Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) has announced this morning it will hike its customers' gas prices by 9.4% from 1 December.

The move will hit around three million people at the exact time of year energy use is at its highest (see the Cheap Gas & Electricity guide). The great concern for consumers is, will the rest of the big six providers follow suit?

Switch provider, unless already on a cheap tariff

It's crucial for consumers to reign in the cost of their energy. Those on the most expensive standard tariffs and not paying by direct debit can be shelling out £422 a year more than they need to, by not opting for the cheapest online options.

Martin Lewis, creator, says: "This increase is like a slap across the face. It's the first real price hike from one of the big six energy companies for two years as all the other energy news have been about tariff tidy ups. But the scary thing is SSE is unlikely to be the only one to do this.

"Energy companies usually bleat "Baaaaaa" and after one moves prices, the rest soon follow.

"Previously when the first energy provider price increase hits I yell "don't switch" as you may be leaving one provider only to move to another that raises its prices even higher.

"But this time it's different; we have a two-tiered system where most people are paying around £1,200 a year on standard tariffs. This is massively too much, as the savvy only pay around £900, for the same usage, by getting cheap 'online billed' tariffs.

"So moving to one of these tariffs - for anyone, not just SSE customers - will save £100s. Yet do it now to ensure the savings hit at the same time as winter, as while the admin of switching only takes a few minutes, the actual changeover can take a few months.

"Though those already on the cheapest online tariffs should sit on their hands for now."

Energy industry expects rises from other providers too

Tom Lyon, energy expert at energy comparison website , says: "This is not good news for consumers already suffering from the effects of our economy.

"The average dual fuel SSE customer paying by cash or cheque currently pays £1,159 a year. With this increase, it'll rise by £67 to £1,226."

"The hike's taken the industry by surprise and although it would be reasonable to be concerned that the other big providers will bump up their prices too, I don't think that's necessarily imminent.

"It would be a shock if they did so in the next few weeks. I'd expect it to happen in January, or the end of December at the earliest."

Yet rumours have started circulating that energy companies would prefer to get their price rises out of the way sooner rather than later.

Mark Todd, from price comparison site, says: "There are two scenarios surrounding the timing for more price leaps, which I'd expect to be around the 5-10% mark: there could be a tidal wave effect with everyone announcing new rates in November, or there could be a staggered response with some suppliers moving next month and others in January.

"My gut feeling is the latter as one or two suppliers will want to hold out as consumer champion till the New Year to snatch new customers, although this would hit the short-term profits of energy companies whose owners are eager to improve revenue".

Consider a fixed rate tarrif

Anyone scared of unaffordable price rises can opt for an online fixed tariff, which will guarantee to stay at the current energy rate for a set time. Though it doesn't mean your bills won't fluctuate each month; that will depend entirely on usage.

Yet there's usually a charge of around £50 to leave a fixed tariff early so if prices dropped you would have to pay to get out, but consider that the cost of insurance against prices rises (see the Should I fix? MSE News story).

How to compare and switch

To find the best tariff, compare options available via a comparison site (see the Cheap Gas & Electricity guide for how to get £15 cashback per fuel switch or a crate of wine, too).

The cheapest deals involve receiving bills via email and paying by direct debit.

The energy market is complicated so determining which is the cheapest provider depends on where you live and how much power you use.

This is why a comparison, based on your circumstances, is vital.

Further reading/Key links

Cut the price of energy: Cheap Gas & Electricity, Energy Direct Debits Fight-back, Home & Energy Grants, Free Solar Panels Worth £12,000