When fuel costs are soaring, why do we let £96m a week go through the roof?

Sam Dunn sees how to help the environment while saving money, and meets one homeowner who put principles into practice
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The Independent Online

The wintry chill in the air will already have sent many of us scurrying to switch on the central heating.

The wintry chill in the air will already have sent many of us scurrying to switch on the central heating.

Autumn always means higher gas and electricity bills but, before you crank the heating up and put on another layer of clothing, there are steps you can take to cut the cost of protecting your home against the cold.

A saving of up to £200 a year can be made on energy bills by drawing the curtains, changing light bulbs and (with a little more effort) filling wall cavities and insulating lofts. These last measures could even increase the value of your home.

With suppliers such as British Gas and Npower introducing price hikes of more than 10 per cent, and a report last week from the UK Offshore Operators Association suggesting that prices are likely to remain high, keeping a lid on our heating bills is more important than ever.

The potential £200 annual saving is the focus of a government drive to raise awareness of damage caused to the environment by our inefficient use of energy in the home.

A quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions, a factor in climate change, are domestic.

Tomorrow sees the start of National Energy Efficiency Week, led by the Energy Saving Trust (EST), an organisation backed by the Government. The EST's research reveals a nation guilty of woeful overspending on gas and electricity bills. We waste an astonishing £96m of energy each week in our homes, with heat escaping through poorly insulated roofs, thin walls, ill-fitting windows and down through the floor.

Rectifying the problem doesn't have to cost thousands of pounds, says Philip Sellwood, the EST's chief executive.

"For example, cavity wall insulation costs around £300 but grants are available," Mr Sellwood says. "And you could save up to £100 a year on energy bills."

Uninsulated walls often account for up to a third of heat loss from our homes, so cavity wall insulation should be the most effective way to cut bills.

It makes sense to find as many ways as possible to conserve heat. A first step is to draw your curtains as soon as it starts to get dark. Be careful not to drape them over the radiators, though, since this will cause heat to vanish through the windows.

Draught excluders for doors, letterboxes and windows, which can be bought cheaply from a DIY store and are easy to fit, could cut your annual bills by £15, EST research shows.

Energy-efficient light bulbs start at around £5 and last nine times as long as ordinary ones.

And instead of basking in the glow of a hot house when it's cold outside, try putting your thermostat down by just one degree celsius; this could save you up to 10 per cent on your bill.

Other heat-conserving measures may prove expensive initially but in most cases should pay for themselves within two years. Figures from Seeboard Energy suggest the typical cost of loft insulation is up to £480 for a terraced or semi-detached house or £555 for a detached home. To be up to standard, loft insulation should be at least 25cm thick and made of either glass fibre or mineral wool.

Lagging around hot water pipes and hot water tanks (at least 7.5cm thick in the latter case) will also prevent heat loss.

Although it's a tiresome task, an annual check-up will keep your boiler, gas appliances and central heating system running efficiently. If your boiler is more than 15 years old, consider replacing it. The EST estimates that installing a "condensing" boiler save you nearly a third on your heating bills straight away. While it may be around £100 more than a standard boiler, this extra cost should be recouped within two or three years.

When buying new white goods such as fridges, washing machines and freezers, look for the distinctive blue and orange logo (pictured left) showing they have been approved by the EST.

If you want your home to be really energy efficient, you could opt for a solar panel on your roof (see case study below). Prices, including installation, start at about £10,000 but a government grant is available that will cover up to half the cost. Juliet Davenport, the chief executive for green electricity company Good Energy, says that solar panels should pay for themselves in about 15 years.

If £10,000 still sounds too big an investment, for about half that you can buy solar panels that heat only your water, rather than your entire home. Before installing them, check with your local council to make sure there are no planning restrictions.

Green house: Tracey Mills has made every room in her home energy efficient - and has even installed a solar roof panel, allowing her to generate her own power and sell it back to her electricity supplier

GLOBAL WARMING: THE FUTURE IS IN YOUR HANDS

Visit Tracey Mills at home in Croydon, south London, and you might not at first notice anything unusual about her end-of-terrace Victorian house.

But perhaps the wood-burning stove next to the chimney breast in the living room would provide a clue that this is no ordinary residence. And maybe the complete absence of a freezer, or even of a hairdryer, would give the game away.

For conclusive evidence, however, you'd have to go over the road and to a neighbour's house, from where you would be able to see the solar panels installed on her roof.

Tracey, 34, has worked hard to make her home and green and energy efficient as possible. A member of Greenpeace for nearly 20 years, she is a project manager for Creative Environmental Networks, a not-for-profit organisation that works to persuade businesses and local authorities to make their activities more environmentally friendly.

Their efforts to protect the environment by conserving energy in their own home have had the added benefit of saving Tracey and her fiancé Joe a considerable amount of money. The green measures they have adopted range from the everyday - lights are turned off religiously whenever a room is left empty - to the one-off. Tracey and Joe have spent £12,000 on a solar panel to heat their property.

"We find that the solar panel generates all our electricity for the year," says Tracey. "But to be fair, our consumption is only a third of the UK average because of the energy-saving measures we've put in place."

But, like all domestic users, the couple have to buy electricity from an electricity supplier. Despite having a power storage facility, they are at the mercy of the great British weather and cannot always draw on their own solar power. This means that, from time to time, they have to use electricity from the National Grid.

In turn, when generating their own surplus energy during sunnier months, the couple "sell" power back to the grid.

"Electricity companies cannot refuse to buy it back off you," Tracey explains. "However, there is a big difference in the [smaller] price it pays you for your 'clean' power and what it charges you for its own 'dirty' power."

When they bought their solar panel back in 2001, Tracey and Joe also considered installing a separate solar system to generate hot water but found they didn't have enough space to do this.

Barely a room in their house has been left untouched in the drive for efficiency. In the kitchen, Tracey is scrupulous about buying energy-saving white goods.

"We always buy the most energy efficient models - like our fridge, for example. It cost about £50 more than a standard one, but we'll save hundreds of pounds over its lifetime. And in any case, the benefits for the environment will be well worth the extra cost."

Tracey and Joe deliberately chose not to have a freezer, which uses as much energy as a fridge, and don't regret the decision. "After a while, you get used to not having it."

For those thinking of following her example, Tracey has provided the following checklist.

* Energy-efficient light bulbs should be used throughout the home.

* Hairdryers or curling tongs "are real energy guzzlers" - go without them.

* Use a thermostat control on radiators to set temperatures individually in each room.

* Windows should always be double glazed.

* Loft insulation should be at least 25cm thick.

* Cavity insulation should always be carried out by a qualified installer

* Boilers should be serviced annually.

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