Winter could bring record energy bills. Is it time to switch supplier?

Like it or not the nights are drawing in and winter is on the way. After last year's big freeze many homeowners will be dreading the likely cost of heating their homes this winter, particularly as some providers have started to edge up the cost of gas and electricity. The not-for-profit organisation Home Heat Helpline says 44 per cent of British households are worried about their winter gas and electricity bills. No wonder, with average bills topping the £1,000-a-year mark for the first time.

So using every method you can to push down the cost of heating and lighting is a crucial move if you want your energy bill to land on your mat in the spring with a flutter rather than a thud.

Firstly, you could slash the cost of your bills by switching to a more competitive online tariff using a price comparison site. After all, some energy suppliers lure new customers with cheap deals that are soon revoked. Switching can ensure you're always on a cheap tariff but timing is key. Switching your provider online is an easy task, however, it does take about four to six weeks to complete the process. So now could be the right time to switch to ensure you will be paying less this winter.

Cheapest deals disappearing

What's more, current trends within the energy market suggest the time is right to shop around for a new supplier – a number of the "Big Six" energy companies have recently withdrawn their cheapest deals. EDF replaced its Online Saver V6 with a less competitive version 7 and Scottish Power has increased the price of its online plan.

You'll probably always save money by shopping around for a more competitive tariff but your savings potential drops when the most competitive deals disappear from the market.

When it comes to energy, the best deals are almost invariably available online. As a general rule of thumb, you will also pay less if you opt for a dual fuel plan and pay by monthly direct debit. Take British Gas for instance, on average its standard tariff – paid by cheque or cash – is £1,157 a year. Switching to an online deal where payments are made by direct debit will see the average bill fall to £979. That's a saving of £178. Meanwhile, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) customers could see average bills fall by a whopping £321 from £1,305 to £984 by agreeing to go with monthly direct debit. In order for you to get the cheapest rate possible consider dual fuel so you receive both gas and electricity from the same provider. Also checking your meter readings will ensure you are paying the correct amount as opposed to estimated billing.

Doorstep danger

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has launched an investigation into four of the "Big Six" energy providers amid claims over mis-selling by doorstep agents. Npower, Scottish Power, EDF and SSE could face fines of up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover if these complaints are upheld.

Obligations require suppliers to take a proactive approach in preventing mis-selling. Doorstep agents must provide potential customers with an estimate and comparison before any sale is conducted. Although new regulations will be introduced in January to clamp down on misleading sales agents, many households have reported that sales people working for the suppliers have been misleading them by giving them inaccurate quotes – leaving them worse off when they switch supplier.

Energy-saving tips

But it's not all about shopping around. The Energy Saving Trust recommends you do the following:

* Switch off appliances. Leaving them on standby could add £40 to your bill.

* Lowering your thermostat by just 1C and cut annual heating bills by £50.

* Use the right-sized hob for every pan.

* Try to fill the washing machine – one load uses less energy than two.

* Use energy-saving lightbulbs. They can save you up to £45 over the life of the lightbulb.

If you want to add insulation to your walls and loft the Government's warm front scheme offers grants of up to £3,500 for households in receipt of benefits or those with older people, expectant mothers, or children living in them. Find out more at www.warmfront.co.uk.

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