10 things everyone needs to know about gas & electricity bills

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Winter is here. Perhaps not by the calendar, nor the weather, but certainly on the ‘energy switching clock’.

That’s because it takes six-10 weeks for a changeover to happen – so it’s important to check now to ensure your energy is cheapest for when the central heating’s on full tilt.

So here are the 10 things everyone needs to know about gas and electricity bills.

1. Many people don’t switch thinking “all energy companies are the same, there’s no point.” This simply isn’t true, there are big differences on price and service, so if you’ve been mistreated or pay too much, deny them your custom.

2. Many can cut their bills by £200-plus a year. While standard prices haven’t moved for a long time, companies are fighting to offer the cheapest ‘fixed’ deals and they keep undercutting each other - though these deals tend to be available for a short time.

As standard prices are unchanged it’s easy to see the true cheapest. Better still, all the top deals are cheap fixed tariffs (as opposed to variable), which means you’re guaranteed no rate hikes for a set time.

On average (it varies by region and use) the cheapest fixed rate is from Extra Energy and will cost someone with typical usage £991 a year, fixed until 31 October, 2015. Compare that to the £1,180 someone on a big six standard tariff pays. Yet this is a new provider with limited feedback, and has £50 exit penalties if you want to escape early.

I also like the EDF Blue-plus price promise which is fixed for longer, until 31 March 2016, for not that much more, £1,040 and has no early exit penalties. Alternatively if you just want peace of mind for the long-term EDF has another tariff that’s fixed until 31 May 18, at £1,210.

3. Always, always do a comparison (and often bag cashback too). It’s important to understand costs depend on where you live and what you use – the prices above are just averages to show you the scale of the savings.

To find your winner just plug your location and bill info into a comparison site. The regulator Ofgem has more info at www.goenergyshopping.co.uk, or my www.cheapenergyclub.com has a special ‘top pick fixes’ comparison, that will show you the prices of these deals, and explain who they’re good for – plus if it can switch you it’ll give you £30.

You generally won’t get cashback from other comparison sites if you go direct, you need to go via special links, see a list of these at www.mse.me/cheapenergy.

4. There are HUGE differences in service. I get swamped by energy complaints, yet as our recent poll of 6,800 for bigger providers shows, service levels (these are for the prior six months) vary enormously. If you’re not happy - switch.

1. Ovo Energy: 82 per cent great, four per cent poor

2. Ebico: 81 per cent great, three per cent poor

3. EDF: 48 per cent great, 16 per cent poor

4. M&S Energy: 46 per cent great, 13 per cent poor

5. E.on: 43 per cent great, 17 per cent poor

6. SSE (incl Atlantic): 42 per cent great, 18 per cent poor

7. First Utility: 40 per cent great, 36 per cent poor

8. British Gas: 35 per cent great, 29 per cent poor

9. Scottish Power: 18 per cent great, 55 per cent poor

10. Npower: nine per cent great, 71 per cent poor

5. Are you on an electricity-only tariff or Economy 7? Those with no gas can still get all the tariffs above – and all comparison sites allow you to compare electricity only. If you’re on Economy 7 it can be far trickier, see my www.mse.me/eco7 guide for how to work out your winner.

6. Moving house? Most fixes (incl those above) are portable, so if you move house you can take them with you. If you’re not sure of your future usage, ask the old tenants, or some comparison sites will estimate for you.

Or just use your current usage (add a bit if it’ll be a bigger or less well insulated house). While it won’t be that accurate, it’s better compare rough and ready than not at all.

7. On a prepayment meter? Don’t think you’re locked to one provider. While the market’s less competitive, and the savings not as big, some may still see savings of £150 a year. And you can switch even if you’re in energy debt, though not if it’s more than £500.

8. Paying by monthly direct debit gets you a £70 - £90/year discount. Here your annual usage is estimated and divided by 12. Ensure you do regular meter readings to keep it accurate, or you could build up a debt, or be overpaying.

If you do pay by direct debit, you should usually be in credit right now after the summer - as a rough rule of thumb, by no more than a month’s bills worth. This will be used up by winter’s higher usage. If you’re too much in credit you may need to get your direct debit altered. If you switch when you’re in credit make sure you get it back.

If you’re in debt at this point of the year you may need your direct debit increasing.

9. Haggling is usually a waste of time. It’s not that energy firms won’t play ball. Often they will, but there are problems with this.

- Energy tariffs don’t have a simple price tag. They’re a mix of standing charge and unit prices. So you’ve only got their word it’s cheaper.

- Ofgem rules mean they can’t offer you a special deal. All tariffs need be available on comparisons. So why haggle when you can do a check and find out definitively what tariff is cheapest for you – and possibly get cashback.

10. If you you’re struggling to pay energy bills, help may be available. If you’re seriously behind, act now so you’re in shape for higher winter bills. BG, EDF and Npower have trusts giving £100s in grants to help with energy guzzling items.

For more information on this, or the Warm Home Discount call the not-for-profit www.homeheathelpline.org.uk on 0800 33 66 99 to see what help is available.

BEST DEALS

Extra Energy (www.extraenergy.com) has a fixed rate available to 31 October 2015. A household on a dual fuel tariff with typical consumption will cost £991 a year. There’s a £50 exit fee and it’s a new provider, so customer service standard is untested.

First Utility (www.first-utility.com) iSave Fixed 2015 rate is set until 31 October 2015 and will cost £992 a year for an average household on dual fuel tariff. A £60 exit fee is payable if you want to end it early.