Brace yourselves for the biggest of household budget blow-outs!

Expect to be charged another $220 a year for electricity, an extra $30 for gas, plus up to another $180 for water, depending on where you live. That's an increase of almost 20% on your previous energy and water bills. So instead of last year's $2,500, the average total this year for water, electricity and gas will be $2,930 -- a rise of $430. "But there are some really simple steps that we can take at home to bring those power bills down", said Anita Roper of Sustainability Victoria.

Anita says winter is a prime time to take action because our water and energy usage doubles when it's cold. And with the latest dramatic price increases we'll be hit more than ever -- expect to pay $1500 to $2000, just for your room heating and water over the colder months. "We can set our thermostat to between 18 to 20 degrees Celsius. Just by decreasing one degree, we can reduce our power bills by about $75 a year. Look for those cracks and gaps you see around your doors and your windows, fill them, seal them up, because that's another place where heat can escape", Anita said.

Sealing out draughts can save $100 a year in heating bills; closed curtains with pelmets also prevent heat escaping -- at least $50 a year saved; and one of the best ways to save power and water in winter is to cut down on those hot showers. Switching-over to gas and solar is the key to saving money and the environment says mum of 4, Rochelle McDonald. She's saved hundreds of dollars a year with solar panels and she received a $1600 government rebate for installing them.

"Switching to the cheapest plan available, and taking logical steps in your household, you could actually cut your electricity bill by 20%", said Ben Freund of GoSwitch, one of several on-line sites to help people switch to a cheaper energy plan. Ben says 50% of households are on expensive default rates, paying the highest prices for energy. "We strongly encourage consumers to switch to gas where they can, because a unit of gas is literally one tenth of the cost of one unit of electricity", he added.

Swap to gas and you could easily cut your winter bills up to half. Just think -- while high electricity prices are going to keep soaring 10% to 20% a year, around the nation, gas prices will increase only 3% to 6%. You can also make huge savings on water because almost half your water usage is in the bathroom and toilet. If you reduce your shower from eight minutes to four you can save around 16,000 litres a year. For 4 people that's 64,000 litres -- $100 a year saved on your water bill.

20% of our water goes down the loo, so install a dual flush button and opt for the half-flush -- it uses three litres instead of 4.5 for the full-flush. Save more water by putting face tissues and baby wipes in the bin, not the toilet. "Rather than boiling water on the stove for pasta, I use an instant kettle, instant boiled water, instant energy saving", said Rochelle. Sink wash-ups waste energy and water -- energy efficient dishwashers are far cheaper to run. "Try and use cold water, if it runs on cold water, because that means you don't use electricity heating the water", Ben advised.

"What I do is make sure it's completely full and with the big family I have it is always full", Rochelle advised. Ben says that can save up to 5 to 10 dollars per week -- $250 a year. Clothes dryers are big power guzzlers. "We just dry our clothes naturally, takes a little bit longer but saves a heap in electricity. You can easily save $150 per year just by not having a dryer. We also choose to have fluorescent lights in the laundry, because fluorescent lighting is just that much cheaper than regular lighting", Ben said.

Small appliances save heaps too. Rochelle says the most amazing appliance in her kitchen is the slow cooker. "It saves all the energy as it is contained within the appliance, compared to my oven which takes all the energy. The microwave with a busy family is a huge energy saver, three times faster than an oven and costs 70% less in electricity than a traditional oven, so it is one of the energy saving appliances in my house", Rochelle said.


For a better deal in electricity and gas:


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2/3 St David Street, Fitzroy, Victoria, 3065ENERGY SAVINGS ADVICE