Next month, British Gas is raising its electricity and gas prices by 7 per cent. Meanwhile, Scottish and Southern Energy is imposing a 9.4 per cent increase on its gas tariffs. With last winter being the coldest in 30 years and another cold snap upon us, it's no wonder people are starting to panic about their heating bills. But there are plenty of ways to make significant savings, keep you house toasty warm and stay on trend.
Trap your heat
Thinking of double-glazing? Don't bother. Equally effective in reducing energy bills, certainly in period properties, is simply closing curtains or shutters at dusk, according to a new study from the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust. If your curtains aren't heavily lined, tack a blanket behind them, but be sure to let in the light during the daytime – those rays of sun will really warm your home. It's not that replacement windows won't help too, but go for triple-glazing – even more efficient.
Keep doors shut when the heating is on, especially if you congregate in one room during the evenings, and dig out Granny's sausage dog – it's one of the best draught excluders going, although door draught excluders, which are fixed underneath, are also good. Cox & Cox do handsome excluder, which isn't to garish or brightly coloured (£33, www.coxandcox.com). And don't forget less obvious areas where heat can escape – keyholes and letterboxes, for instance, for which flaps are available.
In a typical home, 15 per cent of the heat is lost through the floor alone, so check floorboards and skirting boards for gaps. Just by buying some beading or mastic sealant, you could save £25 off your annual heating bill. If you happen to be renovating your home, insulate beneath floorboards to shave off another £50. For a thorough investigation of cold leaks around your home, try Black & Decker's Thermal Leak Detector (£49).
If you have an unused fireplace, be sure the flue is closed and glass doors are in place to minimise heat loss, and consider a chimney pillow/balloon, an inflatable bag made from a special laminate that makes them airtight and which will just shrivel up if heated by accident.
Although by law, all new water storage tanks must now be insulated, older ones will benefit from a hot water jacket. It will set you back only a few pounds and if it's at least 75mm thick, it will save you around £35 a year.
"Give your radiators some TLC by regularly bleeding them and boosting the heat of those on outside walls with reflector boards – or tin foil if you're broke," says Angus Middleton, a director at the environmental agenc7 Renaissance Regeneration, who adds that insulating both cold and hot pipes can reduce heat losses, especially if pipes go through hallways.
Insulate your walls and loft
It's hardly the sexiest thing to spend out on, but around half of heat loss in a typical home is through the walls and loft. No wonder the average British home could save £145 a year by installing loft insulation and £110 a year by installing cavity wall insulation.
"People use lofts for storage, so they get put off the hassle clearing it out ready to be insulated," admits Peter Chisnall, advice centre manager for the Energy Saving Trust (EST). "But if you have the recommended depth of 27cm insulation, it's like putting a hat on your house – amazing at keeping the heat in."
Houses built from around 1920 onwards often have cavity walls, which are also simple to insulate. "It takes a couple of hours and involves holes being drilled into your exterior walls, into which a nozzle pumps in the insulation."
If your house is older and has solid brick walls (as around half of all UK houses do), it's more complicated, usually requiring 30-40mm of insulation on the inside of all external walls, which then get plastered over. "But I'd still say go for it," Chisnall says. "Heating these houses is a bit like heating up a sieve – the heat just goes straight out of the walls. Insulating the walls is like putting a blanket round the house."
Subsidies available from both energy providers and local authorities mean you should expect to pay around £150-200 each on your loft and cavity walls – and if you're over 70 or in receipt of qualifying benefits, it may be free. But solid wall insulation could set you back £8,000 upwards, with discount schemes far harder to come by. Then again, the average energy bill has been estimated to nudge £5,000 by 2020 if current price trends continue.
Lower your thermostat
By turning your thermostat down to reduce your room temperature by just 1C, you could cut your heating bills by up to 10 per cent and typically save around £55 every year, according to the EST. But the reality is that half of all British homes still don't have a thermostat and even those that do often have one of the old round dials that are far less sensitive and precise than modern digital systems.
"Save yourself the hassle of turning your heating on and off by getting a programmable thermostat," adds Jenny Driscoll, spokesperson for Which? "It removes the chance of leaving the heating on by mistake when you're out and means you can be warm when you wake up without having to turn the thermostat up."
Get thermostatic radiator valves too, advises Wayne Wheeler, chartered surveyor at Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward. "They enable you to zone heating throughout your home and allow you to accurately monitor your heating output levels." While you're at it, check that your water isn't too hot – the cylinder thermostat does not need to be set higher than 60C."
See a home energy consultant
The good news is you can get most, if not all, the advice you need on the phone or online from the EST. Calls are free to 0800 512 012 or visit www.energysavingtrust.org.uk. Services include a free personalised home energy report, indicating how energy-efficient your home is on a scale of A-G, and impartial advice on how you can make changes to improve your rating and cut your bills.
Increasingly, home energy consultants are willing to visit your home for a fee. "But it's my belief that their knowledge isn't exclusive," Wayne Wheeler warns. "Almost all of the advice an energy doctor could impart can be easily found online or even at hardware stores. So you can spend their fees on insulation instead. Or a jumper."
Invest in new hardware
The usual reaction to being told you need a new boiler is a dispirited groan, but if you replace an old G-rated boiler with a new A-rated condensing one and upgrade your heating controls at the same time, you can save up to £235 a year. "But don't be taken in by headline discount figures – look at the total price of the boiler and labour charges," Driscoll says.
If your boiler is more than 15 years old, it's almost certainly time to replace it – and although older boilers tended to last longer (around 20 years), it's not a case of "the old ones were the best" – they are much less energy-efficient.
If you require a replacement radiator, a stylish choice is Jaga's New Moon Rising. It will set you back a staggerng £2,785, but is manufactured from a mineral composite and is designed stand as a piece of art in your home (www.jaga.co.uk).
To save money you could even start generating your own energy. New feed-in tariffs launched earlier this year mean households that install renewable energy technologies such as small wind turbines and solar panels are entitled to claim payments for the low carbon electricity they produce. "The saving is a double whammy – you get paid by your energy company and you make savings on your bills," says Myles Monaghan, business development director for the Climate Energy group. A typical solar photovoltaic system will set you back £10,000, he admits, but you can generate around £800 per year through income, so it quickly pays for itself.
Also consider a wood-burning stove, which costs anywhere from £500 to £2,000 to install, he says. While 80 per cent of the heat in open fires may be lost up the chimney, homes with a wood-burning stove can save £400 on their heating bills as radiators in the room they are installed into can be used far less or not at all. You could even invest in a wood-boiler stove that can handle heating your whole house, up to 19 radiators and ample supplies of domestic hot water.
Switch and save
* If you've never changed your energy supplier, you could save a lot by switching as there are over 20 companies competiting for your business.
* It's important to act now as winter is coming and the actual changeover can take two months. If you don't hurry you'll be paying huge rates throughout the coldest weather. Plus, many of the very cheapest online-billed deals are disappearing fast.
* Use price comparison websites such as www.which.co.uk/switch and www.uswitch.com. And remember than onlines tariffs over the largest discounts.
* Getting your gas and electricity from the same supplier (known as dual-fuel) and paying by monthly direct debit is almost always the cheapest option.
* Fixed-price tariffs guarantee the price you pay for your energy for a set period, but they can be up to 20 per cent more than non-fixed tariffs, there may be a fee to leave the tariff early, and you won't benefit from any energy price decreases during the fixed-price period.