Why Smart Meters won’t help you save money (and what might help instead)

Alexander Baxevanis
Jan 4 · 6 min read

A few weeks ago on the train, an advert caught my eye:

“Get a smart meter and you could save enough energy for 115 hot baths”

Sounds impressive, right? In fact the website of Smart Energy GB, the industry body tasked with coordinating the roll out of smart electricity & gas meters in the UK, has in the past made exciting claims like:

On average a household with a smart meter saves two percent on their energy bills a year, or 354kWh. That may not sound like much, but it’s enough energy to have 115 hot baths or to listen to your favorite song on a tablet every day for 35 years.

While it’s not explicit, the underlying assumption is that people with smart meters will be able to closely monitor their energy consumption through in-home displays. This would lead to people changing their behaviours to conserve energy.

Sounds like a good idea, right? But it turns out it’s not so good. Even official research conducted by Smart Energy GB found that out of all the people they surveyed who’ve had a smart meter for a year, only half think that they’ve made any savings at all. A committee of MPs looking at available evidence found that the average annual saving might only be £11.

Why Smart Meters won’t change your behaviour

The AIDA framework (which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) is one way to look at the steps through which we might try to convince someone to change their behaviour. My colleague Jack has already written about using the AIDA framework to think about persuasive design, so let’s try to apply it to the context of Smart Meters:

The in-home display is the visible component of a smart meter which will in theory get you to pay attention to your energy consumption.

In-home display from British Gas

Most of these displays show an array of numbers and visualisations, sometimes in colour, so they might attract some attention. However, there are also a lot of reasons why this might not work:

  • After having a smart meter installed, many people may not bother to plug in their in-home display, as it’s not strictly necessary for the meter to function.
  • People not curious enough to look at their energy consumption might just plug it in somewhere where it’s not always visible, e.g. in the hallway.
  • Even if people get used to looking at it every day (e.g. let’s say when they come home) there might not be enough of a change in the numbers every day to trigger people’s attention.

Once a smart meter owner starts paying attention to what’s shown in their display, will they be engaged enough that they’ll want to spend some time to understand what’s happening in more detail?

It’s certainly a big ask: according to a survey by bill management app Wonderbill, almost a third of people avoid managing their bills, and another quarter only keep track on their spending on paper diaries and notepads.

Smart meters displays stick to showing you the pure facts about your energy consumption, usually on a small screen with limited interactivity. They won’t automatically flag any unusual energy use patterns, nor can they compare what you use with other similar households in order to give you a benchmark.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if people lose interest after looking at the numbers for a bit.

But let’s assume that you’ve stayed interested and kept monitoring your energy consumption regularly through your smart meter — would that help build the desire to save?

This is where smart meter designers did actually make one good choice — it’s possible to view your consumption in monetary terms, not just in terms of the amount of electricity or gas consumed. And money is definitely something that can nudge people to take action.

However, because of the limited user interface it might be hard to get a smart meter display into the right mode to see your consumption in monetary terms, and even harder to switch into viewing your monthly or even yearly consumption.

And whilst an indiction of past or current consumption is useful, people would also like to know how much they’d end up paying in a month or a year if they continue consuming energy at a similar rate — something that many smart meters don’t offer at all.

The Monzo app shows you not only what you’ve spent so far, but how much you might have left at the end of the month

No — and that’s the biggest problem of all. A committed smart meter user, regularly monitoring their consumption, discovering that they’d spent £5 more on this week than the last one, and wanting to take action, wouldn’t know where to start.

Was it because of the weather was colder? Was it because they had friends around for dinner and ended up cooking a lot? Was it the extra loads of washing?

Unfortunately a smart meter only measures the total consumption of everything in your household, and has no way of telling you where exactly you could save, or what the effect of your efforts has been so far.

Ultimately, a smart meter only shows you a general view of the energy you’ve spent after you’ve spent it, not before, so there’s little chance of changing behaviour.

Smart Home to the rescue

A lot has been written about the potential use cases of Smart Home devices, often mocking internet fridges as pointless innovations.

However, internet connected home appliances might just hold the key to saving energy, doing more than smart meters.

Recent regulations have made appliance manufacturers measure and disclose consumption figures for each appliance they sell. These are currently hidden in appliance manuals, and it’s unlikely that people will look this up and try to translate it into the money it costs them to run an appliance.

Example energy & water consumption table from my washing machine

However, an internet-connected appliance will know its own consumption and can also look up energy prices online. It can do that calculation and present that information in context, where it matters.

For example, what if as you were agonising over which programme to choose for your washing machine you could see how much the electricity & water will cost you for each wash?

Or when you ask Alexa to turn up your thermostat, what if you could get a prediction for how much your gas bill might increase? Maybe that would convince a few people to reach for their jumper instead.

Even the often-mocked Internet Fridge could finally find its use, showing you the monetary impact of bad habits like leaving your fridge door open for too long.

There is no silver bullet for behaviour change.

But showing you what you consume in context, when you’re already engaged and have the means to act, will help you save more money than a smart meter display gathering dust in a corner of your hallway.

Thanks to Stephanie Bazin for the illustrations of the smart home concepts shown above.

Webcredible, part of Inviqa

Webcredible is an experience design agency that helps businesses innovate, transform and succeed in a digital world. In July 2018 we became an Inviqa company, representing one joined-up offering for business & change consulting, experience design and software development.

Alexander Baxevanis

Written by

Experience Design Director & Creative Generalist at @Inviqa. Cyclist, Photographer, Husband of @aniamendrek & Flâneur. Creator of @LDNfilmphoto, @cyclehireapp

Webcredible, part of Inviqa

Webcredible is an experience design agency that helps businesses innovate, transform and succeed in a digital world. In July 2018 we became an Inviqa company, representing one joined-up offering for business & change consulting, experience design and software development.

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