The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change is in the throes of rolling out a smart metering initiative, where all domestic and non-domestic properties across Great Britain will reap the so-called benefits of both “smart” electricity and gas meters.

An all-new feature set

Property owners are not obliged to use a smart meter since the scheme remains optional; however, consumers are encouraged to become more aware of their energy consumption with a view of decreasing overall use. Current smart meters are Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specification v1 (SMETS) often written as SMETS1, which refers to the first generation of smart meters. Naturally, SMETS v2 (SMETS2) is still being polished off, although it has been suggested that 500,000 homes or so across the UK are already benefiting from the second-generation equipment.

SMETS2 will ultimately replace SMETS1 since the feature set within the second generation is vastly improved. One notable feature is the ability for home owners to easily switch suppliers, where any supplier can “inherit” any meter installed by another provider as their own – this is something that currently inhibits users of SMETS1 when switching suppliers. If a consumer switches supplier with a SMETS1 meter, then the meter is regarded as “dumb,” since the current feature-set inhibits inheritance and the unit is no longer capable of sharing energy data use within the home.

Energy saving at the right time

For those consumers who do opt in to use smart meters, that is SMETS1 or SMETS2, they are supplied with an in-home display (IHD), which allows them to view “near” real-time information about their energy use. The data shown isn’t actual real-time information as such, since gas meters typically reveal usage over a 30-minute period, whereas an electricity meter shares its usage over a 7-second window, which is more than sufficient for any home user to assess their usage.

The IHD also provides a cost breakdown and informs the consumer how much energy they’re currently using with a summary of the overall daily use; monthly and even annual usage. The motivation is to draw the consumer’s attention to their energy use and to encourage them to stagger usage across the day, whilst preventing unexpected demand on the national grid. Likewise, consumers should become more aware of their usage and opt to use their energy-hungry appliances during times when it’s more cost effective, such as using your washing machine or dryer and dishwasher during the Economy 7 tariff.

Snapshot use

After all, unexpected demand on the grid burdens suppliers with additional costs, something which they naturally want to avoid and, ultimately, we’ll end up paying for! I’m sure you’ve read numerous anecdotes where viewers are watching a football match and the advert comes on – demand suddenly increases during the ad break where collectively everyone puts the kettle on! 

So, whilst the IHD provides an overall summary of total usage in a given period, it fails to offer a breakdown as to what equipment or appliances within the home are causing a surge in electricity consumption. In a similar manner to that of my recently installed solar panels, I can view energy usage patterns, of sorts, at any time.

Using the washing machine benchmark

Increasingly, it’s become a trend to have household equipment and appliances connected to the internet, that is, the emergence of the so-called “smart appliance.” Seemingly, we’re now delighted that our refrigerator knows how much milk is in our carton and that it can notify us when we should purchase some more – for me, this is yet another tiresome use case, merely solving first world problems! 

Anyway, many, many columns ago, I interviewed a chap who shared my sentiments regarding the practical use of equipment that is nowadays connected to the internet. Professor William Webb conjectured that most, if not all, manufacturers should judge usability and practicality using a benchmark “Washing Machine Test.” 

We need to understand more

“A washing machine could be armed with various sensors, which would collate data – this data could then be shared with the manufacturer’s database or perhaps a service center that could quickly diagnose issues with the machine. Likewise, the collected data could be utilized to share optimum wash cycles, ensuring the efficiency of the machine itself, as well as ensuring optimum use of natural resources.” Telecoms.com, September 2014.

I just want to add a new caveat in light of the greener and “lowering your energy use” theme and, that is, we need manufacturers to produce their equipment with this in mind. Even the humble kettle, for that matter, should reveal its energy consumption. Our equipment or appliances within the home shouldn’t bleat senselessly about how much cheese or milk we have left in the fridge but, rather, should take a real-world problem stance. We need to understand better how these machines perform, consume energy, how best to use them and when.

Sometimes you just need to switch it on

For example, the washing machine could defer starting its cycle until the Economy 7 tariff or, if you have solar panels, it could assess the quantity of electricity being produced by your system and operate accordingly. Naturally, this energy ethos could apply to your dishwasher and dryer, where optimum use could be determined across your connected “smart home.” Likewise, the cycle of a refrigerator could pulsate during periods where solar is at its optimum, although a refrigerator does have to cycle to ensure that your produce is frozen and chilled, irrespective of sunshine. 

I have, as a result of my solar panel installation, become so aware of what’s being consumed in my home that I now know my house routinely ticks over on 500Wh to 700Wh, typically dropping to 180W to 350W when we go to bed or when we’re away. When at home and the weather isn’t so great, the air source heating system typically draws on the energy, if you like, to “top-up” the heat within the home, where it may peak at 6000Wh or more, although this isn’t running furiously over the entire hour. Similarly, using the microwave or electric oven also consumes a fair amount, so there’s no opportunity to defer this consumption to a later period; after all, if you need to heat your food then that’s it! 

Until next time …

Like I said earlier, I could glean similar stats from a smart meter, but I’m awaiting the full rollout of SMETS2 before choosing a smart meter installation, and I don’t see how that will differ from the information that’s already provided by my solar panel system. However, one obvious benefit would mean I’ll no longer have to physically take meter readings and that can only be a good thing.

Manufacturers are continually evolving their equipment and appliances with improved energy savings and I look forward to their equipment sharing more about how it uses water, detergents and related products and, ultimately, electricity where, as consumers, we would have first-hand access to the efficiency of our appliances.

So, this is where an “I want to know more than you” Dr. G signs off.