Whither the winter wonderland when bills are rising and pipes are bursting?

Esther Shaw sees how you can curb the cost of gas and electricity, and stop your home being weather beaten
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You might have pulled your coat collar that little bit closer to you last week. As the mild days of November gave way to cold snaps, forecaster Metcheck.com's prediction of one of the most bitterly cold winters on record could be keenly felt.

You might have pulled your coat collar that little bit closer to you last week. As the mild days of November gave way to cold snaps, forecaster Metcheck.com's prediction of one of the most bitterly cold winters on record could be keenly felt.

As temperatures plunged, unfortunately, so energy prices soared.

Energy regulator Ofgem said last week that it would allow companies to raise customer charges for network distribution by 1 per cent. The increase is essentially an "incentive" to encourage the electricity firms to upgrade the network and integrate more renewable energy sources - a move welcomed by consumer groups. However, they also warn that the price rise has come at a bad time for households, which have already had to stomach record increases in the cost of gas and electricity over the past 12 months.

Powergen introduced its third rise this year last Monday. It came less than two months after its last increases took hold and will mean customers see their gas bills rise by 9.6 per cent and their electricity bills by 8.9 per cent.

When added to previous price hikes, the average customer on Powergen's standard "dual fuel" tariff can expect to pay £130 a year extra on their bill, says the price-comparison service Simply Switch.

Powergen was following hard on the heels of Scottish Power and nPower, which moved in early October. Both introduced price hikes of 11.8 per cent for gas at the beginning of October and up to 8 per cent for electricity. British Gas, EDF Energy, Atlantic and Scottish and Southern have also upped their tariffs in recent months.

Many of the companies have blamed these moves on an increase in wholesale costs, but consumer groups say these are not going up to the same extent as customer bills. "Over the last few months we have seen some unprecedented price increases," says Karen Darby, the chief executive at Simply Switch.

Although you will be faced with higher heating costs over the next few months, it is in your power to keep a lid on the bills - just as it is in your power to avoid forking out huge sums to repair damage caused by hostile weather. So make sure you give your home a winter MOT to protect it against the worst that the weather can inflict.

Batten down the hatches

Check the outside of your home to make sure everything is in working order. An emergency call-out - over the holiday period, in particular - for a damaged roof or blocked drain can prove horribly expensive. So it's worth an inspection now to clear leaves from gutters and to replace broken tiles.

A third of home insurance claims relate to the effects of bad or cold weather, including storm damage, falling trees, floods and burst pipes, according to research by Abbey.

"A few simple precautions will help prevent the misery and inconvenience of frozen or burst pipes," says Angus Porter, a spokesman for the bank. "Keep central heating on at a low temperature if you're going to be away from home overnight. And if you need to thaw a frozen pipe, do it gently, with a low, steady heat."

Double-check that your buildings and contents insurance covers not just the pipes themselves, but any damage to furniture or flooring caused by water escaping.

In the event of a crisis, your insurer may provide a free helpline number but you'll have to pay to sort out the problem as this isn't covered on standard home policies For an extra £3 a month, the Halifax's emergency insurance will find and get an approved tradesman to your home and cover the cost up to £250 for the call-out fee, labour, tools and materials.

Home improvements

If you have put off installing double glazing or upgrading your heating system, now could be the time to act - perhaps by remortgaging your property if you're budgeting for Christmas or are already weighed down with personal loans.

"A remortgage is worth doing for anything that improves the value of your home, such as double glazing," explains Melanie Bien, spokeswoman for mortgage broker Savills Private Finance. "In particular, if you are coming up to the end of a fixed-rate deal, you could even remortgage to lower monthly repayments."

Watch out, though; if you have to pay penalties to switch your home loan, it could prove expensive, so check with an independent broker.

Improve insulation

Householders can protect themselves against gas and electricity price increases by intro- ducing simple energy-efficiency measures. Moreover, they could reduce their bills by up to £200 a year, according to the Energy Savings Trust, a government-backed body.

Buy an insulating jacket for your hot water tank. It costs around £10 and can save you £10 to £15 a year. And stop heat escaping by draught-proofing the gaps around doors, windows and skirting boards. Again, this will shave between £10 and £15 off your annual heating bill.

Meanwhile, filling cavity walls costs around £300 upfront, but could save you £100 a year, and it won't cost anything to close your curtains to stop heat escaping through the windows.

Switch energy supplier

We don't have to take the price hikes lying down. With plenty of suppliers competing for our custom, Ms Darby at Simply Switch says we could slash our bills by more than £200 a year by changing provider.

"As energy companies raise their prices further, the potential savings will also increase," she adds. "Even if you have switched your energy supplier before, you can make further savings by switching again."

www.uswitch.com or 0800 093 0607; www.simplyswitch.com or 0800 781 1212.