As the coronavirus pandemic sees the majority of Australians spending more time at home than usual, it's a good idea to be mindful of how this is going to affect our energy bills in coming months.
Not only are there possibly more people than the usual in your house right now (perhaps kids home from overseas or staying home from work, uni or school), but all that extended time in isolation means a lot more gas and electricity is being used on lighting, heating rooms, charging smartphones, streaming conference calls on our laptops or watching Netflix.
We might be saving money on going out to the cinema and restaurants or commuting to work, but CHOICE experts warn that the financial burden of these months spent at home will likely be noticeable when our energy bills come in, so be prepared.
Unexpected heating bills
Heating is a big culprit when it comes to winter bill shock. It's usually our biggest home expense (along with cooling in summer), accounting for around 40% of our energy bills. Even when we're not dealing with pandemic-imposed isolation, most households may see a spike in their energy bills once the cooler months hit and heaters are being turned on more often.
"It's going to be a tough winter for many Australians who have been financially impacted by COVID-19," says CHOICE consumer advocate Jonathan Brown.
"We don't want anyone to incur unexpected costs on their energy bills, so our experts have come up with a number of cheap and effective things you can do to keep your house warm and reduce your energy use while isolating at home in the coming weeks and months."
How to save money on energy
The amount of energy you're using depends on a lot of factors There are many simple things you can do around the home to reduce costs – starting with pulling on a jumper and warm socks before switching on the energy-guzzling heater!
1. Track down draughts and seal with a DIY door snake
Draughts can easily get in through gaps around your doors and windows, so seal up as many as you can to keep your home nice and cosy.
It's all about keeping the heat that you've paid for where you want it to be – inside your houseCHOICE household expert, Chris Barnes
You can do this with easy-to-use weather seal tape or draught strips, But making your own door snake is a perfect money-saving iso-craft project. See how to make a simple door snake with tips from our Managing Editor and resident craft expert, Marg Rafferty, below. Perhaps you'd like to make a couple and give them to neighbours or family members.
"The classic door snake can be a cheap and effective way to seal draughts in your home and keep the heat in," says Brown.
CHOICE household expert Chris Barnes agrees: "It's these simple, old-fashioned tips that often work the best," he says. "It's all about keeping the heat that you've paid for where you want it to be – inside your house!"
2. Make use of curtains and rugs
"Up to 40% of heating energy can be lost through your windows, so close those curtains!" says Brown.
Rugs can also be an effective way to retain some of the heat in your home, particularly if you have hard floors.
3. Be smart with your heaters and fans
"Your fan can be one of the most helpful tools to keep you warm in winter. Most modern ceiling fans have a reverse switch that can be used to push heat back down towards the floor," says Brown.
"If you have a portable heater, you can use it in conjunction with your fan to help circulate the heat around the room."
Keep the heat in! Cover floors with rugs and keep curtains drawn to stop heat escaping.
4. Be aware of how heat moves around your home
This one is simple but effective. While it can be very tempting to move a chair in front of the heater so you can feel extra toasty, this will restrict the flow of hot air around your home. To get the most out of your heat source, make sure nothing is blocking the flow.
"It's also important to close doors to rooms you're not using while the heating is on. Only heating the rooms you're actually in will reduce the energy you are using and therefore your bill," says Brown.
Choose the most efficient heating option for your home
The best way to keep heat inside your home and therefore limit costs is to have effective insulation. "Insulating your ceiling is the number-one way to improve the thermal efficiency of your house," says Chris Barnes.
"If you don't already have it, it might be a bit difficult or expensive to organise right now, but it's definitely something you should look at doing in the future to reduce bills."
CHOICE experts found that, in conjunction with the practical tips above, a reverse cycle air conditioning system is more cost-efficient than a portable electric heater
Otherwise, you may be looking at heating options such as a gas heater, electric heater or reverse-cycle air conditioner. CHOICE experts have found that, when used in conjunction with practical tips above, a reverse cycle air conditioning system is more cost-efficient than a portable electric heater.
However, this option has significant installation costs and may not be a viable option for some people, including those who rent. Instead you may like to consider portable options with cheaper upfront costs such as electric or gas heaters, particularly if you're a renter.
CHOICE expert Chris Barnes talks how to hear your home efficiently.
Reverse-cycle air conditioning might cost more upfront, but it's a more cost-effective heating solution than portable electric heaters.
Need help with your energy bills?
Many utility providers have launched relief measures in response to COVID-19 and have regular hardship policies for people who may be struggling to pay their energy bills. Some providers, such as Energy Australia and AGL, currently allow you to request a payment extension online or set up a payment plan.
If you're working from home you will also be able to make a tax claim for electricity expenses associated with heating, cooling and lighting the area where you are working, and for powering devices you are using for work.
Due to COVID-19, the Australian Taxation Office has introduced a temporary simplified method (or shortcut method) of calculating additional running expenses from 1 March 2020 until at least 30 June 2020. But we also recommend consulting with a tax expert or your accountant to decide whether the shortcut method of claiming is best for your situation.
Check the rates you're paying and switch to get a better deal
Don't be a victim of the 'loyalty penalty' – a nickname we give to the higher costs you're likely paying if you have been with the same provider for a while.
Providers often count on your loyalty and don't give you the same deals or discounts they offer to new customers. If you haven't reviewed your gas or electricity plans lately, chances are you could be paying less elsewhere, so check your rates, call your provider and shop around.
You can make a simple no-sew door snake, or more sophisticated versions depending on your crafty-ability.
How to make your own door snake and save on heating
The age-old yet very effective solution to eliminating annoying cold draughts are draught stoppers, or door snakes! These tube-like 'creatures' are made of simple fabrics like corduroy or canvas and filled with insulating material to block the draught. They come in all kinds of different styles and prices and can be bought from most homewares and department stores, such as Bunnings, Big W and Kmart.
If you're crafty, you could even make them yourself. Our managing editor and resident craft queen, Marg Rafferty, whipped up a couple in just an hour or so using materials you might already have lying around the house.
To make a quick no-sew version: just cut the leg of an old pair of stockings and stuff with three or four small plastic bags – the kind you put your fruit and veg in at the supermarket – each filled with a cup or so of sand. A double bag is a good idea to avoid leaks. Fasten each end of the stocking with elastic bands or just tie a knot. It won't be the prettiest thing ever but it is quick and very easy.
To sew a slightly more sophisticated snake, you'll need:
- a piece of fabric with a tight weave to contain the sand (Marg used an old bed sheet)
- an outer piece to make it more sturdy and further prevent the sand from leaking (we used an old hessian sack)
- builder's sand to fill. (Some patterns suggest you use rice or beans as stuffing but these can attract vermin and in these times of supermarket shortages, who can waste food that way?)
- Cut the outer to the length of your door, adding a few centimetres on both the short and long sides to allow for your seam. Aim for about 25cm width, which, when folded in half and sewn, should be enough to cover the gap under most doors.
- Cut the inner lining slightly smaller, and then begin by folding the lining in half and sewing the long side and one short end.
- Fill with sand and then seal the remaining short end.
- Sew your outer piece in the same way, insert the filled inner tube and seal the remaining short end.
This took about an hour. Adding googly eyes and a forked tongue are entirely optional. Of course, you don't need to stop there. If you're crafty you might like to knit or crochet a door snake – your version can be as sophisticated or as simple as you like.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.