 a year, so with a system like Hive, Nest or PassivLiving Heat you could get your investment back in just over a year. 

More expensive multi-room systems such as Heat Genius and Honeywell Evohome will take longer to earn their keep, but you can either build them up more gradually by adding components, or take account of the extra comfort and control you’re getting while the savings add up.

PassivLiving Heat promises extra long-term savings if you buy it with a solar power system, which will reduce your reliance on electricity from traditional suppliers, but can take a decade to pay for itself.

Can I get smart heating control now?

Several of the Big Six energy suppliers provide smart heating controls now, or you can buy other systems off the shelf, with or without installation.

Why should I want a smart heating control?

The most obvious reason is to save money on your heating bills, especially if you don’t even have a thermostat or timer on your central heating right now – and that’s apparently 40 per cent of us.

The other reason is comfort and control. As well as putting your heating on a timer so you can make sure the house is warm when you wake up or come home, all of the smart heating systems we’ve tested can be controlled from your smartphone via the internet. So if the house is empty when you should be home, then you can turn off the heating and save money, or if you’re coming home early you can turn it on to give yourself a cosy return.

Nest and Heat Genius both claim to learn your habits, using motion detectors which watch out for when you’re in and out of the house so they turn on and off to anticipate your behaviour. Evohome, PassivLiving Heat, Nest and Heat Genius will monitor how long it takes for your home to warm up and turn on the heating early to compensate for cold weather outside, or turn it off early if your house loses heat slowly and will stay warm.

Why shouldn’t I want smart heating?

It’s hard to think of good reasons why you wouldn’t want to save money and be more comfortable, but some systems are not ideal for those who don’t like smartphones, tablets or other tech.

Hive and Evohome are both easily controlled from in-home interfaces, although they’re a bit tablet-like, and while Nest can be controlled from its wall unit, if you don’t like phone interfaces you won’t be comfortable with it.

The individual radiator controllers for Evohome and Heat Genius can be manually used to trigger the heating, while Heat Genius and PassivLiving Heat have wall thermostat units which are very similar to traditional wall thermostats and might prove more friendly to technophobes.

As with other ‘internet of things’ tech, the other concern is online security. All of the systems we’ve seen have a cloud element, both for remote control and for processing and analysing your heating data.

There’s also the question of your system requiring a door to be opened into your home network.
The operators all stress that there systems are secured against attacks on both the cloud and your home network, but there’s always a risk that hackers will find a ‘zero-day’ exploit that no-one can defend against. You just have to balance this very small chance against the benefits the technology brings.

What else do I need to know about smart heating?

It’s still a very new technology, so while you could be the first to reap the benefits, you’ll be very likely be paying more than later adopters who benefit from cheaper, mass-produced technology.

There are quite a few small, new companies producing smart heating systems, and it’s likely that some of them will be snapped up by larger companies or merged with other manufacturers. Inevitably, one or two of today’s players will be left behind over the next few years as the industry matures. Who this will be is anyone’s guess!

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