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Prepayment meters

Prepayment meters explained

Prepayment energy meters are a type of domestic energy meter that requires users to pay for energy before using it. This is done via a smartcard, token or key that can be "topped up" at a corner shop or via a smartphone app.

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Around 5.9 million people in the UK have a prepayment energy meter. Learn how they work and how to switch from a prepayment meter to a regular meter.

How do prepayment energy meters work?

With a prepayment meter you have to pay for your gas and electricity upfront. They work a bit like a pay as you go mobile phone - you have to top-up with credit to get your gas and electricity.
A prepayment meter has a slot for you to put your top-up card in to increase your energy credit.

The top-ups work in a variety of different ways. You could have a smartcard, token or key you have to take to a shop, or in some cases you put money straight into the meter itself.

More recently, some suppliers are even offering online or phone top up. Ovo Energy, for example, offer prepayment top up by text, app, phone or online.

Otherwise, you can top-up at recognized PayPoint or Payzone shops or at The Post Office.

Can I switch to cheaper energy plan?

Yes. Nearly every supplier has at least one prepayment tariff available and, just like regular meters, some plans are cheaper than others. It's worth checking to see if you could switch prepayment meter plans to save.

Right now, there is a huge difference between the cheapest and most expensive prepayment plans on the market.

Compare prepayment meter deals with uSwitch now. Simply select "Prepayment meter" when asked how you pay for your energy.

Can I switch from a prepayment meter to a standard meter?

Yes, with some caveats (see below). But first, why would you want to switch your meter out?

Prepayment energy plans are some of the least competitive on the market — that means those stuck with prepayment meters have fewer plans to choose from if they want to switch and save money on their energy bills.

However, households can switch their meters out, though it ocassionally comes with a cost.

The good news is, if your current supplier is one of the big six, and you are eligible for a credit meter, you can get the meter switched out for free.

Before switching your meter, your supplier will likely require that certain conditions are met. These include that your account is debt free and, in some cases, that the account holder passes a credit check.

If you are a renter, please note that you will need the landlord's permission to change the meter (this does not apply to smart meters).

If your current supplier charges to change from a prepayment to a credit meter, you're not stuck — you can still switch to a cheaper prepayment plan from another supplier. Your new supplier may even be able to swap your meter out at no cost.

Why do energy suppliers install prepayment meters?

Prepayment energy meters are usually installed into homes that have slipped into debt with their energy supplier at some point, to help them manage their debt and their budget more effectively.

Some landlords also like to have them installed in their rental properties , to try and cut the risk of their tenants running into debt.

If you have to switch to a prepayment meter because you're in debt to your energy supplier, you will pay off your debt bit by bit at the same time as you pay for the gas and electricity you use.

This means that as well as paying the unit rate for the energy you use, you'll pay a little extra to go towards what you owe.

How can I take a meter reading on a prepayment meter?

 There will usually be a button on your meter that will provide you with a meter reading

To get a meter reading from your prepayment meter, you will usually have to press a button on the meter (sometimes it's blue).

This will change the display from showing the remaining credit to showing the actual reading. From there on, it's just like taking a normal meter reading.

What are the pros and cons of prepayment meters?

When it comes to prepayment meters, the disadvantages generally outweigh the advantages.

Advantages of prepayment meters include:

  • helping customers to manage their debt and energy usage;
  • preventing large, unexpected bills,

Disadvantages of prepayment meters include:

  • above average costs for your gas and electricity;
  • the best energy deals on the market aren't available to prepayment meter customers;
  • they can be inconvenient because you have to go out to 'top up' keys and smartcards;
  • if you can't reach a shop to top up your meter your energy can be switched off;
  • older meters need to have their prices updated manually after price rises or falls, which can take months. This means you could be left paying old rates and owing a lump sum or paying too much.

I've just moved to a house with a prepayment meter, what should I do?

If you've moved to a new home which has a prepayment meter, it's vital that you register with the energy company as the new account holder. If you don't, you could end up paying the wrong rates as the previous occupier could be in debt to the energy supplier.

Once you've registered as the new owner it's a good idea to compare prices to make sure that you're on the cheapest possible prepayment meter tariff.

Different types of prepayment meters

There are two main types of prepayment meters: key meters and smart card meters. A key meter uses a special electronic key with your tariff information on it. A smart card meanwhile sends your latest information through to your supplier when topped up.

Regardless of what type of prepayment meter you have you should make sure you know how to top it up. In case of an emergency, or when you're working from home, the last thing you want is your electricity to go out.

Make a list of the nearest shops and Post Office locations as well as their opening times. You should also look out for holiday periods and top your card up with a bit extra before bank holidays and other holiday periods when topping up could be difficult. Most prepayment meters have an emergency credit budget you can use, like an overdraft, but it is limited.

If you lose your prepayment meter key or smart card don't worry. You can simply contact your supplier to get a new one sent out, but in the meantime your supplier should be able to authorise a temporary card from your nearest PayPoint, PayZone or Pose Office. If this isn't possible you might have to have an emergency callout which will involve a charge. When you move into a property with a prepayment meter you should contact your supplier and clarify exactly what happens if you can't find your card or token.

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