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When Smart Meters go wrong

July 26th, 2019 |  Published in Smart Energy  |  14 Comments

Most people don’t think much about firmware – the embedded software which runs the microcontrollers in all of the devices we have around us.  We’re aware of the frustration when they don’t do what they’re meant to, at which point we realise that “smart” may not have been the best adjective to use to promote the product, but even when they do go wrong, turning them off and on again, or taking the battery out generally clears the problem.  They almost always go wrong because the design process didn’t include enough testing, or not enough time was given over to thinking about the “edge cases” – those unexpected combinations of events which result in things not working the way they should.  Most of the time it’s just a short-term annoyance; if it’s worse than that we’ll probably send it back, or throw it out and buy a new one.

However, we do expect safety critical devices like cars and planes and national infrastructure to be a lot better designed than this.  Your boiler turning off because it thinks there’s a flow problem when there isn’t is annoying (time for a firmware upgrade please, Vailant), but it’s not life threatening.  In contrast, a self-driving car that runs over a cyclist is not something the public is generally happy about.  Nor is a plane falling out of the sky.  But where would you put a smart meter in the scale of things that might affect your life?  Last week we found out, and it’s not a happy answer.

At this point it’s worth considering how important a smart meter is?  I’ve tried to have that conversation with various parts of the industry and it’s always a question which has raised eyebrows, because they don’t seem to understand why I’m asking it.  The current line from Smart Energy GB is that “Smart meters can’t solve climate change on their own, but with the smarter, more energy efficient grid they help to create, they are a start”.  At which point they regale us with photos of polar bears and cute animals.  Look closely at the photos and you’ll see that smart meters have also managed to get rid of plastic straws, as there aren’t any of those in the adverts.  Clever chaps down there in Bloomsbury, ensuring the area maintains its reputation for fiction.  Away from the glare of the publicity lighthouse, the Energy Minister of the day tends to trot out the same line that they’re leading to a more efficient energy grid, whilst our energy suppliers enthuse about the fact we’ll no longer get estimated bills.  Or meter readers.

That dichotomy between smart grid and accurate bills is key to understanding the GB smart metering programme and why it’s gone wrong.  The key reason for installing smart meters should be to provide data to make the grid more efficient.  To make the grid efficient, you need to be able to react to demand, which means real-time information and the knowledge of how to use it.  However, in Britain, we have let the meter design be driven by the energy suppliers.  They have no real interest in real-time data; as for billing they only need it on a monthly basis.  Instead, they compromised and designed meters which upload data once a day.  The whole of the rest of the smart metering infrastructure, from the DCC through to the cellular contracts for uploading the meter data, has been designed and costed on the same basis, which means that the £20 billion or so we’re spending on the program will not help us get a smarter, more efficient energy grid.

To be fair, we’re not alone.  Spain has garnered acclaim for rolling out smart meters to every household by the end of 2017.  They made some good decisions, such as not making the specification overly complex and letting the network install them instead of the utilities.  Both decisions helped them to keep their deployment on track at a fraction of the cost of the GB programme.  It will also help them keep their bills down, as the cost of smart meters ends up being paid for by consumers.  However, a recent set of interviews with senior managers involved with the project shows a lot of them wondering whether there will be an overall cost benefit and whether they are getting the right data to help the grid.  As a result, they’re already looking at a second generation of smart meters, despite the fact that the current meters were meant to have a 15 year life.  It means that even Spain’s low-cost smart metering deployment could end up proving to be a very expensive experiment.

Coming back to the question of how important a smart meter is, there’s an important fact that people need to grasp.  If all it does is send your energy usage to your supplier, it’s not very important.  If it goes wrong the energy supplier can go back to estimating bills or ask you to send in readings.  But that isn’t all a GB smart meter does.  Our smart meters have something else in them.  It’s an OFF switch, which can disconnect your gas or electricity.  That’s a little extra which the utilities added to save them the inconvenience of sending someone out to connect or disconnect you.  It’s so much easier if someone in their call centre, somewhere in the world, can just press a button.

At this point I need to do something I rarely do, which is to quote Josef Stalin, who is credited with saying that “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.  Once a smart meter has an OFF switch you need to turn that around: “A single smart meter is irrelevant; a million smart meters is a tragedy”.  Because if a million smart meters were to disconnect their users in one go, we could probably say goodbye to our energy infrastructure.  I don’t believe that this concept has ever got through to those involved in the smart metering roll-out.  Whenever I’ve raised the point about the consequences of someone hacking smart meters as a composite grid component, the only response I’ve had is “why would anyone do that?”  Which is akin to wondering why anyone would fly a plane into a building.  But they probably wouldn’t contemplate that, as it’s not in their Health and Safety training.

What is worrying is that this might not need a hacker – it could happen by accident.  The most high profile example of this is the recent crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft.  It appears that both were caused by firmware not being able to cope with the edge case of failed sensor, which no-one had expected to happen.  After the first crash everyone tried to convince themselves it was not a problem.  It took a second crash to see the aircraft grounded.  The very obvious lesson is that when a safety critical system starts to go wrong, you need to take it seriously.

With smart meters I am concerned that the level of software process, testing and understanding is nowhere where it needs to be to ensure the safety of the grid.  Smart meters are treated as individual devices with no concept of the damage which could be done if millions of them malfunctioned.  Security discussion within the smart metering programme is largely confined to data privacy and tampering, as the industry is still fixated on consumer fraud.  It probably wouldn’t be difficult for a determined extremist with computing expertise to get employed by one of the meter manufacturers and sabotage them, but that’s probably fanciful.  (Although I would hope there is some vetting of those working on the firmware).  What is more likely is a simple mistake.  The critical thing is how to deal with any such mistakes when they surface.

Last month we learnt what that response is.  Many customers of Bulb energy reported that their smart meters (although they probably meant their In Home Displays) suddenly changed from displaying English to showing Welsh.  The correct response to that would be to stop any further installations whilst conducting an immediate software review.  Instead this was treated as a joke, with the supplier’s spokesman responding to the failures by quipping that “We think Welsh is a great language”.  They might have acted differently if it had changed to Chinese and displayed the message that “Our Government is listening to you”, but they’d probably have made a joke of that as well.

It illustrates how ill-equipped the industry is for the magnitude of what it is trying to do.  Fifty million smart meters with a remote disconnect capability are not just individual billing units, but together become critical national infrastructure.  As such, that needs to be recognised at the design stage, through software verification and testing and monitoring of their performance.  Any unexpected behaviour needs to be flagged up as a cause of concern, with processes in place to determine what has gone wrong.  It will probably not be malicious; rather than being a Black Mirror plot, the cause is more likely to be a simple programming mistake that testing didn’t pick up, not least because of the insane pressure on developers and testers to get meters out of the door and shipped.  But that doesn’t mean we can laugh it off as a funny story for a quiet news day.  Each mistake like that has the potential to cripple the grid.

What is sad is that we have opened up this Pandora’s Box at immense expense, without including the features which would make it useful.  Instead we have exposed the grid to all of the risks and obtained virtually none of the benefits.  If the worst should happen, is there a contingency plan to reconnect a million or more homes which have lost power?  Our utilities are good at individual interventions like fallen powerlines and other utilities cutting through cables, but how would they cope with the need to replace or reset a million meters?  Have they even thought about that scenario?

It could happen.  Bulb have rather sheepishly reported that almost 30% of their smart meters are not working; another energy supplier told the press that 20% required a second visit from an installer.  Every time a smart meter exhibits a problem it should be logged centrally and investigated.  The saga with Whirlpool dryers shows the consequences of not doing so.  Once again, those are individual tragedies, not the infrastructure meltdown that could come from malfunctioning smart meters.

As more of these problems come to light, the industry needs to up its game in terms of security and take these reports seriously.  There is more to do than laugh as the world ends, whichever language you do it in.


#1 Jake Maverick on 07.27.19 at 2:10 pm

The whole point of these nasty devices is so that the state and anybody else with the right technology (you can buy an app for your smart phone) is to see and record everything that goes on in your home in full 3d holoporn. Everything else is just propaganda…

Then there are also the health problems…I happen to be particularly sensitive. One was forced upon us few weeks ago, ever since I’ve had major headaches, blurred vision, lot more muscle cramping. Somedays I can barely function and it’s all since the damn thing was installed 🙁 Can’t even get away from it. I am a prisoner here.

#2 Dave Ward on 07.28.19 at 5:37 pm

“But even when they do go wrong, turning them off and on again, or taking the battery out generally clears the problem”

It’s not just Boeing who have software problems:

“Airbus A350 software bug forces airlines to turn planes off and on every 149 hours”

“If the worst should happen, is there a contingency plan to reconnect a million or more homes which have lost power?”

That’s assuming the grid didn’t fall over big time when they all disconnected simultaneously…

#3 Nick on 07.28.19 at 7:27 pm

I’m pretty sure that the grid would fall over, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get anyone in the industry to understand that, let alone any minister or anyone at BEIS. So I’ve reverted to the simpler problem of visiting a million homes and installing new meters, or just bypassing them. That seems to be just about within the scope of their understanding. But as you know, there’s unlikely to be a grid behind it when they do reconnect.

Thanks for the Airbus link – I’d missed that. A bit worrying to see that they’re promoting the XWB variant as “capable of flying over 20 hours non-stop”. Reminds me of the old joke about why you wouldn’t want Windows running anything on the flight deck.

#4 Nick on 07.28.19 at 7:30 pm

You can’t be forced to have a smart meter – they are not compulsory. If someone did force one on you, or attempts to do so, lodge a complaint with OFGEM.

#5 A barber on 07.31.19 at 7:29 am

People seem to think that installing a smart meter will instantly cut their bills .there are only two people in our house we don’t leave lights on and apart from daily living fail to see how I’m going to save money unless I stop watching tv. to stop boiling kettle . stop cooking meals . Stop running shower .and sit on sofa in the dark all night drinking a water.wake up everyone the only people going to save is the energy companies .and if my house burns down they will not give a shit

#6 Joe Patel on 08.03.19 at 3:30 pm

Nick – would be interested in your take on this:

I think you should contact them!!!

#7 Richard on 08.06.19 at 8:06 am

In this article and in his previously well argued papers Nick has addressed the essential shortcomings of this misguided programme. From the merely silly (patently unSMART headline) to the more subtle and insidious aspects of the choice and application of the base technology – 2G networking as an example, and downright lies by Government and the suppliers. The real problem remains that no-one, except the few like Nick who are prepared to question the logic and premise of such projects, seems to be giving a damn. As I have pointed out myself on a number of forums, it will take balls of steel to cancel or downgrade this programme when there are so many vested interests and so much sunk capital. Perhaps we should spare a thought to how the behemoth that has been created can be stopped or modified to provide real benefits to consumers and the suppliers alike. At the moment the benefits are all asymetrical despite propanda to the contrary.

#8 AJ on 11.11.19 at 8:25 pm

I am contacting you because of your knowledge in the worlds of mobile and wireless communication, as well as Smart Meters. I am no expert, so I have sought help from various places and researched online, but no one can solve my problem.

I believe that the Smart Meter (SM) installed at my property causes some form of disturbance/interference resulting in my Consumer Unit (CU) to constantly trip and thus shutting down all electricity.

Please see video from this link:

0 minute = Credit App. 1.00 minute = 1st trip. 2.00 minute – Reset switch. 2.10 minutes = App credit confirmation. 2.25 minutes = 2nd trip

1. The CU started tripping immediately after my dumb PAYG meter was replaced with the Secure Liberty 100 SMETS 1 SM, directly underneath the CU.
Energy company that installed and owns the SM states the tripping is an ‘unfortunate coincidence’ and not their fault.

2. Three different electricians have checked my house and confirmed all electrics and CU from consumer side are good. They can not touch the SM as it is owned by the Energy company.

3. The CU trips erratically a few times every day and night.
BUT, only time I know definitely CU will trip is when credit is topped-up via the mobile App and that credit is sent back to the SM, as seen in video.

4. The CU also trips when Energy company staff have remotely done On Demand tests.

5. When Energy company replaced first SM, in case it was faulty, with a second SM, the CU started tripping incessantly for a few hours. Probably due to the new SM sending and receiving initial start-up data.

6. From some of the documents I have since requested from the Energy company, they state that when the SM was installed, these where the SMETS Signal dBm strengths.
Vodafone =98, TMobile=99, Only O2 strength higher than -93dBm at O2=85

CAUSE – Why maybe trip, from what I have found
The way all SMs have to operationally function and where this SM has been located underneath the CU, is probably causing the CU to trip.
1. Transmissions emanating from the SM is causing some form of disturbance/interference, such as electromagnetic interference (EMI), radio frequency interference (RFI) or upstream harmonics or otherwise, which is causing the CU to trip.
2. Communication parts in the Liberty 100 are at the very top of the unit – the SM has been placed immediately underneath where the RCD is in the CU – it can not get any closer.
3. Mobile modems vary their signal strength based on the strength of the signal they receive, so if the signal is weak, they’ll boost their output accordingly to get good comms with local mast, so increase the risk of interference.
4. RCD in CU will be a MEM with a functional earth wire and it may act like an antennae

To eliminate that the SM is causing the CU to trip, rather than a fault with the CU.
1. The Liberty 100 has facility to be switched off from being a SM to being a dumb PAYG physical key top-up terminal.
Energy company states not have facility to remotely switch off SM to make it dumb.
2. The Liberty 100 has facility on the modem to have an external antenna. I suggested that they disconnect internal antenna and connect external antenna and site it a distance from CU as a test. Energy company would not do.
3. Requested replace SM with dumb Meter terminal. Energy company would not do.

The Energy company absolutely insists that the SM is not at fault. I also agree, but where they have fitted it, immediately next to the already pre-existing CU, is causing the tripping. In fact, their suggestion is that I pay to move the CU away from their SM.

This is just information I have found as to what I believe are the causes and maybe the solution to my problem. I am probably wrong, but that is why I am asking for your input. The CU tripping constantly through every day and night is having such a negative affect. Dealing with the Energy Ombudsman will take at least 16 weeks for them to even initially respond.

If you could help me, advise or suggest what to do, who to contact, how to get an independent test to present to the Energy company, anything please, then I will be so greatly indebted. I apologise for posting this on your site if it is deemed as inappropriate.

#9 AJ on 11.27.19 at 7:42 pm

FYI, an Update – I have stopped the RCD from tripping.
I did this by putting a RF barrier material between SM unit and CU box. Take away the RF barrier material and the CU starts tripping and stopping electricity again.
So, signals emanating from SMs can cause RCDs in CU to trip if they are located near to each other, in my humble opinion. Another ‘problem’ with SMs that no one has mentioned.

#10 Nick on 12.05.19 at 2:03 am

Sorry for not getting back to you on this. It’s good to see you have a solution, but I can honestly say that I have no idea why this is happening.

#11 Nick on 12.05.19 at 2:12 am

I’m intrigued by this, as I can’t see why this is happening unless something is very wrong with either the smart meter / comms unit or the CU box. RCDs should be resistant to RF interference, certainly at the level that you get out of a smart meter. Equally the smart meters should not transmit at anything like the level that would cause an RCD to trip. The CE testing which is mandatory for these devices tests both their ability to cause interference and their susceptibility to such interference. The implication is that one or the other isn’t meeting those requirements.

As the CU has tripped with different smart meters, it may be the RCD at fault. I’d be tempted to inform both manufacturers of the problem and point out that their products may not be CE compliant, and copy OFGEM in on the correspondence. It depends how much you want to do now that you have a solution?

Thank you for sharing this. It’s another sad aspect of the rush to get stuff out without enough testing.

#12 AJ on 12.05.19 at 11:23 am

Thank you for your reply and here is some further information. It seems the RCD tripping is caused by Electromagnetic interference (EM) rather than RFI.

1. Barrier between the CU/RCD and the SM is several layers of thick Aluminium Foil !

2. Information given to me from forum for electricians.
“As to the RFI/EMC interference issue, electrical and electronic equipment…” (and that will include RCDs) “…only has to be immune to a signal strength of 3 volts per metre under the EMC Regulations. Close to a mobile phone or a Smart meter, the levels are often over 20 volts per metre. So the Smart Meter should not have been installed so close to the Consumer Unit. But does OFGEM or anyone else give guidance on this – of course not.”
Source URL:


#13 AJ on 12.09.19 at 7:00 pm

Please do not post my message dated 12.05.19 at 11.23pm – Replace with below

#14 AJ on 12.09.19 at 7:03 pm

Thank you for your reply and here is some further information.

I have always agreed with the Energy company that the SMs are NOT faulty.
Rather, what causes the the RCD to trip is how SMs FUNCTION – when activated, they output intense, pulsed bursts of non-ionising microwave radiation, RF/EMF. (If that is incorrect, please put me straight).

1. Barrier between the CU/RCD and the SM is several layers of thick Aluminium Foil!

2. Information given to me from a forum for electricians.
– In areas of poor phone signal reception, which this SM is in, the SM increases transmitter antenna power and output to get a better signal. The increased power of the phone signal causes interference in the CU resulting in the RCD electronics to detect a fault and so trip the device.
– The RFI/EMC interference for electrical and electronic equipment, and that will include RCDs, only have to be immune to a signal strength of 3 volts per metre under the EMC Regulations. Close to a mobile phone or a Smart meter, the levels are often over 20 volts per metre. So the SM should not have been installed so close (directly underneath) to the CU/RCD.

If the SM is causing the RCD to trip is it then not CE compliant?
How do I find out what tests were done to get CE compliance for my SM?

From the very day the Energy company installed the SMs, the RCD started tripping to which they say it is an “unintended unfortunate coincidence”! They keep saying their SM is not faulty and it is my CU/RCD that is.
I have suggested many options to them to test and isolate the SM from being the cause of the RCD trips. There has been no intellectual or business curiosity or interest from the Energy company or their SM installer as to why this strange event is occurring. Would they not want to find out so the problem is not replicated elsewhere?

Instead, it has taken me nearly two years of testing and research for me to believe that SM RF/EMF interference causes the RCD to trip and to stop it with my ‘diy’ aluminium barrier solution. The Energy company’s blind arrogance and obstinacy has resulted in 2 years of stress and worry due to the fact that the RCD tripping at least 4 and more per day has an absolutely negative impact on the quality of life – breaks in TV and internet viewing, spoilt food from the freezer, heating stopping etc..

I do want to take this matter to Ofgem – infact, I would want to take it further and start legal proceedings against the Energy company, if I knew how – dumb question but what sort of lawyer/firm do I contact?

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About Creative Connectivity

Creative Connectivity is Nick Hunn's blog on aspects and applications of wireless connectivity. Having worked with wireless for over twenty years I've seen the best and worst of it and despair at how little of its potential is exploited.

I hope that's about to change, as the demands of healthcare, energy and transport apply pressure to use wireless more intelligently for consumer health devices, smart metering and telematics. These are my views on the subject - please let me know yours.

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