Smart Consumer: How to make sure you don't get a shiver when the gas bill arrives
Figures out this week show that we weren't imagining it. Last month really was as cold as we all thought. No wonder we needed to wear all our woolies -- Met Eireann says that it was the coldest January generally in 25 years and the coldest in Dublin since 1963.
So even though January is the month of tightening our belts and trying to be as thrifty as possible, we had to keep the heating turned on and on and on.
And while the mercury has risen a little, it's not exactly warm these days, so while most householders are worried about their bills, they're still in no hurry to actually turn the heating off.
Some good news at last is that from this week gas prices have been reduced by 8pc. But with financial pressures greater than in previous years, if you are having trouble paying your bills what can you do?
I can't afford my gas bill. Will I be cut off?
Since 2008 approximately 1pc of Bord Gais and Flogas customers have been disconnected. While this sounds small, for Bord Gais customers it amounts to almost 6,000 homes.
However, disconnection is a last resort, and the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) has published guidelines for suppliers in relation to this. They include details on the circumstances under which a customer can and can't be cut off, and how to treat vulnerable customers.
Both Bord Gais and Flogas recommend that if you find yourself in difficulties with payments, you should contact them as soon as possible.
Their aim is to come to some payment arrangement with you, not to cut your supply off, so don't be afraid to call them.
Under the CER guidelines, vulnerable and elderly customers must not be disconnected between October and March, so make sure you register with your supplier's 'special services register' if you're over 66 or have special needs.
Another option may be to have a pre-pay meter installed and according to CER there has been a greater demand from customers for this service in recent months with, for example, 20,000 new meters installed in Cork recently.
Can I get any help?
If you are in real difficulties then you should contact the Money Advice and Budgeting Services (MABS), where, as MABS spokesperson Michael Culloty says, "Money advice, help and hand-holding is available for people who cannot get to grips with their situation".
With your authority, MABS can liaise with the service provider for you if you are not in a position to do it yourself.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul and Alone may be able to help with payments, as in addition to their own resources, they recently received €1m from Bord Gais to be distributed to their customers in need of help with gas bills.
If you are over 66, or in receipt of the widows' pension or disability payments among others, you are entitled to a fuel allowance of €20 a week -- and this could be topped up by an additional €3.90 a week thanks to the smokeless fuel allowance, if you are living in an area where smoke-causing fuel is banned.
The 'household benefits package' includes an allowance for electricity and gas and you may be eligible for this if you are a social welfare recipient.
Can I get a cheaper rate for my gas?
Residential customers have a choice of two suppliers, Bord Gais and Flogas Natural Gas. Flogas is 9pc cheaper than Bord Gais.
If you're a gas customer with Bord Gais and have switched your electricity supply to them, you'll be getting your electricity for 14pc less than with the ESB, but this includes 2pc for being an existing gas customer.
So if you switch your gas supplier to Flogas, you'll have to add back on that 2pc to your electricity bill with Bord Gais. Nonetheless, splitting the bills between Bord Gais and Flogas is still cheaper overall, as you'll pay 12pc less for your electricity with Bord Gais (or up to 12pc with Airtricity) and you'll pay 9pc less for your gas with Flogas.
Should I give meter readings regularly?
If you want to be sure you're paying for what you use, as opposed to an estimate, then read your meter and phone it in to your supplier.
Bord Gais recommends you do this twice a year. Flogas say they carry out six meter readings a year but remind customers that if your meter is inside your house or garage and there is no one at home when their meter reader calls, you will get more estimates, so customers can take readings themselves.
Bear in mind that estimates use seasonal profiling so cold weather is taken into account, and this winter there is a chance that your estimated bill might even be lower than your actual one.