How to reduce your energy bills this winter

Chiara Cavaglieri looks at the quick fixes that can help keep a lid on soaring gas and electricity costs

With winter on its way, there is probably no bigger financial headache for millions of Britons than keeping a lid on energy bills.

Recent double-digit rises in the price of gas and electricity announced by most suppliers is probably just the beginning in what is likely to be a winter of discontent for households.

Against this backdrop, last week we had the Government's energy summit between ministers and the big six suppliers, which most observers agree achieved little. So it seems, as consumers, we're going to have to take matters into our own hands. But, with the first frosts already here, what are the easy wins for homeowners? And which energy-saving measures work best?

Switch tariffs

Cost £0, save up to £200 per year

You should switch to the cheapest possible tariff. Switching is usually straightforward, with online switching services such as which.co.uk/ switch. But Ofgem says that, last year, only 15 per cent of households switched gas supplier and only 17 per cent switched electricity supplier.

You could save as much as £200 per year, and now that most suppliers have already upped their prices it is the ideal time to switch. Typically, you will save the most money with a duel-fuel tariff (getting gas and electricity from the same supplier), paying by monthly direct debit and managing your account online.

"You have the right to refuse price increases as long as you contact your supplier within 20 days of receiving notification of the rise," says Laurence Saffer, managing director of brokers LSI Utility. "Tell your provider that you don't want to accept the rise and wish to leave, either by email or in writing. You then have 15 days to switch to a new provider, and will stay on your existing tariff until the switch goes through, which typically takes four to six weeks."

Quick fixes

Cost from £0, save from £55 per year

Little changes can make a big difference. Just turning down the heat by 1C could cut heating bills by almost 10 per cent, or around £55 per year, according to the Energy Saving Trust (EST). If you have any unused rooms in your home, turn the radiators down to the lowest setting. Fit tin foil behind radiators to reflect heat back and reduce heat loss. Curtains can be lined with a layer of heavy material to insulate the room at night.

Turning to lighting, a single efficient compact fluorescent bulb costs around £2.50 and saves you £3 per year, but because it lasts around 10 times longer than a standard bulb, it could save you £55 over its lifetime.

"There are some cost-effective 'quick wins'," says Simon Osborn, Which?'s energy policy expert, "like fitting draught excluders and turning your heating down."

Smart meters

Cost £0, save £23 per year

The Government has plans for every home to have a smart meter by 2020, with the roll out due in mid-2012, although some suppliers have already started installing them, free. A smart meter will tell your supplier about your energy use directly, rather than based on estimates, so you benefit from more accurate bills. Crucially, these meters have displays to show you how much energy you use in real time and give you the motivation to change habits and curtail waste, which the Government estimates will cut £23 off most gas and electricity bills.

Insulate your loft

Cost from £50, save up to £175 per year...Or your walls – cost from £100, save up to £135 per year

Without insulation you could be losing a quarter of your heat through the roof. But you can insulate your loft yourself from £50 to £350. It should last for at least 40 years, paying for itself within two years if you top up to the recommended 270mm mineral wool insulation. Similarly, cavity wall insulation will fill any gaps in your external walls and keep the warmth in. From an initial cost of £100 to £350, it will save you around £135, potentially paying for itself after just one year.

"In many areas you can get these measures heavily subsidised or even free," says Rosalyn Foreman, the data services manager of EST.

Draught-proofing

Cost £120, save £55 per year

Don't overlook the importance of draught-proofing your home – this is one of the cheapest and most efficient ways to save money. You can use draught excluder strips and expanding foam fillers to block gaps around any window frames, doors, loft hatches, pipework, skirting boards and floorboards to save around £55 a year. Do remember that areas such as kitchens and bathrooms still need good ventilation. DIY draught-proofing costs around £120 for materials, but you may prefer to get a professional in at double the price if you have an old home with single glazing. Use a registered installer who will have a 10-year guarantee on their work (nationalinsulationassociation.org.uk).

Upgrade your boiler

Cost £2,300, save £300 per year

You will have to dig deep for an efficient boiler but as boilers account for around 60 per cent of your annual energy bill the savings can be impressive with an A-rated high-efficiency condensing boiler. You can also cut heat loss by 70 per cent by giving your hot-water tank a cylinder jacket for only £15, to save you £40 over the year.

Double-glazing

Cost from £3,300, save £165 per year

Costs vary widely for double glazing depending on the size, material and installer you choose, but if you replace all single-glazed windows with B-rated double glazing you could cut your energy bills by around £165 per year. You can expect the double glazing to last for at least 20 years so it should just about pay for itself. but you will also benefit from fewer draughts and cold spots so you will be able to turn down the heating and save extra money that way, as well as enjoy some peace from outside noise.

Solar panels

Cost £11,700, save £1,190 per year/ cost free, save £177 per year

Photovoltaics (PV) are expensive and will take some time to pay for themselves but as well as reducing your bill, you can also make money under the Government's Feed-in Tariffs (FITs) or by selling surplus electricity back to the grid if you produce more than you need. EST estimates suggest a typical system could earn you £1,060 from the Generation Tariff, £40 from exporting, and reduce your electricity bills by £90. And "rent a roof" schemes offer free installation in exchange for that company taking your FITs.

"Even solar panels and loft and cavity wall insulation can be free," says Mr Saffer, "You can get free solar panels which can cut your bills by £177 a year – a 14 per cent saving on the average dual fuel bill."

Chantal Brown, 29

Conservation adviser

Last winter, Chantal, from Stroud, Gloucestershire, decided to add more environmentally friendly insulation to her cottage roof in an attempt to keep her energy bills down. At a cost of just £300, Chantal says she will recoup the costs very soon from her £95-a-month energy bill.

"I have put draught tape around the windows and doors – the cottage is 250 years old and everything is a little crooked! I have double-lined curtains in most rooms and try to keep them shut to keep heat in to reduce bills," she says.

"I also run a dehumidifier to take moisture out of the air so the heating can be used less, as it obviously takes a lot less energy to heat a dry house than a damp one."

As well as tweaking her home, Chantal changed suppliers in the summer to a renewable energy company and is using switching websites to look at moving energy firm again now that prices have gone up so significantly.

She also has plans for other energy-saving measures in the future. "The double glazing on the conservatory roof is very old," she says, "so I will be obtaining quotes for reroofing, possibly with less glass, to keep the heat in."

But Chantal has no plans for solar-panels yet: "I would have to be planning to stay in the house for 12 years to see a payback. At this stage I'm thinking I will move, and there is no evidence to suggest it will increase my home's value."

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