Pre-paid gas meter-units are not a new concept designed to help people manage their budgets better; they have been around for many years and have evolved from coin meters to the more recent card meter. However, both are designed to switch off the gas supply automatically as soon as the money runs out.

The new card meter-units have an emergency supply, so that if the gas runs out and you do not have the money to top up right away, you can use the emergency supply to tide you over until you can top up the meter. The old meters did not have this luxury. When the coin ran out you had to put another coin in or do without the gas supply.

Coin in the Slot meter-units

The old coin meters started out as shilling or a half crown meters on the imperial system; once the UK currency became metric the meter-units accepted the new 5 and 10 pence piece. For a long time the meters accepted 50p pieces with the most recent coin meters accepting the £1.00 coin.  The engineer from the gas company would come to the house to read the meter-unit and they would empty the coins and count them.

The money in the machine would then pay for the bill which would be generated from the reading. The theory was that there would be enough money in the meter to cover the units used, however this was not always the case and the meter-unit would have to be recalibrated. Sometimes the meter discrepancy would work in the favour of the household and they would have a hundred or so coins refunded or be in credit for their next bill. 

How many of us remember sitting in our grandparents home, or even our parents’ home waiting for our meal, only to find the gas had gone out and the meal was not cooking. The words ‘Put another coin in the meter-unit’ would ring out across the room, and as children we would love to be the one to be able to do it. We would drop the coin into the hole and turn the dial so that the coin dropped and the meter clicked back to life. These are memories that the younger generation will not get to experience for themselves as the pre-paid meters have now become more in line with the computer age.

Early Card meter-units

The newer meters have also had to evolve over time. When households changed from coin meters to card meter the householder was given a card, about the size of a credit card. This has the customers own reference number on it. You could take it to the gas board, many towns and cities had gas shops that had the facility to take bill payments, or you could take your card to the post office.

You simply handed over the card and state how much gas you wanted. The record would be taken of the customer reference number and plastic keys would be handed over. These keys would be inserted into the machine and twisted. The end tag would fall off inside the machine similar to the way the coin would drop and the machine would be topped up.

Today's Card Meters

The most modern pre-paid gas meters work with a card very similar to a credit card with an electronic chip. The card would be loaded with credit at a post office or other pay point with the amount requested. The loaded card would then be inserted into the meter in the home. The machine will then top up the gas with the amount of credit it has been loaded with. If the emergency credit has been used, then this reserve amount will top up first leaving the residual amount as meter credit.