You might think that fuel poverty means you can’t afford to keep your home warm in the winter, but for some, the coming of winter means only one thing – worsening health. For those people who struggle to pay their fuel bills, winter can be a killer.

Fuel poverty is a widely recognised problem, affecting more than 2.5 million households across the UK. A home is in fuel poverty if it spends more than 10% of its income on fuel to stay warm. And for too many people high fuel bills force them to make unacceptable choices between heating or eating.

A danger to health

Fuel poverty is not just about being able to afford heating, it affects health. Living in a cold home can make it harder to resist infection and can encourage damp and mould growth. This can cause health problems and can worsen existing health conditions.

Older people are particularly vulnerable. Living in a poorly-heated home puts them more at risk of heart and lung disease as well as worsening other conditions like arthritis and rheumatism. The very young can suffer too – cold homes affect babies’ weight gain and increase asthmatic symptoms in children.

And it’s not just physical health either. Teenagers are five times more at risk of developing multiple mental health problems if they live in a cold home. Those in fuel poverty can also suffer from anxiety and stress as they struggle to pay their energy bills and are forced to ration their heating.

What you can do

One of the biggest causes of fuel poverty is the energy efficiency of a property. Studies have shown that 96% of fuel poor households are poorly insulated. Get some help with insulating your home and stop heat from escaping.

Rising energy bills have aggravated the problem. But there are actions you can take to minimise the effects of fuel poverty. The first is to check you’re getting the best deal from your energy supplier. You could save money by comparing energy tariffs and switching to a cheaper tariff.

It’s important to ensure you’re not overpaying for your gas and electricity, we’d recommend using a socially-conscious energy comparison site, for example, Utility Saving Expert donates 10% of its net profits to fuel poverty charities.

Using the same supplier for your gas and electricity helps too, as does paying by monthly direct debit rather than with a quarterly bill or having a prepayment meter. Providing regular meter readings will ensure bills are more accurate.

If you are living in fuel poverty and need some support with paying your bills there is help. For instance, there are several government schemes available.

  • Winter Fuel Payments – a one-off, tax-free payment of between £100 and £300 to help with heating costs in winter for households that include someone over Pension Credit age. If you qualify, you will receive this automatically.
  • Cold Weather Payments of £25 for those on certain means-tested benefits during periods of very cold weather. If you qualify, you will receive this automatically.
  • If you’re struggling to pay your energy bills, the Warm Home Discount Scheme gives a one-off discount of £140 on an eligible household’s electricity bill between October and April. Call the Warm Home Discount Scheme team on 0345 603 9439.

Maximising energy efficiency

Once you’ve checked that you’re not overpaying on your heating there are some steps you can take to ensure that your fuel goes a little further.

  • Turn appliances off rather than leaving them on standby
  • Unplug chargers and switch lights off when not in use
  • Don’t overfill the kettle
  • Put lids on saucepans when cooking
  • Only run washing machines and dishwashers when full, using lower temp settings
  • Dry washing outside or on an airer rather than a tumble dryer
  • Switch to low energy light bulbs
  • Have a shower instead of a bath.
  • Only have the heating on when it is needed
  • Use night storage heaters correctly
  • Use draft excluders to stop heat from escaping
  • Have the hot water cylinder thermostat no higher than 60ºC/140ºF

Fuel poverty is not just about lacking a warm home, for some the problem is so extreme that it comes down to a choice between heating or eating – a situation no one should have to suffer in the 21st century. But worse, a cold home could be a threat to your wellbeing. If you think you could be at risk, then the first thing you can do is check you are not paying too much for your fuel. Check you’re on the best possible energy tariff and you could be saving your health.