/ Home & Energy

Will the cold snap make for biting winter bills?

Winter day

The winter weather has well and truly kicked in for most parts of the UK, and it would seem that concerns about energy bills are creeping higher up the agenda on the consumer worry list. So are you concerned about your winter bills?

I think I, like many, had gotten used to the balmy weather of 2016. But the new year has brought with it a change in our weather fortunes, with forecasts predicting an icy January on its way, and with some areas of the UK already plunging to -7°C.

For someone who really doesn’t like the cold, I wasn’t taking any chances and decided to don two jackets just to leave the house today.

While most wouldn’t resort to such extreme measures, many people may find they’re reaching for their thermostats more frequently to counter the cold.

Winter bills

Coupled with the dropping temperatures, are the reports of rising wholesale energy prices, which makes up a large proportion of the average consumer energy bill.

So it’s not surprising that energy prices have climbed their way to the top of our consumer worry list, alongside fuel prices and public spending cuts.

When we took a look at the biggest concerns bothering consumers, our research found that nearly two thirds (64%) of people said they were worried about energy prices – that’s a rise of eight percentage points since September.

And what’s more, there’s growing distrust in the energy industry – our research found that a third (35%) of consumers now distrust the sector, that’s a rise of six percentage points.

While some energy suppliers have temporarily frozen their standard tariff prices this winter, these tariffs are generally the most expensive deals on the market and won’t protect those customers from the price hikes set to kick in this year.

Restoring trust

Restoring trust won’t be easy. But as a starter for ten, our Fair Energy Prices campaign has challenged energy suppliers to publish a plan by 31 January to set out how they will help customers currently on poor value tariffs.

With only weeks to go, not one energy company has published their plan… but there’s still time! We’re keeping the pressure up and expect energy companies to take helping their customers with energy bills seriously.

So, tell us, are you worried about your winter energy bills? Would you like to see energy companies do more to help their customers?


I look to my wardrobe to find that useful thermal clothing that I have bought to counter the colder days. Paying particular care to the feet with seriously toasty socks/slippers.

Have Which? done anyhting on thermal socks/ different materials?

I think how useful it would be if Which? had articles on blinds and shutters preventing heat loss via windows. Or possibly links to the information.

“wholesale energy prices, which makes up a large proportion of the average consumer energy bill.” Wholesale gas cost was, on the last look, 46.5% an average gas bill, and wholesale electricity 40.09% of an average electricity bill. They are the largest single items, not unexpectedly, but many people may be surprised that they form under half of what you pay.

” reaching for their thermostats more frequently”. I’d leave your thermostat alone, if it is set for a temperature you are happy with. When its warmer weather it will turn your heating off when it is not needed; it will switch it on when its cold. Why meddle with it?

“challenged energy suppliers to publish a plan by 31 January to set out how they will help customers currently on poor value tariffs.” Most customers can already help themselves by switching to a better tariff – easily done through Which?Switch either online or on the phone. Best do it quickly before higher wholesale costs increase fixed price tariffs though.

Personally, I’d like to see all fixed price tariffs abolished and standard variable tariffs reduced in price – as they currently subsidise the fixed price ones. Perhaps Which? could campaign for that? It would still need customers to choose between suppliers though. Do we need to do that for them?

“Do we need to do that for them? ”
By coincidence I’ve just come across Flipper (flipper community). For £25 a year they claim to find the best energy supplier for you by monitoring your usage, save you at least £50, monitor it 4 times a year, and let you know so you can decide whether to change to the new tariff or not. They look after the whole switching process. No money, they say, from the suppliers. Sounds a good deal for those who are not able, or can’t be bothered, to do it for themselves.

If it is as good as it sounds maybe Which? could mention it? Anyone had experience of them? It is a profit-making enterprise, seemingly.

Go read reviews of flipper on MSE. MSE users weren’t impressed.

What is MSE, William?

MSE = Money Saving Expert. I had a quick look at the first reviews. One or two said why spend £25 when you can do it yourself for free? Well, of course you can, and we should. But it might help those who otherwise wouldn’t bother. Others said the savings they claim are based on you reverting to a standard variable tariff when your deal ends. Quite true, just as Which? tends to use as a comparison. And there are people who will do this and not bother to switch.

I’ve no flag to wave for flipper, but if for £25 you end up saving more money, then if you are lazy enough or not confident enough to do it yourself, it seems a reasonable service. Perhaps Which? Commercial could offer something similar as well?

Personally, I would save the £25 and switch myself, because I have found straightforward and worthwhile.

I wonder whether Which? has examined this company, and whether any contributors have looked at it.

Thanks, Malcolm, for giving the full name for MSE. Silly me! I just couldn’t think what it stood for [never having visited that site].

Some of the time a better fixed price tariff becomes available within the existing supplier’s range so there seems to be no need to pay to explore those possibilities. I tend to keep within two or three of the ‘big six’ so it is not difficult or particularly time consuming to do a quick search from time to time. I prefer not to switch unless it is especially beneficial since they seem to match each other over time so what you gain on the swings . . .

I can’t claim much credit, John, I just put MSE into search, found what it was (I don’t normally visit the site either) and then searched flipper on their forum.

Your existing supplier may introduce a better tariff, but do they always tell you? I made another switch in October and, based on my usage, made a substantial saving on what was previously a good deal from another supplier. It is always worth checking Which?Switch – it takes but a few minutes to see if you can get a significant reduction on your present tariff. I suspect now with wholesale prices rising I’ll be sticking until next October. But on the face of it paying £25 a year for someone else to do the work for you seems a reasonable deal if the savings, as they claim, outweigh the cost.

E.On have offered better tariffs from time to time but now that my current fixed-price tariff is about end the offers are for a higher-priced tariff [not surprised] but which appears to be about the same as from alternative suppliers. By word of mouth I have heard that SSE are particularly good at giving new tariff information and actually mentioning the possibility of better rates with other companies [but customers have to look them up themselves of course]. Which?Switch is the only comparison site I use.

It s all a scum we live in a private corporation dictatorship with the blessing of this lousy government

I would like to see Which? campaigning for fair prices for those who would have difficulty in shopping around for the cheapest deals. A friend of mine died after Christmas. She had been living with Alzheimer’s disease for years and there is no way that she could have kept an eye on energy prices. It would be good to think about others as well as ourselves.

What exactly do you mean by a “fair price”?

Many of us “think about others as well as ourselves,” and will help those who need looking after with things such as their energy supplier. Family are probably best equipped to do this. Organisations who look after people professionally could be encouraged to help with things like this, but becoming involved in people’s financial affairs might be inappropriate.

As I’ve said before, it would help if we all paid the same for energy. It’s great if family does support the elderly and sick, but it does not always happen.

We won’t all pay the same for energy. With no price competition we’ll end up with efficient providers making large profits and no one would like that, would they? Or we nationalise and end up with inefficient state bodies lacking innovation and enterprise.

So what exactly do we mean by “fair prices”. Surely that means companies making “fair profits” but using their enterprise to gain our custom by sourcing energy well financially, investing in sustainable future supplies, and offering fair choices to consumers, for example?

How about “fair prices” for food, transport and housing – all essentials for many that take up much more of their budget than energy?

Companies are there to serve the needs of the citizens of this country, not vice versa. As I have suggested before, the competition needed to drive efficiency could be applied elsewhere in the supply chain rather than at the point of sale.

Make no mistake. Those of us who are on cheap tariffs are being subsidised by those paying significantly more – including the poorest members of our community.

Initially companies are formed to produce profits for their owners – just like you earn a salary when you work – and a return for those who invest money in it, and taking the risks that follow. They will generally only earn profits if they are efficient and provide something their customers want. when we have competition, customers can choose who to deal with.

Public services, paid for by many of the “public” out of local and national taxes, are there to serve the needs of the “citizens”.

I have argued that we should abolish the “cheap” tariffs (by which I usually take as fixed term fixed price) that appear to be subsidised by the standard variable tariffs, and have an SVT as the norm. But I do not want to lose the competition that exists.

I’m well aware that companies have to make profits to function and to invest for the future, but what has happened is that some of them have been rather greedy. Unless you regularly review your energy tariffs and insurance premiums you may well be paying far more than you need to. Like many people, I used to stay with the same insurance company for years because there was often little benefit in switching, yet the companies managed to make their profits. Now it seems to be a game to exploit those who don’t switch or haggle for a lower price. Sadly, it abuses the members of society who are unable to play the game.

“I’m well aware that companies have to make profits to function and to invest for the future, but what has happened is that some of them have been rather greedy”

Not really. In any commodity market like energy or insurance, the deals offered to acquire new customers are very, very rarely profitable. In many cases they are loss making. The companies offer these on the basis that over time they can increase the rate for a small proportion of these customers and eventually make a small net profit. For those customers who switch supplier every year, chances are that they get the best deals, but equally are (ultimately) relying on non-switching customers to subsidise them.

Thinking about Neena’s comment about people reaching for their thermostat, I certainly do this. When I am sitting down in the evening I like it to be warm but during the day I feel more comfortable if the temperature is several degrees lower.

We also tweak the thermostat when we are relaxing or if a cold wind is laying onto the house. It’s normally on 17 degrees but an extra degree makes the house more comfortable when we’re not busy doing something. The thermostat is in the hall but by using the thermostatic radiator valves [TRV’s] on each radiator we keep the living areas at slightly higher temperature whatever the hall thermostat does. It’s a bit of a balancing act but it works.

I’m with you there Wavechange. It was -6°C around me… I had to boost my heating to stay on all night, I hope this habit doesn’t come back to bite me. It’s been an expensive year moving into my new home and I need to make some adjustments to the house to make it a bit more energy efficient and warmer, at the moment I’m trying to work out if it would be more efficient to have my heating on all day or just pay for the work to be done 😕

Don’t you just love the English language? Lauren – your second sentence made me wonder if you were implying you had a frosty personality, but from our regular social intercourse on here we all know that’s not true. 🙂

Here’s one for Physics aficionados: in cold weather is it cheaper to leave the heating on all the time or switch it on only when you start to get cold?

😛 I’m never frosty!

As for the physics question I would say unanswerable given the number of variables involved.

Warming THE room where you spend the majority of your time may be the cheapest method. We on occasion have moved the lounge to the uper floor to benefit from the way heat rises : ). And it is a smaller room to keep at a nice temperature.

As we take the central heating thermostat with us the rest of the house is heated to a lesser degree but not stymied completely by the shorter operating runs of the burner. It is over 94% efficient according to the US government standards.

Lauren – Winter is not the best time to upgrade heating unless you can cope with electric heaters until the job is done. Thankfully it was unseasonably warm when my system developed a problem before Christmas and I did have fan heaters, but I was very glad when the central heating was on again. It is worth taking advice on what work is needed to improve your heating, the costs, and sorting out any simple problems such as draughts.

Patrick T – Living in a house is a bit of a novelty for me because most of my life has been spent in bungalows. I agree that it makes sense to be selective in heating, but I would have thought that the warmest room should be downstairs so that the rising heat will warm rooms upstairs rather than the roof space. I inherited smart meters when I moved into my house and it is proving interesting to monitor gas use from day to day.

Whether to leave your heating on probably depends on the type of building and its location.

A town terrace property or a flat is likely to heat up quickly, but a country detached property in a low-lying area can take forever. We fall into the latter category and found it was cheaper to leave it on 24/7 but now we have the Hive (which I dislike) it can be turned down overnight.

When we know it is going to be really cold overnight we put the central heating controller on ‘constant’ and the thermostat on a lower setting just to keep the chill off the air. It means getting up at around 6 a.m. to reset the thermostat to 17 degrees and on a day like today leaving the system on ‘constant’.

Our house has a massive brick chimney stack up one side above the sitting room fireplace. Unfortunately it is a design feature and not a flue and the fireplace is fitted with a coal-effect gas fire! Every winter we wish the builders had allowed us the opportunity to install a wood-burner, especially since there is actually a wood almost on our doorstep and I could go gath’ring winter fuel [for brightly shone the moon last night and the frost was cruel].

“Here’s one for Physics aficionados: in cold weather is it cheaper to leave the heating on all the time or switch it on only when you start to get cold?”

The cheapest option would be to leave the heating OFF all the time and just wear warmer clothes 🙂 [So long as you don’t have expensive tastes in clothes!]

In simple terms, if you leave the heating on when you don’t need it, you are paying for fuel that you don’t need, so you are likely to have higher fuel costs. But, you may save on maintenance costs (and you will have a more comfortable home, with more even and constant temperatures in it).

I think there is also a possibility that keeping the heating on, may allow it to work steadily and more efficiently, so the extra marginal fuel consumption may be small or non-existent, especially if your home is well insulated.

After this winter I’ll have more data, because the mechanical timer on my boiler is kaput. Hence, I’m running a constant low thermostat of around 15deg.C, with occasional tweaks up or down and careful adjustment of my radiator thermostat valves.

Slightly off-topic I followed the link and I noticed:
“Tom Sullivan from Active Plumbing and Heating Solutions, who is endorsed by Which? Trusted Traders, also suggests the following:”

Kind of sticks in the craw to suggest endorsed as he has paid Which? at least £400 and passed a vetting system.

I believe members say this charity organisation is free of paid advertisements but in essence he has been plucked from a l list of Trusted Trader plumbers and receives greater exposure.

There are existing local authority Trusted Trader schemes who may also feel a sense that Which? is for profit entering a field when the public believes Which? tests for value, reliability etc. and may impute these standards to a trader.

I am all for Trusted Trader schemes but I think there is a mixed message being created.

It is not only the price that concerns me, but the appalling administration of many of the energy companies who go to great lengths to avoid answering customers’ complaints, knowing that too few customers complain to the Ombudsman.

Stephen Gebbie says:
6 January 2017

By shopping around yearly Extra Energy is the cheapest, but could be cheaper, if the electricity wasn’t so dear, but they are all the same. Overall still the cheapest!

We are lucky as we get the sun all day, even in the winter in sunny Glasgow Scotland! It’s not been that cold in Glasgow, so far apart, from the odd day.
We also look for the cheapest Energy Provider every year, without fail, sometimes they don’t want to lose you as a customer so offer it cheaper or the same for the next year. Pays to shop around!

We ve had 4 days of frost so far this winter(-1.1,& -3.5degrees)The remainder of readings on my max & min thermometer (kept in the shade,on Cannock Chase Staffordshire) have been much higher than average(mostly in 2 figures.i.e above 10 degrees.So why is anyone worrying about having a cold winter?Most sensible & intelligent people just put on an extra layer!

I stay with Ebico for gas & electricity, as they are non profit making, have only one tariff, DONT HAVE A STANDING CHARGE & costs per kwh are the same for pre-payment meters as for normal meters.

Unless you are a very low user they are also one of the most expensive suppliers around. They buy from SSE and have a charity that uses profits to support the fuel-poor and other “social enterprises”.

Heating Oil Prices
27p/litre eof June,38p/litre mid Nov to 48p now .There would be riots if gas/electric went up 75%.We don’t even have the option of fixed term pricing its all spot pricing . This amounts to c £50/mth !
There is virtually no competition and you are exposed to spot pricing which moves rapidly up and slowly downwards. Living in Rural areas its oil or nothing.

But the advantage is that heating oil is one of the few energy products you can store in order to avail yourself of lower summer prices. Many people in the rural area where we live have liquid petroleum gas [LPG] which can also be stored.

sean says:
8 January 2017

Being an OCD type of person, i have managed to monitor and record my energy bills over a 3 year period and have concluded that the cheapest way is to only put on heating when you come home from work, do not keep it on a constant low as this is not economical (neither is a hive,nest etc…) i have saved over £100 p/month so far. What i have also found is changing light bulbs to led definitely saves money and if you have an open fire, install a wood burner, as this makes a huge difference

I am a British Gas customer and would want BG to do the right thing opposite its customers so have signed the Which petition. But two points, Mark from BG writes that BG is trying to implement various approaches to ensure a better deal. That may or may not be good enough for some , but to avoid all this, they should try to get access to someone’s p.c ,and contact the website run by consumer campaigner Martin Lewis. His weekly blog ( Wednesday) includes a run down of the cheapest Energy suppliers. Secondly he from time to time announces a “collective” switch deal with a supplier including BG which is cheaper than anyone else. I am on such a deal, with BG , have switched twice since 2015 and will do so again this year. My advice is always look at his cautions over what any supplier is offering, eg how many satisfied customers, how big , how long in business, is the supplier etc. It takes a little time but saves a lot of money or trouble later on when/if things go wrong.

R G Taylor

The cheapest energy supplier will depend upon your annual consumption, and the balance between electricity and gas. You cannot nominate a cheapest supplier – they are only likely to be such for a proportion of customers. Best way is the use Which?Switch for your specific estimated annual usage.