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Sundayindependent

How do I figure out for myself whether or not I'm getting the best deals on utilities?

Simon Moynihan is communications director at price comparison service Bonkers and answers your questions.

Question: I don't like being sold anything, but while I always close the door on those pushy agents for electricity or gas companies asking me do I want to switch to a 'better value' package, I figured I should probably have a look at my electricity and gas bills, compare them with other providers and see if I'm missing out on anything. But I find these bills complicated to figure out. What are the main figures I need to be looking at to make a real comparison and where do I find them on the bill? Geraldine, Leixlip, Co Kildare

Answer: Doorstep sales agents can offer you better value packages but because they represent just one company, you don't get a full view of the market. And since there are now six electricity companies competing for your business, there are a lot of offers out there.

Comparing deals can be complicated too because energy bills can be difficult to understand. They do contain three pieces of essential information, though, and you'll need that info if you want to tackle the job of comparing your current deals with other offers yourself.

The first and most important is the unit rate, or unit price. This is usually listed with your electricity usage on the second page of your bill. It is written as a fraction of a euro like this: 0.1513, and does not contain VAT, which is added further on in your bill. All suppliers list unit rates without VAT in this way.

The next piece of information is the standing charge. This varies from supplier to supplier, so it can make a difference to your bills.

Again, this is listed minus VAT as a fraction of a euro like this: 0.3514.

And finally, you'll need to need to know if you are currently receiving a discount. Some companies include the discount in the unit rate, while others deduct it at the end of the bill, so this can be the most confusing part.

Generally, though, if you have been with your supplier for more than a year, you will not be in receipt of a discount and will be free to switch. If you are in receipt of a discount, you are likely within contract, so check with your supplier before moving because you may incur a penalty.

To help you, I'd suggest using an energy comparison service that has been accredited by the Commission for Energy Regulation. Services like bonkers. ie list all currently available deals in order of price and the accreditation means that the comparisons and calculations are regularly checked for accuracy. That way you can find out which supplier is actually cheapest, rather than taking the word of the rep on the doorstep.

Question: I got a letter a good few weeks ago from my bin company to tell me that pay- by- weight bin charges would be coming in but I haven't seen any change in my last two bills. I did read something about some government minister having talks with the bin firms amid complaints from others about these charges, but it went over my head. Can you clarify? Robin, Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow

Answer: The bin charges controversy had a lot of people very confused last June. In order to comply with the EU's 'polluter pays' principle, all waste- management companies were scheduled to introduce pay- by- weight billing on July 1. However, as companies began writing to customers to explain how the new pricing would work, a lot of people got very upset about it and made their voices heard. Some companies were proposing price increases of up to 182pc.

The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney, intervened to clear up the mess and strongly suggested that waste-management companies freeze their prices.

Most companies quickly agreed to a 12- month price freeze and a commitment to educating their customers on the benefits of a pay- by- weight system, which will still probably be introduced next year. From January, companies will begin introducing 'dual billing' to show customers what they would have been charged under a pay-by-weight system.

Greyhound waste- management company will automatically transfer customers to a pay- by-weight system on August 1, unless they formally request to stay on their existing plan, either by phone or email. So if you're a Greyhound customer, you might want to request to stay on your current price plan to avoid being pushed onto a pay- by- weight system, which could see your bills increase.

Question: I see Permanent TSB has brought in a new current account, for which you have to pay a month. Does this mean there'll be no more fee- free banking? John, Dooradoyle, Co Limerick

Answer: Permanent TSB's new Explore Account is quite interesting. As you say, it does charge customers €4 per month, which covers all transactions and maintenance and is less than half of what you might expect to pay with other banks. But what's interesting is you can reduce or even eliminate that charge because Permanent TSB will pay you 10c for debit card transactions.

So if you use your card 20 times a month, your monthly fee will reduce to €2. And if you use your card 40 times a month, you're eliminate the fee altogether. Permanent TSB caps the 10c payments at €5 per month, so if you're a prolific spender, you may even earn a euro for your efforts. Most people make about 17 debit card transactions a month, though, so it is likely that you will pay a small fee to Permanent TSB if you do open one of these new accounts.

Question: I've just moved into a rental property where I only expect to be staying for about a year before I move abroad for work, possibly a wee bit sooner. But there's no broadband and the mobile broadband signal in my area is not good enough for what I need. Are there any options for wired broadband where you don't have to sign into a fixed contract? Aileen, Rathmines, Co Dublin

Answer: Broadband is an essential for most of us and as you've noted, most broadband deals come with contracts that are usually at least a year long. Suppliers will argue that the cost of setting up your service and providing equipment justifies the contracts, but this doesn't suit many people.

Fortunately, not all services come with lengthy contracts. Earlier this month Virgin Media announced a product it is calling Freedom Broadband, that offers high- speed 240Mb broadband with a 30- day contract. It means that you can cancel whenever you wish, as long as you give the firm 30 days' notice.

The product is primarily aimed at the student market, but is available to anyone. Unlike most broadband deals, this package does not have any special offers or sign-up discounts, but the tradeoff is that you can cancel without penalty.

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