Smart Meter Errors – The importance of careful design

14-04-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

If you thought your energy bills were expensive, they probably don’t come close to some customers reporting consumption usage by smart meters over £100K. Why are energy companies moving towards smart meters, what problems have customers faced, and what does this teach engineers about ensuring fault-free design?

Why are companies moving towards smart meters?

Before defining Smart Meters, we first need to understand what makes something smart and why the widely accepted term “smart meter” is somewhat misleading. When a device is said to be smart, it means that the device is often connected to other devices in a network and can react to changes in an intelligent manner.

For example, a thermostat would not be a smart device even if connected to the internet as it simply turns heating controls on and off depending on the temperature. A smart thermostat, however, may monitor the number of occupants in a room, observe preferred heating values throughout each day, and then infer from this data whether the heating should be on or off.

The standard smart meter being pushed by utility companies is connected to the internet, but they are very rarely smart as they do not connect to other devices around the home and do not observe behaviour and respond using AI algorithms. Some smart meters may be able to decide the best time to heat water depending on the price of fuel, but this is not done using machine learning or predictive behaviour.

So, why are utility companies trying to push these devices? The official statement by companies is that smart meters will save customers money and help them make better spending decisions. In reality, smart meters won’t necessarily save customers money. The real reason for pushing smart meters is likely to give utility companies more control over energy usage, real-time data gathering, and the possible ability to remotely turn off supplies.

Smart meters consist of a meter with wireless capabilities and a display mounted inside the home. This setup also gives the smart meter internet connectivity, allowing the meter to send real-time usage to utility companies. From there, they can determine the exact amount to charge while also having valuable insights into future utility usage. Future smart meters may even introduce throttling devices that limit customers’ access to utilities. This may even be exploited to halt services to those who are either perceived as using too much or haven’t supposedly paid their bills.

Thus, it seems that while utility services are advertising their smart meters are money-saving devices, the truth may be that they are instead being used as monitoring devices to get free data from customers (which should be paid for) and eventually allow utility companies the ability to control customer access.

Customers in the UK reporting smart meter faults

When customers already feel the increased cost of energy, having the correct information displayed on smart meters couldn’t be any more critical. And yet, there have been numerous reports of smart meters displaying incorrect information regarding current usage. In fact, one image from a customer shows their gas usage as being £113,930.25 per hour.

In the case of this outrageously large number, it is evident that there is a mistake. This raises the question: Are customers seeing figures that may appear correct but are either over or under the true value. According to the energy companies who supplied faulty meters, the error is not in the meter but in the display. Thus, the actual usage will be recorded correctly, but the display is displaying the number incorrectly for whatever reason.

However, even if the displayed number is not what the utility companies are receiving, it could have significant financial consequences for those involved. If the displayed figures are inflated, it may see people try to cut back even more on their energy unnecessarily, which could cause undue stress, anxiety, or even panic. If the displayed figures fall short of the actual value, customers may see that as a good sign and increase their energy usage only to receive a much bigger bill than expected.

What does this smart meter situation teach engineers?

It should be a trivial task for a device to receive a number from a meter and then display that figure. The communication between the display and the meter should utilise checksums to ensure that the received data is correct. The data should be casted to the correct data type, and then figures that appear outside of an expected range could be challenged by the device. And yet, somehow, custom smart meters can display widely outrageous figures with no means of detecting unusual behaviour.

It may turn out that the display itself is a dedicated machine that connects to a smart device, and there is a bug in the display. This would explain why the smart meter is not showing warnings to the customer and why utility companies are not receiving unusual consumption charges. It may also turn out that the software used in the display doesn’t check the data after being casted with the assumption that whatever is received from the meter is correct.

This error teaches us that even the most basic of tasks can go wrong, and modern code must be written to account for errors. This could be achieved with a few statements exploring past usage, the rate of change of usage, and whether the figure being displayed is just outright outside the meter’s capabilities. Engineers should also consider that customers rely on such devices for accurate readings to make decisions to improve their financial situation, and pushing devices that cannot do the job properly can have a real impact on people’s lives.

Do we really need smart meters? Should the term “smart” be restricted to devices that integrate AI? And should customers start withholding potentially valuable data from companies in an age where data is everything?


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.