Take charge and turn the thermostat down on energy costs. Being switched on, says Alison Brace, can bring down the bills
The news that even higher utility bills are predicted for later in the year may send shivers down your spine, so it's time to take drastic action. And that doesn't just mean popping on an extra jumper and turning the heating off. It might be worth thinking about opting for capped or fixed gas and electricity bills. These deals work in the same way as a fixed rate mortgage; they protect you from uncertainty in an unpredictable market.
They work out to be slightly more expensive, and there are penalties if you try to switch provider before your contract is up, but they buy peace of mind. The incentive for energy companies is to lock more customers in. But they can work if you are one of those customers who has never switched provider. "Two-thirds of energy customers are still on their provider's standard tariff paying quarterly by cash or cheque," says Scott Byrom, the utilities manager for money supermarket.com. "They could save more than pound;300 by moving to a different product."
Scott is sceptical about fixed rate deals. "The premium you have to pay for this protection is such that prices would have to rise significantly for it to be worthwhile," he says. "Fixed rate deals can often be more expensive than the provider's standard tariff."
However, if you still pay quarterly by cash or cheque, and you have no ambitions to be a "tariff tart," then a quick comparison of the figures reveals that your bills would be cheaper with most providers if you switched to a fixed tariff.
So if you are one of those consumers who will never have time to shop around, this could be one occasion when it's worth finding half an hour, visiting a price comparison website and looking at what a fixed or capped deal could mean to you. Or, failing that, call your provider and ask them what better deal they could offer you.
You can choose from two fixed products with npower. "If people are worried about rising energy prices, then a fixed price product is well worth exploring," says Zoe Melarkey of npower. "However, it's important people shop around and find the deal that's right for them." The company offers fixed prices for three years, until December 31, 2010. This tariff is fixed at npower's standard electricity and gas tariffs for January this year, plus a 7 per cent premium on both fuels. "The obvious advantage is that you get fixed energy bills for three years, which allows people to budget, and not to be hit by increases in bills," says Zoe.
For existing npower customers there is a "fix for free" offer. "This is the only no premium, fixed priced offer on the market. It lets npower customers fix their energy bills at current prices for a year, until April 2009," says Zoe.
So the fixed rate deals may not be the cheapest on the market, but they could be better than sticking with the standard tariff - particularly if prices rise again. If your prices are protected, there will at least be no nasty surprises over the coming months. But for the true tariff tart, the best deals remain on the internet.
"The best option for most people is to switch to an online deal and pay by monthly direct debit," says Scott. "However, the cheapest product varies depending on usage and where you live."
To check out the best deals, look at a comparison website such as moneysupermarket.com and use its gas and electricity tool to find the best prices for where you are.
If you feel you need to do something more radical about your household bills, then why not consider a "green loan"? With one of these you could start creating your own energy by installing solar panels.
The Teachers Building Society (TBS) is one of only a handful of mortgage providers to have introduced a green loan for eco home improvements. It is available to those who want to enhance the environmentally friendly status of their homes - and save cash. "We are passionate about protecting the environment and the website's new green pages will encourage people to implement easy and often free eco measures," says Mike Hislop of TBS.
There are even tips on what to look for when buying an environmentally-friendly house. You could start saving money on utility bills before you even buy a home.
For more information about the green loan, visit www.teachersbs.co.uk or call 0800 378 669 New npower customers: 0800 107 9323 Existing npower customers: 0800 975 4810.