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Image Simon Moynihan
Staff Writer

On Monday British Gas said it's going to put a million smart meters into British homes this year... and then another million next year, and they're hiring on 2500 new staff to get it done. This is good news for British householders because apparently with smart meters they can expect to save hundreds every year on their energy bills.

Smart meters are digital and replace old gas and electricity meters. They monitor energy as it's used and send the information wirelessly to suppliers over the mobile network. Householders can watch their consumption in real time with an indoor monitor and use it to decide which gadgets and appliances to turn off or leave on.

The really great thing about smart meters though is an end to estimated bills. Pay for exactly what you use and no meter readings are needed. Also, charts and graphs showing when electricity consumption is highest and lowest for your home can be seen online.

The thing I like best about smart meters is that (apparently) you can log onto your supplier's website and see your household energy usage in real time. What if you've left the iron on? The heat? Just log into your account from work and find out.

Back home, the ESB is currently running a smart meter trial. They installed 5700 smart meters in Irish households last year to see how customers behaved when they were more aware of what they were using. The results aren't out yet, but from similar UK trials, it is generally accepted that electricity consumption drops by at least 10%. This because customers can watch their consumption and learn which gadgets are most power-hungry and turn them off.

So why would a supplier install smart meters when it's expensive to do so and customers will use less electricity? Well, generally regulation drives it. In some European countries the rollout is almost complete and in the UK, the government says all households must have smart meters by 2020. But for the suppliers there's also more accurate billing and no need for actual house visits to read meters. They can also introduce time of day tariffs which charge a bit more when energy consumption is at it's highest and a bit less when it's lower - so they can balance their generation capacity.

I was lucky enough to work with First:Utility when they were the first energy supplier with smart meters in the UK. They're a small energy company and if you switched to them, they would send a guy in a van out to your house and install a new meter for you before putting you on supply.

In the beginning, the demand for First:Utility far exceeded their ability to install the meters, so they had to restrict new customers to the midlands where they are located. Even though First:Utility's customer service is known to be a bit patchy, they are still signing up new customers by the vanload which shows how much customers want smart meters.

Bord Gais, Airtricity and ESB don't offer smart meters yet and a mass rollout has not been announced by any of them, but I've decided to take a transitional approach until they do. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up an Owl wireless electricity monitor for my home.

This gadget is supposed to show me in real time how much electricity I'm using and how much it's costing me. It has a display monitor, which I've put in the kitchen, and a "sender box" which clips around the mains cable at the meter. The sender box reads the electricity as it's used and wirelessly sends the information to the monitor.

So far, I've been amazed at how much electricity some appliances and gadgets use, and pleasantly surprised by how little is used by others. I've walked around the house turning stuff on and off and find myself making sure that the thing reads 60 watts or less before I switch off the last light at night.

I'm sure the novelty will wear off, but before it does I'll keep watching and see if it really can save me money. I'll come back with my findings soon.