Winter proves hard on the wallet

By Amy Shanks

Many people will relate to the experience of opening an unusually large power bill during the chilly winter months.

It's an unexpected cost which can put strain on finances, with a recent Canstar Blue survey showing 36 per cent of New Zealand respondents could not afford to adequately heat their homes.

Everyone's needs are different and, if various forms of heating are being used under one roof, it can be difficult to pin down the source of the rise.

For a Napier family of four, warming their nearly-new home cost an astronomical $965.94 last June.

"The first thing I did was to go and compare the reading with what was on the meter to make sure it was accurate," said Linda Basher. "Then I rang someone and said 'That can't be right?"'

Provider Contact Energy made it clear - this was no mistake. The company suggested a heat pump and spa pool were to blame for the soaring bill, but Mrs Basher insists usage of both appliances had not changed from the norm.

"That to me doesn't explain almost double the amount for that month. Our house is a new home ... it has double glazing and our hot water is on infinity system, so that figure doesn't include our hot water costs."


Usually the family of two adults and two teenagers would spend about $400 to $450 on power each month and after that one blip, returned to the same level, despite continued use of the offending items. Hot water added about $30 to $40 to that total every week and a half.

"We felt really ripped off, they couldn't say exactly what caused it. We were backed into a corner."

With no option but to cough up, they adopted a payment plan which spread the debt across four months.

"The key thing is that there was just no explanation. We continued to use the spa for a couple of months after that and our bills still came in at $400-odd."

A heat pump is the only method used to heat their home and was turned on for only a few hours in the morning and at night to take the chill off.

The McQuade family, also from Napier, paid between $350 and $400 per month and struggled to keep their winter power bills at an affordable level.

With two little ones in the house - a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl, a 1-year-old boy - and another baby on the way, it's something stay-at-home mother, Rachel, is conscious of.

"I am pretty fussy with when I will turn the heat pump on, I keep it on a timer. We also have a little electric heater which I worked out was costing us an extra $10 a week, and the wattage was one of the lowest we could find."

Their home, like the Bashers' was reasonably new and fully insulated, but condensation was a problem. Mrs McQuade tried other ways to save power such as switching off appliances at the wall, keeping use of the oven to a minimum and changing from Contact Energy to Energy Online.

She had set up an automatic payment with the new provider, which meant she was able to take 20 per cent off her monthly bill.


Hawke's Bay families are not the only ones having a hard time of staying snug after a long, dry summer. Canstar Blue conducted a survey of 2060 respondents, which showed women and young people were the most likely to face a cold winter in their homes.

"[At 45 per cent] Generation Ys top the results for being unable to heat their homes adequately; 41 per cent of women also find home heating a challenge, compared to 29 per cent of men," Canstar general manager Derek Bonna said.

"With the concerns people are expressing about their power bills and home heating, plus the wider impacts poorly heated homes have on health, there is obviously still a need for more promotion and education on the ability to switch electricity providers, and how to economically heat the home."

The results showed Powershop has the most satisfied customers, receiving the highest possible rating of five stars across all categories, from satisfaction to value for money and efficiency education.

Powershop allows customers to log into their account at any time of month to get up-to-date information about the status of their power bill, or sign up for a regular email comparing usage week-on-week.

Aside from survey results, there are simple steps you can take online to discover if you could get a better deal, simply by making the switch. Websites such as use an online calculator to determine annual savings. In 2011, Hawke's Bay residents saved an estimated $9 million by using the tool. That's an average of $150 per household.

"The large number of people switching last year has spurred greater competition between electricity retailers, allowing many New Zealanders to save on their power bills," chief executive of the Electricity Authority Carl Hansen said.

"And due to this increased competition, there is now a new average savings number of $165 compared to $150 in 2011."

If you choose to follow though, it takes four to five days to transfer details from one supplier to another without any paperwork or interruption to your home's power supply.

"We want New Zealanders to make checking their number a habit. Anytime they feel they want to review their plan, particularly heading into higher winter heating costs, they have somewhere to turn to," Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin said.

So how else can you tighten the purse strings this winter and what should you look out for when selecting the right method of heating for your situation?

One of the most economical and effective heating devices on the market is a heat pump. It can be turned on with the flick of a switch and if used according to instructions, should be relatively cheap to run.

But with so many heat pumps on the market - big, small, energy efficient, quiet - it can be difficult to make an informed decision on which one is the right fit.

A Consumer NZ survey, conducted in February 2012 may help you to choose.

The appliance-reliability of heat pumps installed since 2007, saw Daikin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries stand out in the customer satisfaction stakes, with 96 per cent of owners saying they would recommend those brands to a friend.

Overall, heat pumps were a good option with 92 per cent of people saying they were happy with their selection.

To get the best value for money, Consumer NZ recommends choosing a heat pump system with good star ratings. A system with more stars will give you better heating or cooling energy per unit of electricity, making it cheaper to run than one with fewer stars.

They are, however, relatively expensive to install and can rack up a large bill if constantly running in a home which is poorly insulated, as heat escapes from cracks in the walls, floor and ceiling.

Hawke's Bay-based business Infracomfort, offers an alternative to heat pumps and other electric heaters, using technology imported from Germany.

Panels fixed on the ceiling or high up a wall, give off infrared heat which warms surfaces and the air to a pleasant temperature.

"The infrared heat is absorbed by surfaces in the room and is re-released ... with no drafts or noise," Napier-based co-owner Pat Kane said. "It's totally safe, there is no maintenance required and they are managed with a thermostat which gives you the heat you need, when you need it."

To install an infrared system which has a separate control for every room, costs about the same as putting a heat pump in the lounge.

"Once in, it's also less expensive to run than a heat pump," Kane said.

Those who have a fireplace in their home will no doubt be wondering how they too can cut back on costs when buying wood.

The key is to select wood with a moisture content of less than 25 per cent.

This could save money for households using wood burners by up to 40 per cent, compared to those using unseasoned wood.

"Dry wood that burns hot with little smoke gives you best value for money, trying to burn wood with more than 25 per cent water content really doesn't make sense, as you're using energy to burn water," Hawke's Bay Regional Council Heat Smart Programme co-ordinator Mark Heaney said.

If gathering your own wood, plan ahead by stocking up six to 12 months before use so it has time to dry out. Choose sound, solid wood and avoid rot or excess bark before stacking it loosely in a dry place, allowing air to pass freely through the pile.

It's also important to have your burner professionally checked and serviced each year before winter begins.

Hawke's Bay Regional Council's Heat Smart insulation and clean heat funding assistance programmes can help to create a warm, healthy environment by assisting ratepayers with the cost of fitting ceiling and underfloor insulation and replacing non-compliant burners or open fires.

Funding is open to homeowners whose properties were built before the year 2000 for insulation with options including a non-repayable grant or a loan for clean heat, repaid through the property's rates over 10 years.

All homeowners qualify for assistance with the cost of insulation as this must be completed before cleaner heating methods can be installed.

Heat Smart Hawke's Bay funding assistance is over and above that available through the Government's Energywise grants. Applications must be made through EECA's Approved Service Providers (installers).

Replacing a non-compliant woodburner or open fire within the Hastings or Napier "airshed" (places most affected by local air pollution) qualifies home owners earning under $100,000 per year for Regional Council clean heat funding.

Your installer will direct you on the best clean heat option for your home and ensure any replacement burner meets the emission ratings for each airshed.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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