Skating outdoors, hot broth, roaring fires... winter has its heartwarming moments - but energy bills aren't among them. This year, with the Big Six suppliers seemingly announcing a hefty price rise every week or so, heating and power will be more expensive still for 20 million households.
Given that the last big company, E.On, is expected to put up its prices any day, you may feel you have little choice but to grin and bear an average dual-fuel bill approaching £1,400.
Actually, the news is more positive. While researching and writing a consumer guide to home energy, I discovered plenty of bill- lowering techniques, products and Government grants. Most are easy to achieve and require few, if any, changes in behaviour. Here, then, are my top six tips for you, free.
You're almost certainly supplied by one of the now infamous Big Six – British Gas, EDF, E.On, Npower, SSE and ScottishPower – because 98 per cent of households are.
The Big Six have high prices and often poor service. The advice here is simple: move to a smaller, cheaper supplier.
Don't worry about safety: your pipes and meter will stay the same, only the name on the bill changes. You can switch using a price comparison website in minutes and the average saving is £141.
A word of caution: beware of moving to E.On, since its prices won't stay low for long.
Personally I like First Utility and M&S Energy, which have cheap prices, albeit average service.
The biggest portion of a home's energy bill goes on heating rooms. Make sure you've programmed your central heating radiators to come on only when you need them - and try turning down the thermostat by one degree (which alone can save £65 a year).
Take an hour or two to fit reflective radiator panels, which direct heat away from walls and into the centre of a room. The Energy Savings Trust recommends Radflek and Heatkeeper.
Don't worry about having a bath - most people enjoy a long soak. But if you have a normal shower (not electric, because the pressure is too low) fit an eco-showerhead which pulses or aerates the flow. One will save up to 30 per cent of the hot water and, apart from being a little noisier, you'll barely notice the difference. An eco-showerhead costs £30 and should pay back in a year.
Replace any incandescent lights with energy-saving alternatives, which are now available in traditional shapes. Look out for halogen downlights and replace them with LEDs (look for warm light ones) which use a fraction of the electricity. If you've had a kitchen or loft conversion done, replacing halogen lights can save £100 a year. Admittedly LED bulbs are expensive but they last for up to 25 years, so it's worth the upfront expense.
In the run up to Christmas, all over-60s should automatically receive the Winter Fuel Payment of £100–£300, while anyone on Pension Credit should also receive the £135 Warm Home Discount Scheme. If you're over 60 and don't get these benefits, check with Citizen's Advice if you should. Even better, if you receive state benefits or earn less than £15,860 a year see if you can have your boiler replaced or your walls insulated for free under the Affordable Warmth Scheme. Suppliers are forced to fund this but it's under review by ministers, so don't dally.
Properly insulating lofts, walls and even wooden floorboards saves cash and gives you a warmer home and lower bills, year after year. You can borrow the upfront cost from the Government's Green Deal, which - despite a low take-up so far – is a good scheme.
The loan is paid back through electricity bills. While that sounds like you might end up paying more, you shouldn't, because the Green Deal's "golden rule" is that you should never pay back more than you've saved.
There's also a cashback scheme for early applicants, which is worth £270 if you're replacing a boiler and more for other projects.
Energy efficiency offers many more opportunities. While the politicians may not point this out, halving the profit margins of the Big Six would knock only about £40 off the average bill. Conserving gas and electricity – while not changing your lifestyle – can save hundreds.
Save Your Energy: Simple Ways To Knock £300 Off A Home Fuel Bill, by Martin Hickman, is available as an ebook from Amazon, priced £2.99.