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Is your home leaking money?

AS THE nights draw in and the weather gets colder, it is worth all of us thinking about how we are going to save money on heating our homes this winter. According to government figures, over eight per cent of all of our spending is on energy use, and bills rise sharply in winter when we turn up the heating.

The cost of heating has risen sharply in recent years. Energy regulator Ofgem says that the average dual fuel energy bill is now £1,185 a year. But if your home is large and poorly insulated or occupied and heated all day, you may be paying far more than this.

But there’s no reason why you should feel resigned to a winter of spiralling bills and shivery evenings.

Hannah Hughes, service and repair engineer at British Gas, says: ‘There are some really simple steps you can take to help prepare your home for winter and keep everything running like clockwork.’ Here are some of the most effective ways to ensure you are prepared for a cold snap:

It’s worth switching your energy tariff

It’s easy to assume that shopping around for a better energy deal won’t make much of a difference, or that it won’t be worth the hassle. However, the difference in price between the best and worst energy tariffs is extreme and even if you have switched before, you are still likely to be able to make a significant difference to your energy bills if you haven’t done so recently.

According to energy switching service moneysupermarket.com, those customers on a standard variable tariff — which is the tariff that most people who have not switched suppliers are on — could save an average of 24 per cent by switching to a better supplier. The savings vary by region, with those in the South West saving an average of nearly £320 a year, while those in the South East save £295.

Stephen Murray at moneysupermarket.com, says that an estimated 11million households in the UK have not switched energy supplier recently. ‘If you’re one of those, take matters into your own hands and switch your energy supplier today.

‘Switching couldn’t be simpler — it literally takes five minutes online to secure yourself a competitive fixed-rate deal, either with a Big Six supplier like British Gas or one of the emerging suppliers like Octopus or Green Network Energy.’ Ofgem said last month that it was planning to introduce a cap on energy bills by the end of the year, but this cap is unlikely to stop switching saving you money.

You can easily switch your energy supplier by using a comparison site, such as moneysupermarket.com, uswitch.com or gocompare.com. If you don’t want to leave your supplier, you could call them and ask if you can be switched to their cheapest tariff. This is still likely to save you cash.

Jane Wallace, one of the two bloggers behind money blog Skinted Minted Mum (skintedmintedmum.co.uk) suggests signing up to a service that regularly checks whether you’re on the best tariff, so that you don’t languish on an expensive rate.

‘Regular switching is a hassle but there are firms which can do it for you automatically when a better deal becomes available, eg Flipper, where you pay a small fee or Cheap Energy Club on the Money Saving Expert (MSE) website where MSE is paid commission,’ she says. ‘But make sure you don’t incur any early redemption penalties from existing contracts.’

Deal with your old boiler

A boiler breakdown over winter can be very unpleasant, especially if it occurs in the middle of a particularly cold period. British Gas says it dealt with 1.25million boiler breakdowns last winter, with 104 calls for help coming in per second during the ‘beast from the east’ cold snap.

‘Stay ahead of the weather and make sure your boiler’s working properly before the first frost,’ advises Hannah Hughes. Experts recommend that you get your boiler serviced every year. As well as providing peace of mind, this can help your boiler to run more efficiently, saving you more money on your energy bills.

If your boiler is particularly old and inefficient, the Energy Saving Trust counsels that it may be cheaper in the long run to replace it, although the savings will take several years to pay back. ‘If your boiler was installed before 2004, it’s likely to be an inefficient “non-condensing” boiler,’ says trust expert Caitlin Bent. ‘More modern boilers should be condensing boilers, which are much more energy efficient.’ Boilers are rated A-G depending on how efficient they are, with A the highest rating.

‘If you currently have a G-rated boiler with some heating controls, by upgrading to an A-rated boiler with a full set of heating controls you could save around £200 a year,’ Caitlin adds.

Many companies offer boiler cover, which includes sending an engineer if your boiler breaks down. However, consumer experts at Which? say that for the vast majority this cover is not worth having as the average cost of a boiler repair is £192 and the average cost of a servicing contract is £242 a year. For most, regularly servicing the boiler and paying out when repairs are needed will be more economical.

While you’re dealing with the boiler, take on the radiators, too. ‘If you haven’t used the heating for a while, air can enter the system and form bubbles at the top of your radiators, which stops them from working efficiently,’ adds Hannah. ‘If you notice cold spots at the top of your radiators, switch them off and when cool, turn a radiator key in the valve at the top to let the air out. Have a rag or a small container to hand so you can catch any drips.’

Insulate, insulate, insulate

Insulate your home: You could save hundreds of pounds a year

Your grandma was right when she placed a ‘sausage dog’ draught excluder across the bottom of the door; eliminating draughts and insulating your home will save money as well as make the house seem warmer.

‘Fitting draught excluders — available from most DIY stores — is a quick, easy and affordable way to cut down on your energy bills and draught-proof your home. Letterbox brushes, chimney balloons and even keyhole coverings can also make a real difference,’ Hannah says.

Caitlin, at the Energy Saving Trust, says some insulation is cheap and will pay for itself almost immediately. This includes £16 for a new jacket for your hot water tank. ‘Topping up your hot water cylinder insulation from 25mm to 80mm jacket could save around £20 a year,’ she says.

More expensive insulation, such as filling the cavities in your walls or fitting solid-wall insulation will pay back more slowly, but it will make you warmer. ‘If your home has uninsulated cavity walls, cavity-wall insulation could save up to £145 a year. Most homes built before 1919 have solid walls. If your home has solid walls, insulating them can save around £245 a year,’ she says. Cavity-wall insulation can cost up to £720 for a detached home (where savings will be higher) or under £400 for a mid- terrace house.

Turn to tech

Combining modern technology with old-style draught exclusion is the key to the warmest home at the lowest prices. So when you’ve insulated, consider what’s on the market to take down the cost of your energy bills.

Heating controls, which include thermostatic radiator valves, as well as thermostats for every room, or more modern wi-fi-enabled heating systems, will prevent you from heating spaces you aren’t using.

‘Get a thermostat or upgrade your existing one so you can control the timing and temperature of your heating more accurately. Zone your home by turning the radiators off or down in the rooms you aren’t using,’ suggests Skinted Minted Mum’s Jane. However, she warns that smart heating gadgets might not save you much more than simply turning down the radiators yourself.

Smart meters, which are available for free from many suppliers, may help you to making savings if they show you where the energy use is coming from, but they won’t lower the bills unless you change your habits.

Check your entitlements

Some people on low incomes are entitled to help with their energy bills. £140 winter rebates are available through the Warm Home Discount scheme, while advice, financial support and grants are available from the British Gas Energy Trust for both customers and non-customers, or from the Citizens Advice Bureau. Customers who need a hand with practical things can sign up to be on the Priority Services Register, for different bill formats and warnings if their energy supply faces disruption. You just need to tell your supplier.

If you are on a low income or receive certain benefits, you may be eligible for help with energy efficiency improvements. Try turn2us.org.uk/Benefit-guides/Grants-for-Energy-Efficiency/Country-schemes.

Fix your furnishings

Sofas in front of your radiators? Move furniture away from your heating, so that the whole room can be warm.

Jane, at Skinted Minted Mum, also recommends lining heavy curtains with old blankets to keep out draughts, if you can’t afford double glazing. ‘Use bedspreads instead of an extra winterweight duvet. They are easier to clean and cheaper,’ she adds.

Home improvements that cut your bills

■ Cavity-wall insulation: saves up to £145 a year

■ Solid-wall insulation: saves up to £245 a year

■ Moving from a 25mm thick to 80mm thick boiler insulation jacket: £20 a year

■ Moving from an average boiler to a top-of-the-range efficient one with heating controls: £200 a year

■ Draughtproofing a chimney: £15 a year

■ Installing heating controls (room thermostats and radiator valves): £75 a year

Source: EnergySavingTrust, based on a typical, three-bedroom, gas-heated home with a gas price of 3.63p per kilowatt hour