Save money: winterproof your home

The cost of heating and lighting your home has increased dramatically during 2008, with the six biggest energy companies imposing two sets of price rises. Some households have seen their energy bills increase by 50%, and with higher costs elsewhere (such as food and petrol) as well as the credit crunch taking a bite out of budgets, the timing could not be worst.

It is still not clear what the future holds for energy bills - crude oil costs have come down, which should translate as cheaper tarrifs. But no cuts have been made so far, and experts warn bills could increase even further in 2009.

But there is a way to dodge higher bills. By making sure your home is prepared for winter this year and beyond, you could save some serious cash and avoid a lot of hassle.

Boiler breakdowns

Many of us take our boilers for granted, and assume that, with a simple flick of the switch, we can simply turn them on when temperature drops. Sadly, they’re not as reliable as we think: nearly one in three boilers will break down within their first six years of use, according to Which?

And if you’re unlucky enough to own one of those boilers you could be in for a shock. It can be nigh on impossible to find a plumber in the middle of winter and, once you manage to track one down, you can expect a hefty bill, including call-out charges as well as the cost of labour and parts.

The cost comparison website,, estimates that repairing the most common problems could cost anything from £95 for a thermostat to £325 for a heat exchanger.

So how can you protect yourself from a boiler breakdown? One way is to arrange for a plumber to service your boiler and fix any problems before they get bigger. A serviced boiler will work more efficiently, saving you money on energy bills.

You will want a reliable plumber, so ask around for recommendations and always remember to check that they are registered with CORGI, the UK watchdog for gas safety.

Having your boiler serviced will help to ensure it’s in top shape before the cold sets in, but it won’t safeguard against any future breakdowns. If you want to make sure you won’t get hit with an unexpected bill, it’s worth considering a boiler servicing and central heating contract. For a monthly fee, your provider will send an engineer to fix your boiler when it breaks down – usually within 24 hours, although this varies. You may also get an annual service thrown in.

It won’t be cheap, but Which? recommends taking out a contract, particularly if your warranty has run out. A survey by the consumer organisation found that of 1,300 consumers with breakdown cover, 70% have had at least one emergency repair and, of those, nearly a quarter have had more than five repairs.

Policy What? Restrictions Number of
Monthly cost
npower - Gas Boiler
Breakdown Cover
* Boiler-only
* 24/7 helpline
n/a Max 2
per year
E.On - Central
Heating Care Option 2

* Annual safety check
* 24/7 helpline

£50 excess
per repair
British Gas - Homecare
200 Flexi
* Annual safety check
* Covers boiler and controls
* 24/7 helpline
£50 excess
per repair
Coverheat - Electical
Heating Protection Plan

* Annual safety check
* Covers electrical
heating systems
* Initial check-up

n/a Unlimited
ReacFast - Boiler
Breakdown Repair
* Annual safety check
* Comprehensive cover for gas central heating
Up to £1,250
for labour and
parts per job
Source: * First year only
Contact individual suppliers for further policy details

It’s worth considering whether you only want boiler cover or whether to include your central heating, plumbing and drains. You also need to check for exclusions. Some policies are unlikely to pay for the replacement of your boiler or might only cover a limited number of call-outs and, if you’ve got an old boiler, some providers won’t accept you. Make sure your provider will continue to service your boiler as it gets older.

Before you buy cover, check your home insurance policy because it might cover you for boiler breakdowns.

Jonathan French, from the Association of British Insurers, explains: “You could well be covered by your contents insurance policy – it’s pretty standard. If so, taking out boiler protection could be pointless.”

If your boiler’s old and keeps breaking down, it might be worth getting a new one installed. Boilers are not cheap, but replacing an old one could save you money in the long run because newer, energy-efficient models are cheaper to run. Energy providers are also developing ‘greener’ boilers. British Gas, for example, is launching a boiler in 2010 that promises to cut fuel costs in half.

Grants for replacing old boilers with energy-efficient heating systems may be available from the government, your local authority or your gas and electricity supplier.

Tamara Mauro, spokesperson for the Energy Saving Trust, says: “There are a range of grants, as well as offers from energy suppliers, and anyone can be eligible.” To find out what’s available in your local area, call Energy Saving Trust’s helpline on 0800 512 012 or its website.

Beating bigger bills

Figures from Energywatch, the former independent watchdog for gas and electricity customers that has now been merged with the National Consumer Council and Postwatch to form Consumer Focus, show that the average gas bill has increased by 129% during the past five years.

While you can’t do much about the rising cost of energy, you can soften the financial blow by switching providers. Energywatch estimates that, with the six energy giants fighting for customers, you could save up to £300 a year just by opting for a cheaper provider. For example, in September 2008, someone with an average annual gas bill (paid by direct debit) could have reduced their outgoings by £181 simply by switching from British Gas to Scottish and Southern Electricity.

Mark Wiltsher, spokesperson for Ofgem, the regulator for Britain’s gas and electricity industries, says: “It’s always worth having a look around at least once a year to make sure you’re getting the best deal.”

If you switch to a dual-fuel gas and electricity deal you could also get a discount. However, Wiltsher warns that this might not be the best option for everyone. “If you use pre-pay meters it’s usually best to stick to two separate deals, as the dual deals for these meters don’t offer the best value,” he says.

The way you pay for your energy could also make a difference. Most providers will give a discount if you pay by direct debit and, opting for paperless billing or managing your bills online, could save you even more.

If you want certainty, capped and fixed rates could be an option.


Searching for the perfect energy deal and servicing your boiler could be a waste of time, however, if you’ve got a draughty home that’s leaking energy. Nearly 50% of all the heat lost in an average home is through the roof and walls. By installing loft insulation you could cut your bills by up to 15%, according to the Energy Saving Trust, and insulating cavity walls could reduce heat loss by up to 60%.

Tamara Mauro says: “You could save £155 a year by having loft insulation fitted and £120 a year if you have your cavity walls insulated.”

Fitting double-glazed windows throughout your house could also save you around £110 on bills a year, and bleeding your radiators twice a year could help to cut bills by ensuring performance is up to scratch.

Everyday things such as pulling your curtains or putting on that extra layer of clothing could also conserve energy and, by turning down the thermostat just one degree, you could cut your costs by 10%. Read The true cost of making your home energy efficient to see how much you could save.

Home insurance

It’s also important to make sure your home insurance provides cover against damage from cold weather. Joe Wiggins, spokesperson for housing and protection at Legal & General, says: “Generally speaking, storm, flood and an escape of water from frozen pipes are the biggest risks to your home in winter.

"December is usually one of the wettest months of the year, so it pays to ensure that your property is in good condition, fixing any loose roof tiles or putting flood prevention measures in place, if appropriate.”

Make sure you check the condition of your roof, clear gutters and drain pipes, and cut back any low branches that could cause damage in high winds or storms – buildings insurance will cover damage to the structure of your home, domestic outbuildings, terraces, drives and paths caused by floods and storms, but not damage caused by heavy rain or high winds.

If you live in an area that has flooded in the past or is at high risk of flooding, keep an eye on the weather reports and sign up for The Environment Agency’s Floodline Warnings Direct on 0845 988 1188.