You don't have to feel the chill in your energy bills

Some suppliers are hiking gas and electricity prices, but households can slash their costs by switching

However, while temperatures may be about to plummet, energy prices are not. So before you turn up the heating, check you're not paying over the odds to stay warm.

Many energy providers have raised their prices in the past few months. British Gas has increased the cost of gas and electricity by 14.2 per cent for around 16 million homes - a move expected to add some £100 to the typical annual energy bill.

Powergen raised its electricity prices by 7.2 per cent and gas by 11.9 per cent, while Scottish Power has pushed its gas prices up by 12 per cent and its electricity by up to 8 per cent.

These companies have blamed the high oil price and an increase in wholesale energy costs, but consumer groups say these are not going up to the same extent as domestic bills.

"A staggering 91 per cent of all customers are now paying an average of £91 more for their gas than they were at the start of this year," says Alan Tattersall at the price-comparison service

However, with plenty of pro- viders competing for your custom, one of the easiest ways to cut costs is change your supplier.

If you have never switched, you could be paying around £230 a year more than you need to for your energy, according to figures from uSwitch.

Making use of the calculators on the internet sites listed below, you can work out how much you could save by doing so. Simply type in your postcode, and how much your gas and electricity currently cost, and the website then comes up with a range of cheaper alternatives. Once you have made the decision to switch, your details will be forwarded to your chosen supplier; the whole process should take no more than six weeks.

Consumers who are concerned that their gas or electricity supply might be interrupted during the switch should not worry: households keep the same pipes, circuits, wires and safety coverage.

You can also reduce the amount you pay by changing the way you settle your bills. If you are paying by cheque every quarter, you could save up to £67 a year by moving to direct debit - and even more if you switch to an online account, according to consumer group Energywatch. People on pre-payment meters could save up to £101 using direct debit.

Another way of cutting costs is to improve the energy efficiency of your home.

The Energy Saving Trust (EST) has launched a new campaign called "Save your 20 per cent" - encouraging households to cut down on emissions, help the environment and save themselves up to £250.

The EST says you could save a quarter of your home's energy use - and between £140 and £170 every year - by insulating your loft. Filling your cavity walls could shave a fifth off your property's energy use - saving you up to £120 a year.

You could also take a third off heating costs by replacing your boiler with a high-efficiency condensing model, and another £20 off your energy bills by fitting an insulating jacket on your hot water tank.

If you use a light for more than four hours a day, replace your bulbs with energy-saving models - for an annual saving of £7.

Government and local authority grants are available to homeowners to help make these changes; contact the EST for more details.

From January 2007, anyone wanting to sell their house will be legally required to compile a Home Information Pack (HIP), containing key information about a property's condition. In essence, the responsibility for carrying out surveys is passing from the buyer to the seller.

An important part of the HIP will be the Home Condition Report, which will provide impartial and reliable information on a property's energy efficiency and detail issues such as levels of thermal insulation and types of heating system. Further, these reports will suggest cost-effective measures to improve energy efficiency.

'The switch was so simple'

Shirine Elwakil, 21, a hairdresser from Croydon, south London, has cut her bills by around £200 a year after switching supplier.

Before changing, she was paying £100 a month in total to have her gas supplied by British Gas and her electricity by Seeboard Energy.

"My boyfriend and I had moved into a two-bedroom flat and we were a bit careless as we hadn't even thought about how much the bills might cost," she says.

When Shirine contacted with details of her existing bills, staff recommended that she opt for a dual-fuel deal with Atlantic Electric & Gas.

By doing so, she was able to make her saving of some £200 a year.

"The switching process was so simple," she explains.

"It only takes around a month for the whole process to be completed."

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