Do smart meters allow energy companies to cut you off remotely?

13 September 2023
What was claimed

Smart meters allow energy suppliers to turn off your supply remotely.

Our verdict

While this is broadly true, they need to have contacted you to discuss options for repaying your debt and have visited your home to assess your personal information. There are also some exceptions to who can be cut off. Your credit smart meter can be changed to a prepayment one remotely although new rules mean that energy suppliers can’t enforce this on certain vulnerable customers and must follow steps before doing this to others.

A Facebook post says: “Don’t be fooled Energy providers can turn off your supply via the so called Smart Meter [sic]”. This has been disputed by some people commenting on the post.

However, it is technically true. Smart meters allow energy suppliers to disconnect you or change the meter to a prepayment one remotely. Traditional meters mean suppliers usually have to apply to the courts for a permit to enter someone’s home to disconnect them or change them to a prepayment meter. 

However, there are several steps energy suppliers are meant to go through before resorting to remote changes to your meter or supply, and there are now some groups of people they can’t disconnect at certain times of year or change to prepayment meters at all.

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What is a smart meter?

Smart meters measure how much gas and electricity is being used and send those readings to your energy supplier, without the need for you to report your readings manually or let someone from the energy company into your house to read it. They do this automatically and you don’t need Wi-Fi or a broadband connection in your home for them to work.

They also come with an in-home display that lets you see how much energy you are using and the cost. If you have smart meters for both gas and electricity with the same company, the in-home display will connect to both.

Smart meters can operate by prepayment or by credit. Having a smart meter is not mandatory, although the government requires energy suppliers to take “all reasonable steps” to offer them.

Can smart meters be used to turn off your energy supply remotely?

Your energy supplier can use your smart meter to turn off your energy supply remotely. But they can’t disconnect certain groups of people (whether they have a smart meter or not), for example, elderly people living alone in winter. Under new rules announced by the energy regulator Ofgem, they can’t force certain vulnerable people to have prepayment meters either.

If you don’t pay your energy bills and don’t come to an agreement with your energy supplier over repaying your debt, they can disconnect you (assuming you are not in a number of different scenarios which are described below). Before they attempt to disconnect you they need to take all reasonable steps to help you repay through a payment plan or giving you a prepayment meter.

But if they do go ahead with cutting you off, if you have a traditional meter, the energy supplier can apply to magistrates’ court for a warrant to enter your home. They have to tell you they are doing this and you can attend the court hearing. If the court grants a warrant to disconnect you, the energy company must give you seven days of notice in writing. 

Citizens Advice says suppliers don’t need a warrant to disconnect you if the meter is outside of your home but most suppliers will still get one.

If you have a smart meter, the energy supplier could disconnect you remotely without needing to go to court. But they need to discuss options of repaying your debt with you and have visited your home to assess your personal situation before doing this. 

According to Citizens Advice, it’s rare for suppliers to disconnect customers and they’re more likely to fit a prepayment meter, which requires you to pay for your energy before you use it, either online or via a card or key in person. 

Involuntary installation of prepayment meters

It’s physically possible for energy companies to change your credit smart meter to a prepayment one remotely. In 2021, data from Ofgem showed more than 152,000 households with smart meters had been remotely switched to pricier prepayment plans for gas or electricity.

In February, Ofgem temporarily banned British Gas from remotely switching customers to prepayment meters, and agreed with all other suppliers that they would stop the practice.

Ofgem said in April that suppliers should not restart remotely switching people to prepayment meters until they can demonstrate readiness to implement a new code of practice.

According to Ofgem in a press release from 13 September, currently no energy suppliers are carrying out involuntary installations of prepayment meters (including remotely) and they “will face severe penalties if they do unless they meet strict criteria”. 

These criteria are set out in a new mandatory code of practice on forcibly installing prepayment meters that comes into effect on 8 November. According to the regulator, this code is the result of evidence of “bad behaviour by suppliers severely affecting struggling customers”.

From 8 November, suppliers can no longer forcibly install prepayment meters for households where all occupants are over 75, those that require continuous supply for health reasons, those with children under two, those with residents with severe health issues including terminal illnesses or a medical dependency on a warm home or those where no one within the household has the ability to top up the meter due to physical or mental incapacity.  

If those conditions aren’t met, before switching someone to a prepayment meter, they have to make at least ten attempts to contact a customer and carry out a site welfare visit while wearing audio or body cameras among other steps.

Who can’t be disconnected?

If you’ve reached State Pension age, energy suppliers can’t disconnect your supply between 1 October and 31 March if you live alone or you only live with other people of state pension age or children under 18.

If the supplier has signed up to the Energy UK Vulnerability Commitment (which British Gas and EDF amongst others have), they won’t disconnect people of any age between the dates above if you live with children under 16, or at any time of year if you are disabled, have long term health problems, have severe financial problems or live with children under six.

We’ve previously written about a dangerous and illegal way of tampering with your electricity meter people online claimed could be used to reduce bills and a viral false post that said anyone with less than £4 on their prepayment meter could get a £49 fuel voucher.

Image courtesy of Siân Wynn-Jones

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