Don't let your energy bills soar this winter
When the nights draw in, don't just invest in a new winter wardrobe for yourself, think about keeping your home warm too.
Adding layers of insulation or double-glazing to a draughty home won't just keep you snug, they will cut your energy bills too.
Follow our advice on everything from ditching your existing energy provider to lagging your loft to keeping out the physical and financial chill this winter.
STEP ONE - SWITCH TO A CHEAPER ENERGY PROVIDER
The big energy companies raked in bumper profits in 2013, yet bills are still rising, which means customers should act now to get a better deal. More than half of the nation's homeowners have never switched their provider, even though this could save them hundreds of pounds a year.
By moving to another energy supplier you can save on average £148 and up to £294, according to comparison service uSwitch.com. Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch, says: "This is a substantial amount, which would be a welcome relief to any household looking to tighten the belt on their finances. The average household energy bill today is £1,353 a year."
It is easy to change provider. Just go online and compare deals at one of the Ofgem-accredited comparison sites such as UKPower, uSwitch and TheEnergyShop. They will be able to help cut through the confusion and show all the tariffs available with a cost based on your postcode and energy usage. You choose the one you want and then let your existing and new suppliers do the rest, in a process that takes between three and six weeks.
Robinson says: "If a competitive price is the biggest priority, then simply changing payment method could mean savings of up to £235 a year. All suppliers offer their cheapest prices and best deals online, and discounts are also available by moving to a dual-fuel tariff and paying by monthly direct debit."
She adds: "For peace of mind on payments, consider a fixed-rate tariff, which can protect you against price rises for up to three years. Some may even be among the cheapest on the market and a few allow you to cancel without penalty, letting you switch to a different deal when you want."
STEP TWO - BE BOILER AWARE
One-in-four households suffers a boiler breakdown each year, landing them with an average bill of £280, according to uSwitch. If you're worried about costs like this it might be worth insuring it against breakdown.
But don't just sign up to your energy provider's deal without looking for something cheaper.
Before you start, check whether your existing home insurance policy includes boiler troubles as part of its inclusive home emergency cover, which covers the call-out and repair cost for a wide range of domestic breakdowns.
Some insurers will offer boiler cover as an add-on. You can keep your premium down with an excess, typically £50, each time you claim. Also, watch out for exclusions: the boiler and parts may be covered but not the water cylinder, radiators or cold water tank, if you have them.
Certain plans that include boiler cover may expect households to keep the boiler in a 'good state of repair'. This typically means a requirement to have it serviced once a year.
Some specialist boiler plans include a service as part of the deal. Hometeam Boiler Care Flexi from npower (£9.95 a month in the first year) includes an annual boiler service and safety check, unlimited call-outs and repairs with a £50 excess. For £15.50 a month npower will also cover the central heating and has no call-out fees.
STEP THREE - INSULATE
It can be a low-cost DIY job just to insulate your loft with mineral wool (typically £250) but can pay off in annual energy bill savings of £180, according to the Energy Savings Trust.
If your home has cavity walls, then insulation can cost between £450 and £500, but you should recoup the cost in three or four years with energy bill savings of about £140 a year. If you don't know if you have cavity walls, ask a registered installer to do a 'boroscope' inspection to find out. Contact the National Insulation Association (nationalinsulationassociation.org.uk), the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency (ciga.co.uk) or the British Board of Agrément (bbacerts.co.uk).
If you are on a low income, there may be help available with the costs of having energy-saving improvements installed in your home.
STEP FOUR - GREEN DEAL
The Green Deal, a government-backed scheme, aims to help households on all incomes make cost-effective energy-saving improvements by paying for them over time through a charge added to their electricity bill.
A Green Deal assessor will visit your property and offer advice on the type of improvements that might be appropriate for your home. Some charge £100 upfront for the appointment (redeemable against the cost of the work). Early-bird applicants can get cashback of up to £1,000 for improvements made by January 2014.
You can borrow money to buy a new boiler, put in insulation and/or make other energy efficient measures. The repayments, which are based on estimates of what you might save, get taken on by any subsequent occupants of the property. For all the rules go to the Energy Saving Trust (est.org.uk).
Take up of the deal has been disappointing thanks to a number of limitations. The debt for example stays with the property, rather than its owner and payments are based on estimated energy savings. If teenage children, for example, then move out you could end up making payments on energy savings you are unlikely to achieve.
It may make sense to do your research about the price of works yourself and get a competitive personal loan to pay for it, if you can't afford it outright.
Other help is available through the Energy Company Obligation. This is where the big six energy companies must provide funding to insulate solid-walled properties (internal and external wall insulation) and those with 'hard-to-treat' cavity walls. The help is not means-tested and can be used along with the Green Deal. If you are on certain benefits you may also be entitled to a free boiler, offered by providers such as npower and Southern Electric.
There are also grants on offer, particularly for those on low incomes or who are elderly. You can find out more at your nearest Home Improvement Agency. More information is available from the charitable websites turn2us.org.uk and foundations.uk.com.
STEP FIVE - BURST PIPES
Burst pipes are a serious winter hazard for. And with two cold winters behind us, experience has shown that thousands suffered the misery of having to clear up the mess; claims were made at the rate of 3,500 a day, according to the Association of British Insurers.
Although home insurance will cover the costs, it is something most of us can do without. So make sure that water pipes and water tanks in the loft are insulated with good quality lagging, checking out the location of the stopcock that turns off the incoming water supply.
Also repair any dripping taps. This will help prevent water from freezing. Leave any loft doors open during the coldest weather to allow heated air to circulate and keep the heating on at low setting to help heat pipes, especially if you are away from home.
This is more usually a feature of car insurance but it can also crop up in contents, mobile phone and pet insurance policies. An excess is the amount of money you have to pay before the insurance company starts paying out. The excess makes up the first part of a claim, so if your excess is £100 and your claim is for £500, you would pay the first £100 and the insurer the remaining £400. Many online insures let you set your own excess, but the lower the excess, the more expensive the premium will be.
Association of British Insurers
Established in 1985, the ABI is the trade body for UK insurance companies. It has more than 400 member companies that provide around 90% of domestic insurance services sold in the UK. The ABI speaks out on issues of common interest and acts as an advocate for high standards of customer service in the insurance industry. The ABI is funded by the subscriptions of member companies.