Traditional Analog Electric Meters in a Row

At Chariot Energy, we believe in the power of educated electricity consumers. When you’re better informed about the ins and outs of the energy industry, you’ll make better choices about your electricity usage. Moreover, when you have a deeper understanding of your electricity consumption, it’s easier for you to lower your electricity bill. This boils down to learning how to read your electric meter.

In this article, we will explain the basics of the average electric meter before explaining how to read both a traditional meter and a smart meter. With this knowledge, you’ll become more engaged as an energy consumer and be more in control of your energy bill than ever before.

What is an Electric Meter?

Located on the exterior of your home, typically by the electrical junction box, your electrical meter is the device that displays your home’s electricity consumption as measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh).1 Each electric meter has a specific identification number assigned by the utility company for your area. This ensures that the correct reading for a billing cycle (usually 28-32 days in length) is assigned to the correct home so you pay the right amount of money to the Retail Electric Provider you choose. In Texas, this is known as the “ESI ID,” or “Electric Service Identifier ID.”

Traditionally, this device is installed, operated, and maintained by the utility company — and they’re the folks who read it each month. This means they will either physically visit each meter or collect the data electronically for digital meters in one fell swoop. In either case, the usage information is then sent to the corresponding energy company for each meter to generate the electricity bill for that billing cycle.

But just because the utility company reads your meter doesn’t mean you can’t track your own usage in between bills. In fact, monitoring your usage on your own terms will give you improved insight into your overall energy consumption.

How to Read a Standard Electric Meter

This is the type of electric meter most people think of when they imagine such a device. Depending upon your location, your meter could have four, five, or six dials to track your home’s electricity usage in kWh.

Traditional Analog Electric Meter

How to Read the Dials

In our example above, we see a five-dial meter. Each one features a pointer tracking a number 0 through 9. You will read the dials from left to right, noting that Dials 1, 3, and 5 are clockwise, while Dials 2 and 4 are counter-clockwise. A reading goes as follows:

  • Face the meter directly.
  • Look at the pointer for each dial.
  • The pointer on Dial 1 has passed 1, but not 2. The reading is 1.
  • The pointer on Dial 2 has passed 8, but not 9. The reading is 8.
  • The pointer on Dial 3 has passed 2, but not 3. The reading is 3.
  • The pointer on Dial 4 has passed 2, but not 3. The reading is 3.
  • The pointer on Dial 5 has passed 4, but not 5. The reading is 4.

The overall reading for this electric meter is 18,334 kWh.

Estimating Your Energy Usage

But what does a reading of 18,334 mean to you? First of all, it doesn’t mean you’ve used that much electricity in this billing cycle. Instead, it’s a measure of the amount of electricity that’s passed through the meter since it was either installed or reset when it reached 99,999.

Thus, to estimate your usage, you must have a prior reading. This could have been a reading you took personally, or you could use the reading from your most recent electricity bill. For our purposes, we’ll assume the reading on your last bill was 18,000 kWh, and we’ll do some subtraction.

18,334 kWh – 18,000 kWh = 334 kWh usage so far in this billing cycle.

The next time you want to read your electric meter, simply subtract 18,000 from your new reading to receive an updated estimate of your electricity consumption during this billing cycle. You could also subtract 18,334 kWh from your new reading to see how much you’ve used in the interim.

Additionally, we encourage you to take a picture of your meter each time you take a reading. This can be helpful in case you need to state your case to your REP if you think there was an incorrect reading on a future electricity bill.

How to Read a Smart Meter

An increasing number of utility companies across the United States are making the move to digital electric meters. Also known as a smart meter or Advanced Metering System (AMS), these devices help utility companies track both customer energy usage and issues with their electricity more effectively.2 This means they can lower consumer costs and respond to outages with greater efficiency.

Digital Electric Meter Advanced Metering System Smart Meter

The same ownership and maintenance responsibilities described earlier with traditional meters still apply, but everything is just more convenient.

How to Read the Screen

As you might imagine, given the technology shown above, reading your digital electric meter is very straightforward. Though the digital meter will cycle through several numbers, symbols, and characters — corresponding to date, time, status, and more — your reading will be rather obvious, as it will come with the kWh abbreviation.

In our example above, the reading is 55,733 kWh.

Estimating Your Energy Usage

The process we described above for analog electric meters also applies to digital ones: you need a previous reading of some sort to estimate your current usage. For this example, we’re going to assume the reading on the most recent energy bill was 55,000 kWh. It’s time for more subtraction:

55,733 kWh – 55,000 kWh = 733 kWh of electricity usage on this billing cycle.

The Importance of Calculating Your Home’s Energy Consumption

We get it. Manually tracking your usage seems like a bridge too far. Isn’t there an app for that from my utility company or electricity provider? Well, not always. The usage tracking technology in such applications represents a good estimate of what’s happening with your overall electricity consumption. To really keep a close eye on your usage in between electricity bills, nothing is as effective as physically looking at your meter on a regular basis.

We recommend this course of action:

  1. When you receive a new energy bill, write down the usage for the last day of the billing cycle. This becomes your baseline.
  2. Check your electric meter once a week, ensuring you do so at the same relative time each week.
  3. Write down that usage. Subtract the previous reading to calculate approximately how much electricity you used. 
  4. Note any out-of-the-ordinary activity in the house that might have occurred since your last reading.

Here’s an example of how this could look:

Sample Electric Meter Electricity Usage Chart
This chart is meant to serve as one example of what you could do to track electricity usage on your electric meter

With this information in hand, you can better understand how much and when you used electricity in the past, making it easier for you to make predictions about future usage. This way, you can determine ways you can use less energy around your house — even taking into account big events that typically can drive up your usage.

Learning how to read your electric meter is a crucial skill for any energy consumer. Because if there’s a single tried-and-true method for decreasing your electricity bill, it’s using less energy.