Electricity meters explained

Your electricity meter gives you a record of how much energy you use, rather than a mere estimate. This leads to more accurate billing, as well as greater control of your household energy use. Here’s a closer look at electricity meters and how to read them.

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Close-up of electricity meter

Last updated: 23 October 2020

In this guide you’ll find:

  • How do electric meters work?

  • Where is my electricity meter?

  • Different types of electric meters: what type of meter do I have?

  • How to read electric meters

  • Which electricity meter is right for me?

Electricity meters – also commonly referred to as electric meters – record how much energy is used. This ensures accurate billing and enables householders to make informed choices about energy use. 

How do electric meters work?

Electric meters work by measuring voltage and current to calculate how much energy has been used. 

Electric meter reading units 

Electricity meters measure consumption in kilowatt-hours (kWh). When you take a meter reading, you can see the number of kWh your household has used. Meter readings are used by energy suppliers to calculate bills. The cost of your bill will depend on how many kWh your electric meter has recorded and the price your supplier charges per unit of electricity. 

Why are electric meter readings important?

Suppliers use your property size and the number of occupants as a guide when calculating estimated bills, but only a meter reading can accurately reflect the amount of electricity your household has used and how much you really owe. If you couldn’t take meter readings, your bill would be issued based on estimated amounts alone.

Where is my electricity meter?

Most new homes have the meter outside the property. This allows meter readers – people employed by your electricity supplier to take meter readings – to do their job without disturbing the occupants. 

Meters are usually stored in a small metallic box or cupboard, which may be inset or fixed to the walls of your home. It’s also possible that the meter is indoors, particularly if you live in a flat or an older property. It could be positioned in a utility cupboard, an extension or in a cupboard under the stairs. Some modern apartment complexes house all the meters in a communal facility, so it’s worth asking your landlord or property management company if you can’t find it. 

Once you’ve found the box or cupboard, you’ll see the electricity meter itself, which is usually a black or white device with either a digital display or analogue dials. If you can’t easily access your meter because you have a physical impairment, you can ask your energy supplier to add you to its Priority Services Register. Once you’re registered, your supplier will arrange for your meter to be moved to a more convenient location free of charge.

Different types of electric meters: what type of meter do I have?

There are many different types of electric meter. This list should help you identify yours. 

Standard electric meters

The most common type of meter in the UK is the standard electric meter. These feature a revolving dial in the display, similar to the odometer that tracks your car’s mileage. The numbers on the dial show the number of energy units – measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh) – that have been used since the electric meter was installed. 

Smart meters

A smart meter is a type of electricity meter that’s becoming increasingly common. These are being rolled out across the country free of charge as part of a government initiative to give households an accurate, real-time record of their energy consumption. The hope is that this will encourage them to track down sources of wasted energy and reduce overall consumption. If used as intended, smart meters could reduce your carbon footprint and save you money on bills, too. The amount you are currently using is displayed on a digital screen. Data recorded by a smart meter is sent directly to your energy provider, so you don’t have to worry about submitting meter readings. 

Most providers also offer apps and online management tools to let you view your real-time energy use, which can make it even easier to fine-tune your usage for greater efficiency. If you’d like a smart meter installed, talk to your energy supplier.

Economy 7 electricity meter

Like standard meters, Economy 7 electricity meters record how much power you have used and display it on a digital or analogue readout. The difference with this type of meter is that it tracks the energy you use during two separate periods: peak and off-peak. This type of meter is used with an Economy 7 tariff, which charges a different rate for electricity depending on whether it was used during the peak period or not. Energy used at peak times costs more than standard-rate electricity, but off-peak power can cost half as much. Economy 10 meters work in a similar way, but they record 10 hours of off-peak use that’s split across the afternoon, evening and night. 

Prepayment meters

A prepayment meter – which is often referred to as a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) meter – monitors electricity use in the same way as a standard meter, but it needs to be topped up with credit to supply electricity. Some PAYG meters look like standard electricity meters and let you send meter readings and top up online; others prepayment meters rely on you charging up a smart card, token or key at a local PayPoint, which are often found in newsagents or convenience stores. It’s just as important to take regular readings of these types of electric meters as it is the standard types so that you don’t unwittingly run out of credit and get cut off. 

How to read electric meters 

With so many different types of electricity meters, it’s important to identify the type you have before you try to read it. Each type is read a slightly different way, depending on how the information is displayed. 

How to read a dial electric meter

If you have a standard meter with a dial display, you will see a set of small, clock-like dials. It’s important to remember that dials positioned next to one another turn in opposite directions. 

To take a meter reading, look at the numbers from left to right. Ignore the final red dial if you see one, or any without hands or numerals. In some cases, the needle will be between two figures. In this case, write down the last number the dial passed. 

If one of the figures you’ve jotted down is followed by a nine, you’ll need to reduce that digit by one. For example, if the number reads 349, you should adjust it to 339. 

How to read old electric meters

The most common type of electric meter is a standard design with a mechanical display. This will show you a series of five black numbers – write them down from left to right. If you see any red numbers, ignore them. It’s straightforward to take a meter reading from these – it’s just like reading the mileage dial on your car’s dashboard. 

How to read a digital electric meter 

This is probably the easiest type of electric meter to read. New digital electricity meters feature a simple display. Simply jot down the first five numbers on the digital display – you may need to press a button if nothing appears at first. If you see any figure that begins 0.1, ignore it. It’s the first five numbers that show the amount of electricity used in kWh. 

How to read an Economy 7 meter

Economy 7 meters might come in standard or digital forms, but what sets them apart is that there are two displays that record day and night usage. Write down both when you take a meter reading. The top row is usually for peak-rate daytime electricity, while the bottom row corresponds to off-peak night-time use. 

How to read a smart meter

You don’t need to read a smart meter – they automatically send meter readings to your supplier at regular intervals. However, you can still keep tabs on your energy usage with the digital display on your meter or in any associated app or online account. All these methods will enable you to see your meter readings in real-time. 

How to read a prepayment meter

PAYG meters work a little differently from the others because they show you both the amount of energy you’ve used as well as your remaining credit. In most cases, the amount of remaining credit is shown by default. To view the amount of energy you have used, press the button to switch to the meter-reading display. 

Which electricity meter is right for me?

The right electric meter depends on which energy tariff is right for you. That decision depends on how you use electricity. If you’re happy to use kitchen appliances overnight or you have night storage heaters or an electric car that can be charged while you sleep, an Economy 7 meter might help save you money. 

On the other hand, if you like the idea of strongly controlling how much you spend on energy and when you spend it, a prepayment electric meter and PAYG plan might be worth considering. 

If you want to streamline your electricity use by cutting out waste, a smart meter’s real-time meter readings could be a great help. 

It’s worth noting that the type of electricity meter available to you will depend on your geographical location and property type, so it’s helpful to ask your supplier what’s available in your area. And don’t be afraid to shop around. You may find a better plan is available if you switch provider. You can request a new meter from your energy supplier at any time: whether you’re moving house, switching to a new supplier or simply fancy a change. Do be aware, however, that not all meters are installed free of charge.