Am I Breaking The Law If My Electricity Meter Runs Backwards?

Solar Panels And Electricity Meters Running Backwards

Are you allowed to use newly installed solar to run your meter backwards?

If you have a very old electricity meter, a new rooftop solar installation can make that meter run backwards. But only if the solar power system is switched on before a new compatible meter is installed.

In Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia your installer is meant to switch off your solar power system after it has been commissioned. This means you get no solar benefits while you wait for the new meter to be installed. If your installer happens to leave the solar power system running and your electricity retailer discovers that your meter is running backwards, they may get upset1.

If your solar installation is left running, then the longer the delay between getting the panels installed and getting a new meter the more likely your retailer will get upset. There have been a lot of delays in getting electricity meters installed this year, and from the emails we are getting at SolarQuotes, there are plenty of installers leaving systems running.

In this article I’ll explain how problems arise with backwards-running meters, what you can do to prevent them, and why (in my opinion at least) you are not committing any sort of crime if, as the result of a solar installation, your electricity meter runs backwards.

The Two Requirements For Electricity Meters To Run Backwards

For your electricity meter to run backwards, two requirements have to be met:

  1.  You need the right kind of old fashioned “spinning disk” electricity meter.
  2.  Your solar power system needs to be turned on.

Spinning Disk Electricity Meters

Only old analog electricity meters are capable of running backwards.  These are often called “spinning disk” meters because they have a metal disk that rotates as power is used.  Here’s a dramatic close up of what one type looks like:

If your electricity meter has any kind of digital readout, then it is too advanced to run backwards.  Also, it’s not enough for just the disk to spin backwards.  The meter readout dials have to turn backwards as well.  That’s these dials here:

With some spinning disk meters the disk will go backwards but the readout dials will stubbornly stay where they are.  If this is the case, while the disk may be going backwards, the meter isn’t.

Your Solar Installation Must Be Turned On

An old electricity meter will only run backwards if the rooftop solar system is switched on before it is replaced with a new meter. In Queensland, NSW, Victoria, and South Australia, installers are now only supposed to test a newly installed system and they are to be left switched off until the new meter is installed.  In Queensland it used to be common to leave solar systems turned on after installation so they’d start providing clean electricity and reducing household electricity bills from day one, but this is no longer the case.  Due to their past practice, backwards running meters are probably most likely to occur in Queensland due to an installer not updating their procedures.

You Can Turn Your Solar Power System Off

If you’ve just had a solar panel system installed and you find your old electricity meter is running backwards, you can stop this by turning your system off.  It’s a very easy solution.

Some people, quite understandably, may not want to turn their solar system off.  If an electricity meter is running backwards it reduces electricity bills by a lot more than receiving a solar feed-in tariff.  It’s like having a feed-in tariff equal to the cost of grid electricity.

More importantly, turning off the system will result in greater coal and natural gas use which will increase increase pollution and contribute to climate change.

But there are advantages to turning your solar system off to prevent your electricity meter going backwards and an important one is to prevent being charged a lot of money by your electricity retailer.

Extra Charges From Electricity Retailers

If your electricity retailer sees your latest electricity meter reading is lower than the previous reading they can ignore it and send you an estimated bill based on your previous consumption.  A household in NSW received a bill for $1070 when they should have received one for around $400.  They were able to get this reduced to the correct amount, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Civil Penalties

In a document from 2013, SA Power Networks gives this dire warning about solar systems or SEGs (Small Embedded Generators):

disk electricity meters and solar

But before anyone panics and rushes out to check that their meter is not running backwards, I will point out that civil penalties are not criminal penalties. Civil penalties normally apply to businesses and company officials.  I’m confident that no home owner is going to be sent up for a couple of years or hit with a $10,000 fine because their electricity meter ran backwards while they were waiting for it to be replaced with a solar-compatible one.

You Are Not A Criminal If Your Meter Runs Backwards

I am not a lawyer, but with the in-depth knowledge that comes from reading a few paragraphs on a website, I can confidently state, with no expertise to back it up at all, that a homeowner whose meter runs backwards while they are waiting for it to be replaced is not committing a criminal offence.  This is because they did not tamper with the electricity meter, they had no intent to steal electricity, and no electricity was actually stolen.  For every kilowatt-hour their meter spun backwards, one kilowatt-hour was supplied to the grid.

If it takes a few weeks to get their meter changed then a homeowner with a 5-kilowatt solar system might end up paying $60 less on their next electricity bill2 thanks to their meter running backwards.  Our legal system probably has better things to do than punish these horrible monsters.

But if your electricity meter has been running backwards for years and you’ve been fully aware of this fact and have been bragging about it on the internet, then your position may be more legally precarious.  I’d recommend getting your meter replaced as soon as possible.

Connection Agreements

If you read your connection agreement with your Distributed Network Service Provider, then you are a better man than I am.  You may also be a better woman than I am, but that wouldn’t be difficult.

You may have seen some scary looking wording in there about the importance of not turning on solar systems before the old meter has been replaced.  But don’t be too concerned.  They have zero interest in kicking people off the grid because an installer left a solar power system turned on when they shouldn’t have.  That’s not how they make money.  They make money from having people connected to the grid and using grid electricity.  Disconnecting them doesn’t make them money and disconnection is generally all they can do.  Of course, if you do something that actually damages the network or puts people’s safety at risk you can expect them to come down on you like a tonne of electric bricks.

Digital Meter Penalties

Even if your old meter is digital and can’t run backwards it can still be a good idea to leave your PV system switched off until your new meter is installed.  This is because every kilowatt-hour of electricity your solar power system exports to the grid can be counted as a kilowatt-hour consumed by your home, and that could increase your bills rapidly.  As this section from an SA Power Networks document explains:

Electronic electricity meter security

To Cover Yourself, Switch Your Solar Off

If you have solar panels installed and you find the system has been switched on before your old electricity meter has been replaced, then the safest course of action to take is to turn it off.  This is the case whether you have an old spinning disk meter or a digital one.

Unfortunately, there may be a long delay in getting a new solar-compatible meter installed.  I just hope electricity retailers can get their acts together and start getting meters installed on time.

Footnotes

  1. On the 1st of December last year in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, and South Australia the responsibility for electricity meters shifted from Distributed Network Service Providers to Electricity Retailers.  Here’s a media release that says consumers will benefit without explaining why.  While this may reduce confusion by allowing retailers to know exactly who has had a solar power system installed and needs a meter replaced, I’m not sure they are this organized.  I keep receiving reports of long delays for people getting meters installed as a result of the change, so I suspect problems resulting from meters running backwards may increase.
  2. And if the harm caused by CO2 emissions is $100 per tonne, they have saved us about $40 worth of damage.
About Ronald Brakels

Many years ago now, Ronald Brakels was born in Toowoomba. He first rose to international prominence when his township took up a collection to send him to Japan, which was the furthest they could manage with the money they raised. He became passionately interested in environmental matters upon his return to Australia when the local Mayor met him at the airport and explained it was far too dangerous for him to return to Toowoomba on account of climate change and mutant attack goats. Ronald then moved to a property in the Adelaide Hills where he now lives with his horse, Tonto 23.

Comments

  1. When my solar system was installed (in Qld) a few years ago, the installer advised that he was required to leave the system turned off. I had a disk meter at that stage. I had no pangs of conscience after the installer left, of turning it on and watching (with delight)the meter spin backwards for 7 days (daylight hours only) before the digital meter was installed. It’s not theft – just common sense. I was almost at the end of a billing cycle anyway, so there was no way it could wind back past the previous meter reading. Installation of the digital meter was by appointment, so I turned off the solar on that morning.

    While on the subject of disk meters, a work colleague back in the 70’s got hold of a large magnet from a discarded radar magnetron. He’d heard that you could stop your (disk) meter from spinning, by exposing it to a strong magnetic field. Sure enough, when he put the magnet next to the meter it DID stop spinning. The gotcha was that when he took the magnet away, the meter spun like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Not a good look when the meter man comes and finds a huge magnet next to the meter. After the magnet was safely concealed, my colleague reported the “out of control” meter to the authorities, who replaced it, stating that they had never seen that happen before. Crime generally doesn’t pay.

    • Norman Deaville says

      As a retired meter engineer, all rotating disc meterd manufactured post 1975 will have an anti reverse pawl, if you stall your meter with a powerful magnet you will demagnetise the meters speed regulator magnet, and when you remove the stalling magnet your meter will run faster.

  2. Matthew says

    Hi can you tell me what the current rate is if I get a solar system installed in Tasmania? I.e. what rebate towards solar panels and then what the supplier will pay for my generated electricity, and then what is a good size system these days to get that has a reasonable amount of time to pay for itself? I’ve spoken to a few solar panel suppliers and they have told me that systems these days in Tasmania cost around $1000 per kilowatt. Thankyou

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Hello Matthew

      This year Tasmanians will receive 24.05 STCs per kilowatt of solar system capacity. So a 5 kilowatt system would get 120.25 STCs. As they are worth about $36 each at the moment they will reduce the cost of your solar system by $4,329. The value of these STCs will be included in any quotes you get. The solar feed-in tariff in Tasmania at the moment is 8.9 cents for each kilowatt-hour of solar electricity sent into the grid. The estimate of around $1,000 per kilowatt after STCs lower the price is roughly correct for lower cost systems.

      Generally I say a good size for a typical home is a 5 kilowatt inverter with around 6.5 kilowatts of panels. But a smaller system can pay itself off more rapidly as you will be using a larger portion of the solar electricity it generates yourself.

      This article has some information on STCs and how they are calculated if you are interested:

      https://www.solarquotes.com.au/blog/gst-solar-calculated/

      And this article is on system size:

      https://www.solarquotes.com.au/blog/fill-your-roof-with-solar/

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Matthew, I’ve just worked out the simple payback period for a 5 kilowatt system in all capitals, including Hobart.

      https://www.solarquotes.com.au/blog/solar-payback-times/

  3. CHRISTINA RICHARDSON says

    I had a 3.5 kw solar system installed (I only use around 15-20 kWh per day). It was never turned on. When the meter was changed, the guy told me that he tried to turn the system on but it wasn’t working and I should contact my installer, which I did. He said he thought that maybe they had forgotten to turn it on at the roof. Installer arranged for it to be turned on 4 days after new meter installed. However, Endeavour Energy claims I had it switched on during the period I was waiting for the new meter and it was running backwards (wasn’t a spinning one because the house was a brand new build) and claimed I had used 6000kW in three months and I got charged $2,000. We have gas hot water and cooking, no pool etc, two people and it was a Spring bill so no aircon. Have complained to EWO and they have asked AGL to investigate, but AGL has told me there is nothing I can do about it. No one will tell me who the meter guy worked for, so I can’t get proof. I have a meter reading of the day before the new meter was installed and it was 2643 kW. Any ideas other than taking Endeavour Energy to court and getting the meter guy subpoenaed?

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Hello Christina

      That is clearly not a good situation to be put in and it seems grossly unfair to me. Even if the solar system was left turned on and it somehow damaged the electricity meter so it didn’t record your electricity use correctly, in my opinion, you should only be charged for a reasonably estimated amount of electricity use. Because it’s a new home your original meter may have been a smart meter. Is so your retailer should have a detailed record of your electricity use before the solar system was installed and you can request a record of this information.

      I should let you know I am not a lawyer and so I can’t give you any professional legal advice. But if you contact NSW Fair Trading (Phone: 13 32 20) hopefully they will be able to help. I can tell you in my experience that the Distributed Network Service Providers like Endeavour will generally tell you there is nothing that can be done and you will have to pay the full amount, but if it does go before a magistrate or tribunal they generally settle disputes in a fair way.

  4. Rick Parker says

    Can I have a solar installation where it supplies my needs first then uses grid to cover the short fall, and not worry about feeding back into the grid.

  5. Denis Cartledge says

    Unless I am wrong, the thrust of this article is that the impediments to running your new PV system before the Meter change is done, are legislative. That is basically, if the system cant use your generated power, you cant either.

    There isn’t anything in this article that appears to have an engineering basis for not doing so.

    Is this the case, or have I missed something?

    Cheers
    Denis

    • Ronald Brakels says

      As far as I am aware there is no physical danger from running the solar system. There is a danger you will end up being charged for the electricity your solar system sends into the grid, depending on what kind of meter you currently have installed.

      • Denis Cartledge says

        Thanks Ron

        Built 2012/13, Powered up 2012 digital meter, no obvious rotating parts.

        • Ronald Brakels says

          Some digital meters will apparently record solar electricity exported by a home as grid electricity consumed, but I don’t know which ones do this.

  6. Been Installing grid-tied solar since 2001. First systems in California, USA.

    Back then the utility companies’ bureaucracy took months to officially energize the system.

    This wait was even AFTER the systems were all built to required standards, inspected and approved by the local building department AND the utility.

    I have many customers who refused to wait and switched on their systems on their own. Many told me they were doing so and I would give them the official line they they shouldn’t. They did anyway, and in my heart I thought they were right to do so.

    While some meters will not record exported power, I have never, in all my years, seen a meter record exported power as consumed power. Digital, analogue, single phase, three phase, CT, etc… Not one.

    I believe that the idea that the meter would charge you for exported power was started by utility companies to dissuade their customers from back-feeding prior to official Permission To Operate.

    I would love to hear if ANYONE has first hand observed knowledge of a meter recording exported power as consumed power.

    • I’m all but certain my meter is recording exported power as usage.

      I had solar installed two days ago and have checked the meter and it reads that I have used 60kw in that time. My usual consumption is around 15kw a day.

      It is one of those meters that has numbers similar to pre digital vehicle odometers. Needless to say my solar system is remaining switched off until the new meter is installed.

  7. Hi all I have been charged $1450 by origin
    My meter ran slightly backwards in the 54 days it took to install a smart meter after my solar was turned on. I have asked Origin to review this assessment
    After the smart meter was installed for the remaining 36 days of the bill cycle it was only $100 after exports in the peak of winter

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