Energy bills are a common worry for millions of older people in the UK. Many skimp on heating their homes in winter even during a cold snap.
Avoiding putting the heating on might feel like the right thing to do for your finances, but living in a cold house can be dangerous – especially for those in later life.
As people get older, it takes longer to warm up. This is not only uncomfortable, but low temperatures can also increase blood pressure, leading to a greater risk of stroke and heart attack. And breathing in cold air can increase the risk of respiratory illnesses such as chest infections, flu and pneumonia.
With most people staying at home more than normal during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s even more important that your house isn’t chilly.
If you’re concerned about your energy bills, you’re not alone. More than two million households live in fuel poverty in the UK – and pensioners are disproportionately affected. Plus, many older people live in draughty homes or have old and inefficient heating systems.
But there are a number of ways to cut heating costs, including various government schemes for people on low incomes. We’ve put together some tips for older people feeling the pinch this winter.
1. Find a better energy deal
If you’ve stuck with the same energy supplier for years, you could be losing out on hundreds of pounds. Switching may seem daunting, but you’ll almost certainly save money by moving to a different deal. And it’s probably much simpler than you think to switch. Unlike other bills, you don’t win points for loyalty with your energy supplier.
It’s also worth checking that you’re paying your energy bills in the most cost-effective way. Some suppliers offer a discount if you pay by direct debit or manage your account online, for instance. But make sure you only change your payment method if you know this would work for you.
If you need a hand shopping around, Which? Switch can quickly find the right energy tariff for you.
2. Winter-proof your boiler
Many of us have experienced a boiler failing at the worst possible moment. Getting yours serviced annually can give you peace of mind that heating and hot water will be there for you when you need it. The engineer can also make sure your boiler is working as efficiently as possible, which means you’re not wasting energy.
Remember, gas boilers must be serviced by a Gas Safe-registered engineer.
You can find a reputable tradesperson in your area using the Which? Trusted Traders scheme.
3. Energy bill support during coronavirus
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, many energy suppliers voluntarily agreed to support people affected by the crisis.
Energy regulator Ofgem has now introduced new rules to help vulnerable customers who are struggling to pay their energy bills. Gas and electricity suppliers will have to offer emergency credit to people who can’t top up their pre-payment meters – either because they can’t afford it or they can’t visit their local shop due to having to self-isolate. These new regulations come into play on 15 December.
The regulator has also ruled that if you’re in debt, your supplier must put you on a ‘realistic and sustainable’ repayment plan.
- Read more about help you can get if you’re struggling to pay your energy bills.
4. Winter Fuel Payment
One heating bill benefit you may be entitled to is the Winter Fuel Payment. It’s a tax-free yearly payment of between £100 and £300 to help older people with their heating costs. It’s not means-tested, so even if you don’t get any other benefits you may be eligible for this one.
Winter Fuel Payment is available for any households that include someone over the state pension age. That means to receive the allowance this winter, they must have been born on or before 5 October 1954 and have lived in the UK for at least one day during the ‘qualifying week’. This year, the qualifying week is 21 to 27 September 2020.
To see if you’re eligible for this tax-free payment towards heating costs and how to make a claim, read our guide to the Winter Fuel Payment.
5. Warm Home Discount
Something else that could help is the Warm Home Discount Scheme. This is a one-off discount of £140 taken off your energy bill between September and March.
The Warm Home Discount is a compulsory scheme for the large energy companies. Some small energy suppliers also offer it.
Two groups of people are eligible:
- The core group If you receive the Guarantee Credit element of Pension Credit, your energy supplier should identify you automatically and give you the discount.
- The broader group If you’re on a low income or get certain benefits, you might qualify. But every supplier has its own eligibility criteria, approved by energy regulator Ofgem.
Find out which suppliers offer Warm Home Discount and more in our guide.
6. Cold Weather Payment
In really cold snaps, another benefit available for some people struggling to heat their homes is the Cold Weather Payment. You’ll get financial help if the average temperature in your area is recorded as, or forecast to be, 0°C or below over seven consecutive days.
You’ll get £25 for each seven-day period of very cold weather between 1 November and 31 March. The Cold Weather Payment is usually available to people receiving Pension Credit.
Many people who are entitled to Pension Credit don’t know they can claim it. Are you claiming all the financial support you’re entitled to? Read our guide to benefits older people.
7. Help with energy-saving measures for your home
A well-insulated home will make you feel warmer even when the heating isn’t on. Taking steps to improve insulation can significantly decrease energy bills and also reduce the impact on the environment.
Under the Green Home Grants scheme launched in September 2020, homeowners in England on certain benefits (such as Pension Guarantee Credit) can get up to £10,000 in vouchers to cover energy-efficiency costs such as insulation, double glazing or low-carbon heating improvements.
If you don’t get any financial help, you can still get up to a maximum of £5,000, although it will only cover up to two thirds of the cost.
It’s well worth checking to see if you qualify for a grant.
- Find out more about how to make a home safer and more comfortable for an older person: How to adapt the home for later life.