Martin | Edited by Steve N
There are a lot of freebies on offer from energy providers if your home qualifies, from new boilers to loft and cavity wall insulation.
This guide shows how to grab these crocks of gold, including current offers, who can get them and how to apply.
In this guide...
"Free stuff" – we're talking £1,000s worth – is a sexier phrase than "Energy Company Obligations (ECO) scheme", but they're the same thing. Generally, freebies are only for people who get tax credits and have an income of £16,010 or less, or those who are receiving certain benefits such as pension credit. Many big energy providers are giving away:
Boilers: typically costing up to £2,300, you could get one free if you satisfy providers criteria – full info.
Loft and cavity wall insulation: worth around £700 combined – full info.
Why do energy providers do this?
Big providers have obligations to pump money into making homes more efficient, especially for tough-to-reach groups. If they miss targets, they get big fines.
It doesn't matter which company you're signed up to, either. This isn't just about suppliers helping their own customers – these big beasts just need to put money into the system.
What options are there in Northern Ireland?
Some offers below aren't available if you live in Northern Ireland. But you may be able to get free insulation and other freebies through other schemes. Give the Energy Saving Trust's helpline a call on 0300 123 1234 to see what's available to you.
It depends on which scheme you're applying to, so do check. But normally you'll be allowed, with the landlord's permission.
I live in a flat. Am I still eligible?
You should be able to install free home improvements in flats, but you may have to get it installed for the whole block, which means getting agreement from all your neighbours.
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A new boiler typically costs £2,300, according to the Energy Saving Trust, so this is a fabulous freebie. If your boiler isn't inefficient, just broken, you may be offered a repair rather than a new boiler.
The offer includes fitting, though there may be an extra cost if an engineer needs to carry out extra work – for example, if it needs moving or you need extra radiators. You should be told about this beforehand.
You're likely to qualify if:
You get tax credits and have a household income of less than £16,010 and...
- You receive income-based benefits, such as pension credit or income support, and you have children, a disabled person in the household, or are over 60.
You won't be able to get a free boiler if you live in a housing association property or are a council tenant. Instead, this will be arranged through their own schemes.
The criteria are complex, so a quick way to check if you qualify is to call the Energy Saving Trust advice service and answer a few basic questions on 0300 123 1234 (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) or 0808 808 22 82 (Scotland). Also see providers' criteria in How to get it.
How do I get a free boiler?
Just call a provider for a free assessment. You're free to pick any energy company offering the deal – you don't need to be a customer.
All deals are ongoing, with no limit on the number of free installations. If you apply, we'd love to hear your free boiler experiences.
What's offered by each provider?
See the eligibility criteria online or call 0800 316 4320. British Gas is offering free 'A' rated gas boilers, subject to eligibility and survey, to people on certain benefits.
Call 0800 096 8634. If the boiler installation requires extra work, such as additional radiators, in some cases EDF may ask for a contribution to the costs. It will let you know beforehand.
Fill out an online enquiry form or call 0800 975 2844. See its eligibility criteria. SSE says installations are subject to a survey. If replacing your boiler won't save enough energy to help it meet its targets or there are technical problems, it may ask you to pay something towards the cost. If this happens, it's worth trying another provider instead.
The Energy Saving Trust say heating accounts for about 60% of what people spend each year on energy bills, so an efficient boiler makes a big difference. Depending on your boiler's age, a shiny new efficient one could save you up to £350/year.
It's likely new boilers are top of many homebuyers' wishlists, so this could boost your house price, too.
What kind of boiler do you need to have?
You need to have a broken or inefficient boiler that is at least 5 years old. If you've a new-ish, working A- or B- rated boiler, you probably won't qualify.
This is decided on a case-by-case basis through a free inspection. It's based on a number of factors, including the boiler's efficiency, age and condition.
The energy companies will usually just replace gas boilers, not oil. If you don't have a boiler already, you can't get a new system installed.
How long will it take?
The energy companies say it typically takes four to 12 weeks from when you first apply to get the boiler installed. Fitting the boiler usually takes from a few days to a week, though it varies depending on property.
Cavity wall and loft insulation is worth around £700 and can slice about £300 off energy bills each year, and energy firms are offering them free to certain groups.
Cavity wall insulation. Most homes built since 1920 have a gap between internal and external walls. Filling the cavity with insulating mineral wool and foam means cold air's kept out, and warm air stays in.
Loft insulation. Up to a quarter of your home's heat escapes through the roof, but you can solve this by laying mineral wool under the rafters.
Some providers give insulation away to suitable homes regardless of income, while some require you to be receiving certain benefits such as pension credit. See providers' eligibility criteria below.
You may not be able to get free cavity wall and loft insulation if you live in a housing association property or are a council tenant. The idea is they will arrange to do this for you though their own schemes.
A quick way to check if you qualify is to call the Energy Saving Trust and answer a few basic questions on 0300 123 1234 (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) or 0808 808 22 82 (Scotland).
Just call a provider for a free assessment. You're free to pick any provider – you don't need to be a customer. Below is a list of the big six providers that offer free insulation.
EDF Energy. Call 0800 096 8634.
How much can you save?
The Energy Saving Trust reckons cavity insulation typically costs £400 to £500 to install (including building work), and can save an average three-bedroom home up to £160/year on its bills. Loft insulation costs about £300 and can save £140/year.
Will my house be suitable for cavity wall insulation?
Not all houses will be suitable for cavity wall insulation. According to the Energy Saving Trust, your home will usually be suitable for cavity wall insulation if:
Its external walls are unfilled cavity walls.
The cavity is at least 50mm wide.
The masonry or brickwork of your property is in good condition.
It was built before 1990 (most newer houses will have insulation already).
The walls are not exposed to driving rain.
You usually won't qualify if...
You live in a flat and can't coordinate with all other tenants.
Your home is timber or metal framed, or made from natural stone or concrete.
If you've damp problems. The Energy Saving Trust says you should sort these out first.
You may need to pay extra for scaffolding to get the insulation fitted. These costs aren't included in some offers.
I don't qualify for free insulation, how can I get it cheaply?
If you don't qualify for the schemes above, look for an installer on the National Insulation Association site. As a benchmark, the Energy Saving Trust reckons cavity insulation typically costs £450 to £500 to install, and loft insulation about £300.
The DIY route could work out cheaper for loft insulation at about £150. For more help, Homebuilding magazine has a handy step-by-step guide to insulating your loft.
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Other ways to cut your energy bill
Also ensure you're on the cheapest energy tariff and do the energy-saving basics:
Consider fixing to beat price hikes
Despite recent cuts to gas prices from all the big six, energy prices are up overall. Locking in with a cheap fix is one way to avoid future price hikes, and cut costs now – especially if you're on a standard tariff.
Our Cheap Energy Club checks you're on the cheapest deal and handles the switch for you. Plus to encourage you, there's up to £30 extra if you switch via Cheap Energy Club.
It's the same gas, the same electricity, the same safety. All that changes are the customer service and the price you pay. For more on this, plus top fixes, see our Cheap Gas & Electricity guide.
Thrifty heat-saving tips
If you wander round the house in boxers or bra 'n' knickers with radiators on full and windows wide open... STOP IT.
Sensible changes can save you large, from insulating your chimney to notching down the thermostat. Here are a few thrifty ways to keep your home toasty.
Make your own sausage dog draught excluder
Draught excluders stop heat escaping in gaps between the door and the floor. For a cheap version, roll up a towel and use that instead.
If you're a creative type, you can always make your own sausage dog draught excluder from an old pair of woolly tights filled with some stuffing or old socks (use buttons for eyes).
Stuff your chimney
If you've got an open, uninsulated chimney you could be losing money on wasted heat. There are a couple of ways you can block the chimney to stop heat escaping, and it can cut down on noise too.
One option is a chimney balloon, which is an inflatable 'pillow' that can block your chimney. You can pick them up from DIY shops such as Wickes for around £14. Another is Chimney Sheep, a wool draught-excluder which comes in a range of different sizes, starting at £16. According to Chimney Sheep, a terraced home in Northern England could save £30/year by blocking the chimney.
Chimney Sheep is made from synthetic materials, so it allows moisture to pass through, which can help prevent damp. Be fire aware though – make sure there's nothing blocking your chimney if you're planning to use it.
Line curtains with cheap fleece
Chunky window-wear, especially lined and insulated, will keep the warmth in. If you're on a budget, line curtains yourself with cheap fleece blankets (from about £2 at places like Ikea and Asda). See how to line your own curtains with fleece.
Remember, the sun can also help heat your house. During the daytime, keep curtains open and let it do the work for you.
Keep doors closed
It's better to keep doors closed for the area you want heated. Radiators, electric panel heaters and convection heaters all work by creating a convection current in a room. As hot air rises, it circles around to the other side of the room, cools and sinks and travels back along the floor to the heater to be reheated again.
Keep windows closed too. According to not-for-profit energy company Ebico, 25% of heat is lost through open doors and windows.
Put shelves above radiators
Even if you're not handy with DIY and your shelving slopes like a ski resort, a well-placed ledge can help. Putting a shelf above a radiator helps prevent the heat rising, especially if you have high ceilings, keeping the warmth closer to the ground.
However, don’t put any shelving directly on top of a radiator, which will trap the heat rather than channelling it around the room.
Don't leave the heating on low all day
You'll save energy, and therefore money, by having the heating on only when it's required. Using a timer is best, because your thermostat is designed to turn your heating system on and off to keep your home at the temperature you set it.
If you’re really worried about getting chilly, switch the timer on a little bit earlier, so the house will be nice and toasty when needed but you’re not pumping out energy all day.
Put reflective panels behind radiators
Most heat, 35% in fact, is lost through external walls. Radiator reflector panels bounce heat back into the room rather than let it pass through external walls. The Energy Saving Trust says homes with uninsulated walls will get the most benefit.
For more tips, join the Old Style forum board's Prepare for winter thread. Also see the Great Energy-Saving Hunt and our Energy Mythbusting guide. If you use heating oil to heat your home, you can save, too. Follow the simple steps in Cheap Heating Oil.
Don't assume dual fuel is always cheapest
Logically, dual fuel (gas and electricity from the same supplier) should be cheaper and it often is, yet not always.
During your comparison, also check the cost of the cheapest dual fuel supplier against separate cheap gas and cheap electricity suppliers.
Switch to monthly direct debit
Fixed monthly direct debit payments, where you pay a fixed estimate each month, save you 5-10%, as companies are sure you won't default and they earn interest on any overpayments. These should be refunded at the end of the year.
Do a meter reading every time
Every time you receive a bill, do a meter reading. Don't rely on your energy provider's estimate, these are often way out. If they're underbilling, you'll have a big whack to pay when they get an actual reading. If they're overbilling, then they've unfairly got your cash.
If your direct debit is way off-kilter, call up and request it's changed. You have a range of rights to ensure it's correct. See the full Energy Direct Debits guide for template letters.
Switch to your company's online tariff
It'll usually save you up to 10% over the standard tariff, and all it really means is you get your bills emailed.
Avoid prepayment meters if you can
While a push from the Government means it's getting better, those on prepayment meters are still pretty hard done by compared with those who pay by direct debit. If possible, switch to a billed meter. You may have to pay for one, but the savings are usually worth it.
Often, firms won't let you switch meters because of credit score or income difficulties. For full info on how to ditch a prepayment meter for a credit meter – or if you can't, how to save on a prepay meter – see the full Cheap Prepaid Gas & Electricity guide.