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As a long, cold winter looms, you can cut your heating bills

THERE'S no snow . . . yet, but either way we know our heating bills are going to take a hammering again this year.

Fuel inflation is rising and we're all paying more than we would like.

This week we're looking at ways to cut down on usage, and our bills. Some straightforward and simple changes could save you hundreds.

For an average 3-bed house, gas costs €876 pa, with €1,116 spent on electricity. An 800-litre oil fill is around €750. It's a lot of money.

But looking after things like insulation, the way you pay your bill and knowing what grants are available for upgrading your heating can save money. Here's our five tips.

All four gas suppliers and some oil companies allow spread payments. Because most of us spend more on heating during winter months, the bills can often come as a shock.

The 'equalisers' take last year's usage, add a 'tolerance' amount and divide by 12. Any amount you don't use is refunded, or credited to next year. Here's an example using gas:

Last year's bill: €876

Tolerance amount: €175

Total: €1,051 / 12 = €88 per month.

Paying by direct debit cuts costs too -- all suppliers offer discounts as it's cheaper to collect.

If you bundle your gas and electricity supplier there can be savings, however, don't do it for its own sake -- make sure it's actually cheaper.

Oil prices are quite fixed and you may have a job finding a much better deal for a fill. Gas, on the other hand, is more competitive with four companies vying for your business. Switching is easy -- there are no callouts or work to your house. I recommend comparison website www.bon kers.ie to see what's available. I found savings of €124.25 by switching from Bord Gais to Flo Gas.

There are grants available from the Sustainable Energy Authority (www.seai.ie) for upgrading your oil or gas boiler and insulating.

•Upgrade of boiler €560

•Internal cavity insulation €250 -€1,800 depending on house size

•Attic insulation €200

Only the homeowner can apply; the house must be older than 2006 and you must use a registered contractor and buy a boiler with more than 90pc efficiency. This is really worthwhile and the upgraded boiler will save you €150 a year in heating bills.

Both Bord Gais and Electric Ireland offer pre-pay meters, but only to customers in arrears. They allow the owner control their usage by buying credit (like a mobile phone), a portion of which goes to pay off the debt. By 2015 smart metering will be introduced allowing everyone to see what they're spending. Some of these will have pre-pay features.

For a non-arrears customer, pre-pay gas meters cost €110 each and electricity €262, including fitting.

According to BER, proper insulation can save a fortune. But you don't have to go to the expense of double glazing or new boilers -- although that helps. There are simple, free steps you can take:

•Always use thermostats and timers. Reducing the temperature by 1 degree cuts 10pc off the bill.

•Tumble driers are energy guzzlers. Use a clothes horse.

•Heating water accounts for 64pc of energy use in the home. Set the cylinder thermostat at 60 degrees saving €15 per year.

•90pc of the energy consumption on washing machines goes on heating the water. Use good detergent and wash in cool water.

•A lagging jacket keeps water hotter longer. It pays for itself within three months.

•20 degrees is the ideal room temperature. Heat bedrooms to 18 degrees -- heat rises.

•Insulating the attic saves 20pc on home heating. It pays for itself quickly.