Costbusters: tips to save money on your power bills
A SURE-fire way to save on electricity bills is to renegotiate the terms of your contract with your energy retailer, a consumer law expert says.
While consumers in northern New South Wales and south-east Queensland have several retailers to choose from, those further north and west have fewer options.
But despite that, the Consumer Action Law Centre's Janine Rayner says there are still ways to save money on those quarterly bills.
Ms Rayner said people in areas with only one energy retailer were in "a difficult position", but they should try to renegotiate their contracts if possible.
"It depends on what they're trying to achieve, but they could renegotiate the terms on when they're using certain appliances, like only using washing machines in off-peak times," she said.
"Most people don't realise the retailers have an obligation to consider customers' capacity to pay, so if you're on a low income or Newstart or a pension you should tell them when you're negotiating."
Ms Rayner said while retailers such as Ergon Energy, Momentum and Red Energy did not have to work with customers to reduce their energy usage, they often would and it was in their interests to do so.
"If they (customers) are unable to pay a bill for whatever reason, they should tell them (the retailers) they are facing financial difficulty and ask if there's a different way to pay," she said.
"People can ask for a financial hardship program, or a payment plan, but they don't have to be on a plan to make paying more manageable."
Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey said people should not "auto-renew" their plans and should be willing to scan the market and find the best deal available.
He said for those in areas with more than one retailer, they should go online, assess the market and see if their current provider could do a better deal.
"If they can't, that is a good time to recheck any fees that would apply if you leave," he said.
"If you decide that you want to switch you can contact the new retailer directly or alternatively use a commercial switching site that offers this facility."
Mr Godfrey said there was also a standard 10-day cooling-off period when switching, during which people could change their mind if they found a better deal.
"To get the best deal it's worth getting your energy provider on the phone and pushing for a more competitive service," he said.
THE COSTBUSTERS CHALLENGE
THE CHALLENGE: To save money on power bills by getting more energy-efficient lightbulbs for all the lights in the house.
THE PROCESS: I went online for recommendations at http://www.energymadeeasy.gov.au and looked for tips at the Choice, Ergon Energy and Australian Energy Regulator websites. I bought the bulbs at a common hardware store - LED bulbs to replace incandescent downlights and CFL (compact fluorescent bulbs) to replace incandescent bulbs.
THE RESULT: The bulbs cost between $8 and $50 for LEDs, and $2 to $12 for CFL and halogen lights. But they should save me up to 50% on lighting energy consumption.
What to ask about when comparing deals
Rates per kWh
Fixed supply charges
Discounts for paying on time: are they for the whole bill, fixed charges and usage charges, or for usage?
Billing: how often do you receive your bill and how can you pay?
Other fees: establishment fees, fees for receiving paper bills
Length of contract: do you need to sign up to a long-term contract? Are any exit fees or moving home fees applicable?
Other terms and conditions
Gas: is it cheaper to move your electricity and gas to the same retailer?
Where to go to compare:
Choice and the Consumer Action Law Centre both recommend people visit: http://www.energymadeeasy.gov.au
On the website run by the Australian Energy Regulator there is an independent tool for people to compare their current retailers with others.
To use the website, people should have their energy consumption history handy, a recent bill and postcode details.
Dealing with the fine print
ONE tactic the big energy retailers will use to get your account is advertising discounts that sound too good to be true - and they probably are.
The Consumer Action Law Centre's Janine Rayner said some retailers would advertise "discounts" of up to 30% on electricity bills.
"It's really important to understand what the discount relates to - where it's a standing offer, a discount on consumption or both," she said.
"In many instances it relates to your 'base rate' and you might not know that rate. But often in the fine print they have clauses that note they can vary the base rate.
"So even though the discount might still apply, what happens after a time is they will likely increase the base rate, which means people will have to pay more."
Ms Rayner said people should also examine other contract "limitations", termination fees and discounts for paying on time.