*** WARNING - the information below was updated and was accurate on 10 October 2013. But these deals can be pulled at any time.***
You can freeze your gas and electricity bills for the next four winters. That is two years longer than Labour leader Ed Miliband promised at his party conference this week.
If Labour wins the election in May 2015 he would freeze prices soon after and it would last until January 2017 when a new regime of price controls will begin. But three major energy companies are currently offering fixed tariffs which start now and end around the same time - one ends two months later than Labour's promise.
If you freeze now you will avoid price rises for four winters - including the one coming up. There was widespread speculation before Ed Miliband's speech that British Gas was preparing for a rise of around 8% (£100 on the typical dual fuel bill) and other suppliers would then follow suit.
Scottish Power Fixed Price Energy (Help Beat Cancer) fixes to 31 December 2016 - a month before Labour's deal would end. You can leave the deal at any time but there is a penalty if you do of £50 for a dual fuel deal. It is currently almost £100 more than an average standard Scottish Power tariff.
If you fix now with any of these deals you will be paying slightly more now. But as price rises are announced in the next few weeks - as is widely expected - you will beat that rise and may end up paying no more this winter than if you didn't fix. And over the next three winters you will almost certainly save money. Freezing your tariff also has the advantage that you know what you will be paying.
These deals are only available to credit customers not prepay customers and savings will be greater if you pay by monthly direct debit and do not get paper bills. They come with a 'dual fuel' discount discount for customers who take gas and electricity - not everyone can.
Short term fix
In between those eight long and short-term fixes there are seventeen others currently on the market. Before switching do check out the customer service of the energy company you are switching to. Some large and some small have poor reputations. Which? has assessed them here http://www.which.co.uk/switch/energy-suppliers/energy-companies-rated
Price rise speculation
Before Ed Miliband's speech there was widespread speculation in the press that British Gas would shortly announce an 8% increase, adding around £100 to the average annual dual fuel bill. No announcement has yet been made and British Gas refuses to comment but it makes a statement to investors on 14 November and will probably announce any change before that.
SSE - which owns the Atlantic, Southern, SWALEC, and Scottish Hydro and supplies the M&S Energy brand, has announced a rise of an average 8.2% from 15 November. Inevitably the complex changes mean some will see a lower rise than that and some considerably more. Smaller supplier Ebico also announced a rise from 15 November - in its case of 9.8%. Others are expected to follow suit.
Some politicians have suggested the SSE rise is to pre-empt Miliband's promised freeze. That is not true. First, we knew prices would rise this winter. Second, it is too long before the May 2015 General Election. Pre-emptive rises next winter cannot, of course, be ruled out.
The wholesale price of gas - which affects the price of electricity too - has risen since last winter. And wholesale prices make up half the cost of your bill. The cost of transmission (the pipes and wires) is a fifth of your bill and it is also rising. So too is the cost of going green(er) and helping low income families. So the pressure on prices is only upwards. Since 2008 there have been 93 price changes - 72 have been rises.
Switch and save
If you just want the cheapest deal now and don't want to fix, then go to one of the accredited switching sites like Switch with Which (www.which.co.uk/switch/) or www.energyhelpline.com which gives you £15 cash back. The best guide to switching is Money Saving Expert www.moneysavingexpert.com/utilities/you-switch-gas-electricity. It also runs the Cheap Energy Club which helps with the switching process and lets you know if a cheaper deal comes along.
If you have never switched and are on a standard tariff then you will always save by switching - on average nearly £200 a year. If you have switched before you will probably be able to find a cheaper tariff though the saving will not be as great.
You will also save more than 5% on your bill by changing to a monthly direct debit if you do not already pay that way. The disadvantage is that the energy company charges you each month on estimated use and you can end up in credit. You should be refunded any surplus once a year – and more often if you ask for it.
If you are a tenant you can still switch supplier. Ofgem has a guide to that