Shopping around for the best energy deal should be fairly simple and is an effective way of ensuring value for money. A lot of people are put off because they believe it will be a hassle, and I'm certainly not going to make any guarantees against cock-ups by the big boys, however the energy companies should manage the switch for you without any engineer visits or the juice being cut off.

To start the process you should view your latest energy bill to familiarise yourself with the tariff you’re on, your average energy consumption (per day, month or year) and the amount you pay per kiloWatt hour (kWh).

Comparing tariffs can be awkward as there are different options that aren't always like for like. Some have a standing charge per day with lower costs per kWh, others have no standing charge but a higher cost per kWh.  There may be a higher cost per kWh for the first several hundred units before subsequent costs drop to a lower rate, or there may be a day rate at a higher charge and a night rate which is lower such as Economy7. Generally, a standing charge tariff will probably work out at about the same as a non standing charge tariff as the lack of a standing charge is made up for by a higher cost per kWh. Standing charges are best avoided where a property is likely to be vacant for long periods such as a holiday home or student accommodation as you don't want to be paying a charge per day when no 'leccy is in use.

You can visit the websites of the big providers directly to see what they can offer or you can use a comparison site such as uSwitch. In my case, Scottish Power were able to offer a better deal than my current provider, E.ON, and the basic pricing boiled down as follows:

Provider: Price per kWh (rate 1): Price per kWh (rate 2):
E.ON 23.655p 12.453p
Scottish Power 21.594p 10.862p

It's not quite this simple however as there are extra discounts for paperless billing, paying by direct debit and dual-fuel tariffs if you choose to get your gas from the same supplier. There are plenty of other providers out there to choose from including EDF Energy, British Gas and nPower to rattle three of the biggies off the top of my head, or the likes of Bulb, Octopus, Ovo and Green Energy for smaller providers who hold high customer satisfaction ratings.

When comparing prices, ensure VAT is taken into account. The prices quoted by one company may look more favourable, but if they hiding the VAT then you need to add 5% to their numbers at the time of writing. Another advantage of switching, apart from the benefit of any immediate lower costs, is that you may be able to lock yourself into a good fixed rate and protect yourself against energy price hikes.

You need to check the small print such as how long is your new rate to be fixed at this price for? Is there a financial penalty or cancellation fee for switching supplier again and if so, when does that expire? Are there any standing charges?

Another thing to be mindful of is that, in my case, both Scottish Power and uSwitch trumpeted significant cost savings if I switched from E.ON (uSwitch claimed to have saved me £216.23 per year), however both websites overestimated the amount I was paying on my E.ON plan. They both assumed I was paying over 28p per unit for rate 1 when my actual E.ON bill listed 23.55p including VAT. Rate 2 was similarly overstated. My actual savings are therefore much lower, however I'm quite happy to take a cut of 2.061p and 1.591p per unit respectively and I have the assurance of being guaranteed these lower rates with Scottish Power until 31st December 2013 with no penalties if I choose to shop around again before then. Should fuel costs rise over the next two winters, it shouldn't affect me.

Of course, the best way to keep the cash in your pocket rather than chucking it at the energy suppliers is to be mindful of the energy you're consuming and to find ways to reduce what you're burning day by day. Switching off appliances when not in use, cutting down on time spent singing under a power shower and installing energy saving light bulbs are just a few quick and easy ways to start culling the kilowatt hours.

Update, 19/10/12 Funnily enough, Scottish Power announced a 7% price hike the same day they became my supplier, so it looks like I locked into my fixed price deal at exactly the right time. The energy regulator, Ofgem, has also been in the press over the last couple of days with plans to simplify the tariffs energy companies can offer as well as forcing them to move customers onto the best value tariff or notify them of better value tariffs they could be on even if it's a deal with a rival supplier. If this comes into force, it won't take effect for some time (mid-2013 at the earliest). Even then, it's still best to shop around to make sure you're getting the best value for money.