When winter begins to bite, people's thoughts turn suddenly to home insulation. Penny Jackson's advice is - don't panic
During the first cold snap of the year I was surely not the only one to be caught stuffing scarves into the jaws of the letter flap and sticking tape over the gaps in the window frame. Panic measures are not the sensible way to reduce heating bills.

It is the sight of meters racing that prompts most of us to get to grips, belatedly, with the insulation of our homes. Before the next cold spell we promise ourselves that everything will be checked, serviced and in order.

Indeed, British Gas was inundated with calls this week, but as the weather warms, so the urgency diminishes. Anyone living in a new house should be enjoying state-of-the-state insulation, since all homes are required to reach high levels of thermal efficiency under current building regulations.

There was a marked improvement four years ago when the standards were raised. But, even so, energy-saving features are still not likely to be the prime considerations of new-home buyers, any more than the lack of them puts off those who fall in love with a period property that eats fuel.

There is a still a certain resignation, pride even, among those who live in draughty old country homes, that if you pile on the woolies and put another log on the fire, there is little else to be done.

Not that you have to live in rural splendour to feel defeated by attempts to keep a house warm within a budget, nor to discover that the simplest, and not necessarily most expensive, methods can be the best.

The advice Lisa Grimes is giving to those British Gas customers on the phone this week is familiar. Insulate roofs and, where necessary, cavity walls. Don't put radiators under windows or behind curtains and large pieces of furniture. Check the settings on the boiler and thermostats and have the system serviced regularly.

"If you turn a room thermostat down by one degree, you can save 10 per cent off your bill," she explains. "Many people don't understand how their controls work, and often they are not set correctly. It is a false economy to turn off the heating at night when temperatures fall well below zero. It will take a long time to reach the correct temperature the next day."

Unless someone is aware that their home is as draughty as a barn, it is difficult to know how great the savings can be. British Gas sends out questionnaires which it then analyses to give customers a rough idea of how much fuel they should be using in a year.

For those unable to afford improvements, there are Government grants available. Anyone on benefits is entitled, through the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, to receive about pounds 300 worth of insulation work to lofts, doors and pipes or, alternatively, cavity wall insulation.

While some people are discussing the merits of frost stats and sophisticated monitoring systems, others are still wrestling with what they see as the fundamentals, and salesmen have done a pretty good job of ensuring that the public regards double-glazing as one of those.

But how much does it really save on fuel bills? According to John Fidler, head of building conservation and research at English Heritage, only 20 per cent of heat is lost through windows, most of that through gaps in the frame, not the single pane of glass. The payback period on heating bills can take anything from 20 to 60 years.

"Far better to renovate and draught-proof the old windows," he says. "There are very good systems for sash windows now, which do not spoil their appearance. People are told that double-glazing is great, and they believe it. But independent research shows that new double-glazed windows are not as effective as they should be."

The other drains on heating bills in old houses - ventilated timber flooring and chimneys - are by no means a cause for despair. Warmth from open fires seeps into the brickwork acting like a vast radiator while exposed floor boards can be placed over insulating material, adds John Fidler.

Meanwhile, some comfort exists for anyone reluctant to seal themselves hermetically into their homes, in concern about poor ventilation and polluted air causing ill health.

At the Buildings Research Establishment (BRE), plumbing problems appear as the biggest headache during cold weather. Last winter - a mild one - a quarter of all bad-weather insurance claims were caused by burst pipes alone, and the cost of repair is out of all proportion to the cost of prevention.

The notion that insulation prevents pipes freezing is false, says Peter Trotman of the BRE. "No amount of insulation on pipes will prevent them freezing if the building is unheated. The insulation only slows down the escape of heat and, during very cold weather, water from the mains is only a few degrees above freezing."

He says that it is important to check that pipes are laid well within, rather than against a cold outside wall. But there are more than a few of us who have discovered that our plumber found it easier to lay cold water pipes over the top of lagging instead of underneath. The annual flood of advice about how best to cope with icy weather rarely hits its target until we are shovelling snow, and it is at this point that the British seem to fall into a paralysis.

An Austrian woman accustomed to minus temperatures for weeks at a time is astonished by the fuss made after two days of ice: "Not only do the British fail to dress for winter, but they seem happy to slide out of their homes without attempting to clear a path. It amazes me that the same advice has to be given every year. The only thing that comes naturally is gritting their teeth."

British Gas Energy Efficiency advice desk, 0645 650650; Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, 0191-230 1830