John Hearne offers 10 no-cost and low-cost ways to keep the energy bills under control this winter
1 SWITCH AND SAVE If you haven't already done so, switch to a cheaper electricity provider. Of the three consumer electricity companies out there, only Airtricity and Bord Gais are free to charge whatever they want. In order to give these new entrants a chance to build up market share, they are being allowed to undercut ESB for a limited period of time (which hasn't been confirmed yet). You can save anything up to 20pc by switching providers. It doesn't cost anything, it only takes minutes and more than a quarter of ESB customers have already done it.
2 BE SMART Next time a bulb pops, replace it with an energy-efficient alternative. The technology is improving all the time. It's now possible to get an energy-efficient bulb that provides decent light, lasts up to 15 times longer than old-style incandescent bulbs and costs way less to run. Yes, they are up to three times the price of the old bulbs, but they will save you money, plus you've no choice. The sale of older, inefficient bulbs is being phased out in stages. From September 2012, you won't be able to find them in the shops. According to the ESB's guide to energy-efficient lighting, replacing a 100w incandescent bulb with a 20w CFL will save you €16.30 in energy costs over the course of a year.
3 SHUT THAT DOOR There are all kinds of little changes that can be made around the house that add up to substantial savings over the course of the year. Keep doors and windows shut and only heat the rooms you're using. Even closed windows are a weak spot in a building's thermal envelope, especially if they're single glazed. Keep curtains shut at night, even in empty rooms, and don't drape curtains over radiators --this sends the heat straight out the window.
4 KNOCK OFF AND SAVE See those little red standby lights on TVs, DVD players and stereos? They're consuming a lot more energy than you might think -- anything up to 60pc of the power used when the device is switched on. Make it a bedtime ritual to turn these things off altogether. Computer monitors are big energy hogs, too. Log off and shut down when you're not using it.
5 ADJUST THE DIAL Hot water needs to be hot, not scalding. If you have a thermostat on your cylinder, use it. Turn the temperature down to 60 degrees. Take a shower rather than a bath. Typically, a shower uses only one fifth of the energy of a full bath. When it comes to space heating, turning your thermostat down by one degree could save you as much as 10pc on your heating bills. Alternatively, you could reduce the amount of time the heating is on. According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), turning your heating off 30 minutes before you go to bed and setting it to come on 30 minutes before you get up could save you €100 a year.
6 KEEP YOUR COOL Don't let ice build up in the freezer compartment of the fridge. Defrost once every six months to minimise energy consumption, and don't sit the fridge beside the cooker, or in the path of direct sunlight if at all possible. Make sure the seals around the fridge are tight-fitting, let food cool down before you put it in and don't leave the door open too long. It takes a lot of energy to get the fridge back down to the right temperature after the door's been left open.
7 HOT IN THE KITCHEN When cooking, keep a lid on it. When the pot starts to boil, put on the lid and turn the heat down -- this keeps the heat where it should be and reduces condensation in the kitchen. Use the microwave to reheat -- it's much more energy-efficient than a cooker. If you have to use the oven, do not open the door a lot to check on things. You lose around 20pc of the accumulated heat each time, and it takes a lot of energy to get the temperature back up. If you're only making one cup of tea, why fill the kettle? Use a cup to measure what you want. It'll boil much more quickly and much more efficiently if you only boil what you need. Just make sure, if it's an older kettle, that the water covers the element completely. And use the toaster rather than the grill whenever possible.
8 DON'T GET IN A SPIN It's one of the kitchen's biggest energy hogs, so don't use the dryer unless you have to. When you do, make sure the clothes going in are wrung out and not sopping wet. On washing machines and dishwashers, choose the lowest temperature the manufacturer recommends. A half-full dishwasher or washing machine uses the same amount of energy as a full one. Wait until it's full before you switch it on. And if you're buying a new appliance, buy an A-rated one. It might cost more but it will be far more efficient and save you a packet in the long run.
9 JACKET REQUIRED Installing a lagging jacket on your hot water tank can save up to €2.50 a week in water heating costs, and will pay for itself within three months. Spending a little more insulating your attic can deliver even better energy savings and could cut your home heating bills by as much as 20pc a year. The SEAI runs a Home Energy Savings Scheme which offers grant aid for a range of retrofitted home energy-saving measures, including insulation and heating controls. Under the Greener Homes Scheme, there's grant aid available for the installation of a variety of sustainable technologies, including heat pumps, solar panels and wood pellet boilers. Check seai.ie for details or call them on 1850 927 000. If your oil or gas boiler hasn't been serviced recently, then you could be wasting a lot of money. The SEAI reckons that by servicing your boiler, you could improve your overall efficiency by 10pc, saving you up to €150 a year.
10 AND DON'T ESTIMATE Your electricity meter is usually read four times a year, but if the meter reader can't get access to yours when he calls, you'll get an estimated reading. If you've taken all the measures you can to reduce your energy consumption but your bill is as high as ever, it could be because you're getting an estimated reading based on previous consumption. You can, however, read the meter yourself, then send the reading to your provider and your bill will be recalculated.