How much electricity or natural gas are you using? If you’re one of the many people who has a digital smart meter installed, this is pretty easy to do: the figures are sent electronically to your energy provider, and your usage amount (and the amount of money you owe) are right there on the bill. However, many homes and businesses in Alberta are still equipped with old style energy meters that have nothing but a string of small clockwork dials lined up across the front. While your local meter reader handles the reading of the meter, how do you know that they’re actually accurately recording your energy usage? Sometimes, meter readers make mistakes, or they get lazy and just guess at your usage. If you want to know for sure that you’re only using what you’re being charged for, read on to learn how to read your natural gas or electricity meter.
On first glance, energy meters can be a little confusing to look at. So let’s start with something similarly old fashioned, but a bit simpler: an old gas pump dial. Yes, it uses awful, terrible American units of volume, but it’ll still do the trick.
When a car owner first starts fueling up their car, the dial all the way on the right starts counting up: 1, 2, 3… representing tenths of a gallon. Once that passes 9, it rolls over to zero, and the dial next to it rolls over to 1 (note the arrows). Every time the tenths dial hits zero again, the dial next to it clicks up again (e.g. 1 gallon, 2 gallons, 3 gallons). Once the user hit 9.9 gallons, the tenths and ones dials both reset to zero, and the last dial over that measures tens of gallons: 10, 20, 30… clicks over to 1 (again, note the arrows): 10.0 gallons. And the process continues.
Basically, as you go from right to left, each dial tracks increasingly larger amounts of fuel usage (tenths of a gallon, gallons, and tens of gallons). When you finish fueling the car, you just read the dials to know how much gasoline you just used. If the dial read ., then you used 14.5 gallons of gas.
Now, let’s talk about energy meters.
Mechanical gas and electricity meters work very much in the same way, except for a couple differences. The more obvious difference is that the dials look like clock faces, with needles rotating around and pointing at the appropriate number (instead of having a cylinder that rotates to only show the appropriate digit). When the a dial rotates past zero, the dial to the left of it will increase by 1. Same thing as with the gas pump above. But what makes it REALLY fun is that meter dials don’t all rotate in the same direction. Let’s take a look at one that has been handily labeled to show how the dials needles rotate. Most meters don’t have these arrows, but they ALL work the same way.
As with the gas pump, the “smallest” dial is all the way on the right. But look at the arrows above each needle. Going from the right, the needles for each dial face rotate clockwise, counterclockwise, clockwise, and counterclockwise. If you look at the order that the numbers are arranged in on each dial, you’ll see that they increase in the same direction as the arrows go. On the clockwise dials, the digits increase just like they do on, well… a clock. But on the counterclockwise ones, they go backwards. Don’t let all this craziness confuse you. All that matters is where the needle is pointing. The majority of the time, the needle isn’t going to be pointing exactly at a number–it’s going to be pointing between two numbers. To read the dial, you would record the smaller of the two numbers that the needle is between, just like how on a clock face, if the hour hand was between the 5 and the 6, you would know that the time was 5-something. (If the needle is between the 9 and the 0, then the dial reading is 9–in this case, think of the 0 as meaning “10,” and 9 is smaller than 10.)
Try reading the example meter above. Going from right to left: the first needle is between the 7 and the 8. So that one is a 7. The next one is between 2 and 3, so that one’s a 2. Next one over is between 0 and 1, so that’s a 0. And on the last dial, it’s between 5 and 6, so that one is a 5. So what a meter reader would write down is 7,205.
But sometimes it can be really hard to tell if a dial needle is pointing exactly at a number, or just shy of it. For example, look at the second dial from the left. Depending on the angle you were looking at it from, it might look like it’s between the 1 and the 2, instead of just past the 2. Misreading the dial would make a pretty big difference: 7,205 vs 7,105. The way you tell for sure is to look at the dial to the right of it. If the dial to the right has just rolled past the 0, then that means that the first dial’s reading is whatever number the needle is pointing at, instead of the smaller number before it. If that next dial over hasn’t reached zero yet, then the first dial’s reading is actually the next smallest number. In this case, look at the third dial from the left. It has rolled past 0, and so that means that the previous dial is a 2, rather than a 1.
The other trick to meter reading: determining the usage since the last reading.
Now, a while ago I said that energy meters are different from gas pumps in two ways. The second difference is this: every time you use a gas pump, it starts from zero. This makes it easy to tell how much gas you buy each time. But in the case of your energy meter, it never resets. The meter reader figures out your usage by taking the current reading, and subtracting the previous month’s reading from that number. What’s left is the amount of energy you’ve used since the previous meter reading.
For instance, let’s say that when your meter reader came by at the end of last month, your electricity meter read 34,698 kWh (kilowatt-hours). At the end of this month, he comes back, and this time your meter reads 35,152 kWh. How much electricity did you use this month? The meter reader determines this by subtracting last month’s reading (34,698) from this month’s reading (35,152): 35,152 – 34,698 = 454. This means that this month, you used 454 kWh, and that is what you’ll be billed for. If you were to conduct your own meter reading, and these were the figures you had, but then your power bill came and you were charged for 596 kWh, then you would KNOW that your meter reader was doing something wrong, and you could call your energy company and avoid being overcharged. That’s why it can pay off to know how to read your own meter.
Energy meter pop quiz time!
So, now that you should know everything you need to know in order to read an old-style dial energy meter, it’s time to take a quiz. Below you’ll find a picture of another energy meter. Here’s your challenge: (1) take an accurate reading of the meter, and (2) assuming that the previous month’s reading of the meter was 1,946 kWh, determine how much electricity was used this month. You can find the answers to both questions below the image, but no cheating!
Keep scrolling for the answers…
Question #1: The correct meter reading is 2,211 kWh.
Question #2: The electricity usage for this month is 265 kWh.
Did you pass the energy meter reading quiz?
If not, we’ll give you one more chance. Scroll alllllll the way back up to the top of the page, and take a look at the title image for this blog post, and determine the following:
- What is the current meter reading? We’ll be nice and tell you that the very last digit is a 4.
- How much electricity has this homeowner used, if the previous reading was 8,234 kWh?
Scroll down for the answers. No peeking!
Question #1: The correct meter reading is 8,604 kWh. (The dials read 0-8-6-0-4. You can drop the zero at the beginning.)
Question #2: In the last month, this homeowner has used 370 kWh.