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back to article Crap computers in a crap box: Smart-meter blackouts risk to UK

You'd be forgiven for thinking this is the plot of a Saturday night BBC2 drama: hackers tinkering with smart electricity meters deliberately cut the power to whole neighbourhoods. But, according to a UK computer security biz, weak authentication checks and a lack of other security controls on said equipment could allow just that …

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Gosh

Well bugger me....who would have expected that etc etc etc

Apart, of course, from anyone with any technical expertise who has been in the IT industry for more than a couple of weeks.

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Childcatcher

Re: Gosh

Never mind shutting down the network. I just want my meter to run backwards.

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Too costly to fix?

So no doubt the government response to this will be to define hacking smart meters as a terrorist offence with a 10-year minimum term, thus firmly securing the stable doors long after all equine inhabitants have departed.

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Alert

Re: Too costly to fix?

That, or they decide that SDRs are cracking tools with no good useful purpose and make them illegal.

(Which would be a shame, as amateur radio is moving towards SDRs very quickly.)

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You don't need SDRs

You can simply buy the radio chip they use or modify your "home box" or whatever they call that thing that connects it to the Internet.

Using SDRs is simply the "idiot proof" way to get data out of those devices.

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Anonymous Coward

Whilst I can see the value.....

....of smart meters for the power companies. As yet, I haven't seen any customer benefits. We (the consumers) are paying for these meters so the power companies can employ less people to read meters. Have they offered anyone a discount for going onto smart meters? No. Well there's a surprise.

We pay for them to save money and they get to profile our energy usage as well! Seems like an amazing deal, if you are a shareholder at a major power company. I have and will continue to avoid these until I have no choice.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"We (the consumers) are paying for these meters so the power companies can employ less people to read meters. "

We aren't paying for them, the electricity companies are paying for them.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

Did you forget the sarc tags or are you really that naive? Whilst you may not have a specific line on the invoice/bill saying "smart meter" do you really think the power companies will allow their profits to dip during the smart meter roll-out?

The consumer and tax payer always pay in the end - as that is where the money comes from.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"the electricity companies are paying for them"

Out of the goodness of their hearts?

No. This will be them paying for them in the same way that the mobile telco's give me a free mobile if I take out a high enough monthly tarriff.

Unless of course you think that any electricity company will take an exceptional charge (sorry) on their accounts, reducing their profit and director's bonuses because they really exist just to help us, the customer.

I'm not just worried about this threat for my home, but also my principal employer is in a multi-occupancy office building with separate metering per floor for recharging purposes. I can't really see them securing the intermal meters either, at least not until after all the tenants have gone to their offices with pitchforks and burning torches demanding the restoration of supply after the first outage. If these things are hacked "randomly" it will take ages to sort out if it's the main one for the building "in the street" or all the internal meters that have been done. All the while we'll be unable to conduct business, although a more damaging attack might be to get them to cycle every 45 minutes or so, just long enough to exhaust the UPS and frustrate all the staff

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"We aren't paying for them, the electricity companies are paying for them."

And where do they get money from? The pixies? Any cost a company bears is ultimately borne by the consumer.

I would have less of an issue with smart meters if they were dedicated to the customer first and the utility company second. I could see them being very useful to consumers in figuring out where they waste energy etc. But they are not aimed at the consumer, so they are an epic fail. Again.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

Hang on... but your logic seems incomplete.

You claim that something that costs the utility company (such as a smart meter) is really costing me.

But surely this means that something that saves a utility company money (such as not needing to employ meter readers) saves me money too?

You can't claim one without accepting the other... unless you are simply looking for a Daily Mail friendly way to bash the utility companies!

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Megaphone

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"We aren't paying for them, the electricity companies are paying for them."

What and (speaking as a power company employee), we just magic the money up? Don't be daft, the total costs is averaged out and added to everybody's bill, whether they have one or not. But we aren't doing it because it benefits us - putting a meter reader on the dole will save only £5-10 per meter per year, so spending £200 to buy and install a smart meter (possibly a lot more) will have a bloody long payback. Throw in operating costs, systems upgrades, and interest costs and you'll quickly see that there's no financial case at all.

Caps for the hard of thinking: ENERGY COMPANIES ARE INSTALLING SMART METERS ONLY BECAUSE IT IS MANDATED BY UK LAW AND EU RULES THAT YOU MUST BE OFFERED ONE BY 2019. If we don't roll them out, we get fined up to 10% of turnover. No use blaming us, go take it up with your expenses diddling, fingers-in-his-ears MP.

One other common misconception - normal credit tariff customers can't be forced to have a smart meter. If you say no, then that's (currently) final. Of course, the knobs at DECC may push to have the law changed if enough people say no, or your hand could be forced by unfavourable tariffs for non-smart meters.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

Yes I am sure it will also enable the power companeis to provide more agressive peak usage charges in the future too.

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Linux

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

This is a trend, giving you functionality you do not need or have not asked for.

It is the new feature creep.

Smart metering, Contact-less credit cards, tablet-like interfaces everywhere...

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Unhappy

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@TheBig Yin

"I would have less of an issue with smart meters if they were dedicated to the customer first and the utility company second. I could see them being very useful to consumers in figuring out where they waste energy etc. But they are not aimed at the consumer, so they are an epic fail. Again."

Actually, they are specifically intended to be of use to customers first. The EU tree huggers believe that if you have a real time energy or cost display, you'll use less power, and that's why the national roll out is mandated in the Energy Act and the supply companies' regulatory licences. The evidence for this benefit is mixed (and slim, in my view), but the bigger problem is that the EU/DECC solution is a £200-£400 smart meter, when the same consumer information "benefits" are delivered by a £30 energy monitor , millions of which have already been handed out free by the energy companies.

The benefits to power companies are largely a presumed better accuracy on billing and the elimination of estimated bills, which reduces the rework costs and complaint handling. But for a national programme, that even the wild optimists of DECC expect to cost £12bn, that will never be recovered by saving the few million quid spent on estimated bills and errors.

For the same money we could have built ten large 2GW CCGT plants, so generating a total of 20 GW, or two thirds of current peak demand. That would have enabled the immediate retirement of all UK coal plant currently expected to run post 2015, and halved the emissions of fossil generation. Smart meters are a crap solution, and those who have mandated or encouraged their use should be thrown in prison. Hackers are far less of a threat to UK energy security than DECC.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"You claim that something that costs the utility company (such as a smart meter) is really costing me.

"But surely this means that something that saves a utility company money (such as not needing to employ meter readers) saves me money too?"

Wow, you really do NOT understand how business works, do you? Have you ever heard the expression, "Heads I win, tails you lose?" That more or less sums up the spirit of business.

To fix your flawed formulation: something that costs the utility companies is really costing the consumer. But something that saves a utility company money saves the utility company money. If the consumers are lucky, it won't cost them anything.

In the same way that, when banks took insane risks and raked in massive profits, they kept all the profits. But when their insane risks inevitably resulted in massive, banruptcy-scale losses... the consumer (er, taxpayer) bailed them out. There really is a pattern here.

Comprende?

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@TheBig Yin

"The EU tree huggers believe that if you have a real time energy or cost display, you'll use less power..."

In my own case, that is completely untrue. My little Owl meter tells me, more or less, how much power my house is consuming every minute of the day and night - and also how much it costs. But my consumption has not falledn since I installed the meter. That's because, like any sensible person, I have never used any more electricity than I needed.

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Re: customer benefits

I guess the customers that are smart enough to hack their smart meters will get free electricity.

It's nice that the electric companies are giving something back after years of ruthless profiteering.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"We aren't paying for them, the electricity companies are paying for them."

Out of interest, were do you think the electric companies get their money from? Sky pixies? Government? Or us, the consumer?

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Re: customer benefits@Crisp

"It's nice that the electric companies are giving something back after years of ruthless profiteering."

FFS, don't swallow this Daily Mail codswallop. If you'd invested in my employers shares six years ago, you'd be sitting on a quarter of your original investment. Call THAT profiteering? If you're a UK electricity business, your net return is at best about the cost of capital - look at the accounts of SSE plc. Or look at the segmental detail for Centrica plc, owners of British Gas to find the same thing. Most of the supply businesses (the part of the company that sells to you and bills you) operate at a loss, and have done for years, and wholesale generation prices are so low that nobody will start to build new power stations that will be needed from 2016 onwards.

Your energy prices have gone up because world market prices for fuels have gone up in response to global demand plus the malign effects of money printing by Western governments; because sterling buys less than it used due to UK government economic mismanagement; and because the money that should have gone into new power generation assets has been frittered on wind turbines, smart meters and other government mandated shit, which means we still need to raise the money to invest in new fossil plant.

Your power bills will continue to go up to pay for all this eco shit. They don't need to, we just need a policy that stops the ever-growing proportion of your power bill that is being frittered by DECC (about one eighth of it at present, but rising). We need to stop or reduce subsidies to renewables (a double edged sword, unfortunately, because of the wasted investment in building such unproductive assets). We need to forget about nuclear until it can be built to produce power at say £60 MWh, and we shouldn't be closing full functional coal plant to please the twerps of the EU, or rolling out silly toys like smart meters.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Tom Welsh

"In my own case, that is completely untrue. My little Owl meter tells me, more or less...."

Absolutely right. Smart meters are a typical big government solution, built by spending your money for you. Not as an explicit tax, but simply requiring the power companies to recover the cost. If you had the choice of a £30 energy monitor, or a £300 smart meter, and knew you were paying I think most people would choose the former.

To be fair, there is some limited evidence from early roll out of standards-non-compliant smart meters that electricity use comes down by 5%, but I don't know whether that's properly assessed. At a guess it may not have been properly compared to the savings from people handed energy monitors, nor properly adjusted for other factors like appliance replacement (almost any new appliance will use less power than the device it replaces). The "sales" pitch and installation of smart meters often includes energy efficiency advice, so that's something else you'd need to allow for and exclude. I tried an energy monitor, found it of limited use, and it now sits in a drawer at work.

More worryingly, the early evidence is that gas smart meters produce no savings at all. So there's about £5bn of mandated investment across the land with not a single penny in benefits looking likely. Almost as good value as HS2.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

Of course they can, anything that costs them is a cost that has to be absorbed by a consumer as a price rise.

Any saving is a cost still absorbed by a consumer that now pays for the MD's new boat.

How many times when gas /oil / electricity wholesale prices etc drop did you see them quickly cut their bills to you?

How many times when it rose?

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Unhappy

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

And where do the power companies get 'their' money?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

prat

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

ENERGY COMPANIES ARE INSTALLING SMART METERS ONLY BECAUSE IT IS MANDATED BY UK LAW AND EU RULES THAT YOU MUST BE OFFERED ONE BY 2019.

How much compulsion is there in this 'offer'? Can I say "no thank you" and stick to a clockwork meter?

Given the involvement of the EU, I probably already know the answer to this.

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Re: customer benefits

"I guess the customers that are smart enough to hack their smart meters will get free electricity."

Of course not, while the electricity companies do not care about your security, they do care about theirs, and anti-fraud measures are part of the standard smart meter.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"How much compulsion is there in this 'offer'? Can I say "no thank you" and stick to a clockwork meter?"

Yes. Last paragraph of my post covered that.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Tom Walsh

When I installed an electricity monitor about four years ago, I was appalled by the base load of the house. It prompted me to go through all the devices and thinking what was being left on or on standby which should have been powered off (seriously, CRT tellies in standby can draw 60-100W).

It also encouraged me to identify all of the lights that are on for large parts of the day and making sure that I used the lowest power bulbs that did the job (my house has people in it 24x7 at the moment because my wife does not work and all the kids have moved back in! - seen the sitcom "My Family"? It's like that).

Since then, I have also had nearly all the old CRT tellies replaced by LCD ones (well, it was as good an excuse as any, and an easy Christmas present for the kids with benefits to me), moved my firewall onto a laptop, rationalised the number of devices needed to drive the home network, and made sure that the freezer is kept defrosted (it really makes a difference), and also used smart-power strips to remove the power from several devices when one is put into standby.

I just wish that more devices had physical power switches (and I can't use the switch on the socket because in most places, I have more than one device plugged into the socket, and I want to, for example, power the telly down while leaving the Sky box plugged running)

My base load is still around 500W, and I'm struggling to identify where that is going. Probably not something that a smart meter would help with unless they also supplied per-plug metering devices.

It does make you wonder when you can tell that one of the kids has left their gaming rig on overnight to download some game patches, and you can see 3-400W of additional drain. And also when the gas central heating kicks in, and the electric pump starts drawing 7-800W of power itself.

If only I could persuade my wife that the tumble-drier really is one of the biggest expenses. She will not understand that 2 hours of 2.5KW easily uses more power than 24 hours of 30W for the firewall.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@TheBig Yin

@Tom - I've got a currenccost meter and (using the TTL serial port they thoughtfully stuck underneath it) I collect the data and graph it. My consumption did drop when I initially got it, because there were a few things that I wasn't aware just how much juice they used. Amplifiers, older workstations, my partner's MAC used a huge amount of power even when on standby. We make sure to turn off these things now. It's probably not saved us that much, but there are some things that you just aren't aware of how much power they really use.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"But surely this means that something that saves a utility company money (such as not needing to employ meter readers) saves me money too?"

Not really. Costs go to you, savings go to shareholders. The only thing that keeps prices in check even vaguely is competition.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Tom Walsh

> And also when the gas central heating kicks in, and the electric pump starts drawing 7-800W of power itself

You might want to invest in a better meter, one that can correctly measure reactive power. A central heating water pump will never draw anything like 800W, 150-200W is more like it. What does the rating plate on the pump say?

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

@GettinSadda

Okay, I'll explain it for you:

Smart meters cost money. This money comes out of their profits, which is generated by charging consumers for the gas/electricity supply. This then reduces the company's profits which in turn reduces dividend payouts to investors/share holders. This then devalues the company, and investors/share holders will pull out or they will force a vote on the management and replace them.

To protect from this, the utility companies will increase tariffs to increase profits and thereby cover the costs of the smart meters. This means ALL consumers pay more, but as the cost is spread out between those getting the new meters and those who are not, the cost is easily hidden.

When all homes have smart meters, some expect the cost of supply to drop, hence introducing an expected saving. This may or may not happen as the utility companies now know the consumers will pay the increased rates. If it does happen, you can be assured that not all the savings are passed back to the consumer. Rather, the utility company is most likely to opt to retain an increase in profits and so be able to invest in... well, nothing: They'll just increase dividends which will increase the company's value which will attract more investors and share holders.

And with any private company, it always comes down to money.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@TheBig Yin

"The EU tree huggers believe that if you have a real time energy or cost display, you'll use less power"

And even if they don't really believe that they think every one should have a real time display of personal guilt anyway.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Peter Gathercole

"If only I could persuade my wife that the tumble-drier really is one of the biggest expenses."

Well, at least make sure you've got a decent condensor dryer that doesn't have an external vent. Vented tumble dryers are not merely hideously inefficient at drying, but they then promptly expel all the hot air out into the cold, and (through the ventilation of the rest of the house) suck in a replacement volume of cold air, so making for a significant impact on your heating bill as well as electricity.

With a decent condensor the heat is at least kept within the thermal envelope of the house, and you're not pumping fresh cold air in. The extra cost of an A rated condensor usually won't payback, so go for a good B rated device from a respectable make - cheapy condensors don't always work very well, and you'll then get damp air in the house. Also, the condensor models are usually sensor controlled, which (in this house) stops SWMBO from baking the clothes for bloody hours, which used to happen with the primitive vented model we had.

Using a plug in energy monitor should enable you to nail that 500W of base load, but a suggestion is your fridge or freezers. Anything over ten years old is suspect, and anything over fifteen years old will probably pay for itself in lower running costs within two years (well, if the new one is low priced). Older models had inefficient compressors, poor insulation, and the seals wear out. You don't tend to notice the worn seals, but the continuous loss of cold air can make for near continuous running.

One other thing that many people could do - many modern houses use multiple GU10 or MR16 bulbs, which easily adds up to a lot of heat and power. Early LED versions of these bulbs were rubbish, but the latest 4-7W versions are excellent. No point using 500W to illuminate a room if you can do it with 50W, and in a moderately well used room the LED light will pay for itself in eighteen months, and last for a decade or two.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

"Hang on... but your logic seems incomplete.

You claim that something that costs the utility company (such as a smart meter) is really costing me."

It does.

"But surely this means that something that saves a utility company money (such as not needing to employ meter readers) saves me money too?

You can't claim one without accepting the other... unless you are simply looking for a Daily Mail friendly way to bash the utility companies!"

Yes, you can. What will happen is that any savings they make will be paid to the shareholders as dividends..

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Peter Gathercole

"My base load is still around 500W, and I'm struggling to identify where that is going. Probably not something that a smart meter would help with unless they also supplied per-plug metering devices."

Unfortunately domestic power monitors generally only measure apparent power, rather than true active power consumed.

I found this out when I was initially mortified by our new Induction hob. The monitor suggested it was burning 200W in standby, which luckily was clearly not the case or something would have been getting pretty hot. This lead me onto true power vs apparent power. Check out http://paulaowenconsulting.co.uk/2012/12/02/induction-hobs-the-question-of-standby-and-the-power-factor/

Ironically, the greener you go, the worse the apparent power seems on your monitor as your base load drops. I switched all our halogen kitchen lights to LED and the monitor reading went up. The LEDs are consuming so little true power, it gets masked by the apparent power.

Luckily the power companies bill for active power.

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Joke

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Tom Welsh @Ledswinger

>Almost as good value as HS2

No it's much better value!

£5bn of mandated investment with no benefits against £34.5bn (and rising) of mandated investment with a £26bn deficit over the 67-year operating period.

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Devil

Use less electricity

If this gets hacked and the power is switched off at your home you WILL use less electricity - like it or not!

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Tom Walsh @Peter Gathercole

>My base load is still around 500W, and I'm struggling to identify where that is going.

Got a built in burglar and fire alarm system?

when I first got my OWL, I turned everything off and like you ended up with a residual load that I only resolved by popping fuses...

>If only I could persuade my wife that the tumble-drier really is one of the biggest expenses

A condenser dryer with sensor may help reduce costs, but basically if you want your laundry done I suggest living with it. The compromise reached in our house, after I left the Owl attached to the tumble dryer, is that 'heavy' stuff does tend to go on the washing line - weather and schedule permitting.

But this fact (re. hot water and tumble dryer) has enabled me to convince some of my non-IT clients that it is okay to leave their brand new All-in-One with a 25w PSU running and so avoid problems caused by them pulling the plug...

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Roland6

"But this fact (re. hot water and tumble dryer) has enabled me to convince some of my non-IT clients that it is okay to leave their brand new All-in-One with a 25w PSU running and so avoid problems caused by them pulling the plug..."

Router & modem all in one? Must be a crappy affair if it gets its knickers in a twist over power cycling. I've got the much maligned Virgin Superhub on a timer switch to turn it off overnight, so power cycled each day without any assistance, and it works a treat (arguably better for the regular resets).

And although the hot water and tumble dryer do use a lot of power, leaving any "vampire" devices on constantly does add up. As a rough guide for those who can't be bothered to do the maths, take the value in watts of any always-on device, and that's about the cost in £ per year. So a 25W router/modem will cost £25 a year to run if always on, which is about a quarter of the annual running costs of a tumble dryer. Stick a timer switch in the router's mains socket, with power off overnight and you'll save the cost of the timer in year one, after that you're £8 a year better off for the life of the kit. If you're ALWAYS out during the day you could save £16 a year by the timer turning the device off then. As a suggestion don't be too aggressive in the planned timings, otherwise you'll end up frequently over-riding the programme and leaving the device switched on, which defeats the purpose. If you've got any gaming PC's with active subwoofers, then they can be similar vampire power users that don't get noticed when they're left on, and these can be connected to the same timer with a multiple socket extension.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

>As yet, I haven't seen any customer benefits.

Seems to offer numerous advantages to the customer looking at Termineter and ilk.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Roland6

>Router & modem all in one?

No an All-in-One desktop PC that replaced a 'normal' desktop PC assembly with 300+w psu, that they were (naturally) turning off after usage, without really taking notice of what the screen was telling them...

I deliberately chose the All-in-One for its low energy consumption (25w max and 3w standby) and low noise so that it could be left on. Also on this system the power button is software controlled (puts the system into hibernate mode)... Shame the power management software isn't better as I'm sure I could further decrease energy consumption...

>Stick a timer switch on the ...

You would of thought by now that these devices would have an energy saving mode and be manageable via power management software running on the PC...

Only problem I've encountered with external timer switches is how many devices now come with a soft on/off switch that only works once the device is powered...

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Peter Gathercole

"No point using 500W to illuminate a room if you can do it with 50W"

That depends to an extent on how much energy you are using to heat (or cool) the room at the same time.

Why worry about the efficiency of your light bulbs if the heating needs to be on anyway? Lose 500W of lighting and you need 500W more heat input from somewhere.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

We've got one of these on one of our nine electricity supplies. They still send a meter reader to read it. They allege that since it was fitted by British Gas when they had that particular account, eon can't get the readings from British Gas. Mind you, if our experience is anything to go by, there's a serious question as to whether anyone can get any sane information of any sort out of British Gas. In any case, most suppliers make a lot of profit out of NOT reading meters but using an estimating algorithm which ensures that "estimated" charges are always entered at a notional consumption far above what they reckon the consumption to have been.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

So Ledswinger says

"One other common misconception - normal credit tariff customers can't be forced to have a smart meter. If you say no, then that's (currently) final. "

British Gas didn't ask. They simply sent some operative from Eastern Europe, with very little English, to "change the meter." That particular supply was a domestic-rate supply.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value..... @PatientOne

"And with any private company, it always comes down to money."

Sadly, the same applies to government. Any organization lives on money, and its top priority is to secure its supplies and get more if possible.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Phil

It says 1KW.

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....

Hear hear. I see no benefits for smart meters and don't want any more wi-fi electro-smog in my house, nor do I wish to be profiled...

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Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@Tom Welsh

"the early evidence is that gas smart meters produce no savings at all."

The simple installation of smart meters won't produce any savings... it's how you use the information they provide that can lead to savings through better control of your energy usage. It might, for example, highlight that your heating carries on using gas for 30 minutes every morning after everyone has left for work and school, where it could quite happily be turned off 30 minutes before the last person leaves without causing anyone any discomfort.

To be quite honest, aside from the remote reading, it's not really of that much benefit in a domestic situation. The majority of energy wastage is quite easy to identify if you take the time to look at how your systems are operating. They're of far more benefit in commercial situations; I've heard numerous anecdotes on this subject, such as a commercial laundry which discovered that it had a regular spike in energy consumption on sunday afternoons when it was supposedly closed - it turned out an employee was coming in to use the facilities to clean football kit for his entire sunday league team!

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Unhappy

Re: Whilst I can see the value.....@TheBig Yin

"Smart meters are a crap solution, and those who have mandated or encouraged their use should be thrown in prison. Hackers are far less of a threat to UK energy security than DECC."

IIRC they were included in the bill because some Peer took cash for clauses and had them inserted.

The benefits of the "display" are also optional as mos of them will not have it as standard.

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