Have a payment plan in place to avoid having you electricity cut off
The number of households that have had power or gas supplies disconnected has risen two-fold since 2009. Working out a payment plan before that happens is vital, writes John Cradden
AS well as the dark nights quickly drawing in, the prospect of another cold winter spell is likely to add to the money worries of thousands of households around the country.
Figures disclosed last month revealed that almost 11,000 householders have had their electricity or gas services disconnected so far this year, twice the number in 2009.
The disconnection rate is rising to alarming levels, and is now running at almost 2,500 households a month -- some 80 a day.
In addition, more than 110,000 households who ran up huge arrears on their electricity and gas bills since the start of the year had to sign up to special repayment plans to avoid being cut off.
Bord Gais Energy recently told an Oireachtas committee that some 100,000 customers were now "slow" in paying gas bills.
Of these, 26,000 were over €500 in arrears and 20,000 were nearing the stage where they could be disconnected.
While the amount of debt involved may pale in comparison to the arrears you might have on your mortgage, failing to deal with utility debts can have more immediate consequences than mortgage arrears, as companies can disconnect your services in a matter of months.
To make things worse, the costs of disconnecting and reconnecting electricity or gas are very expensive.
Disconnecting an electricity service incurs a charge of €86 plus VAT, while a customer seeking reconnection must pay €88 in addition to clearing any arrears.
The charge for disconnecting or reconnecting gas supply is €61.74.
If you are struggling to pay utility bills, there are several steps you can take to help manage your payments and ultimately avoid being disconnected.
Get in touch
All utility companies are keen to stress how important it is to get in touch with them if you are having trouble paying your bills and that disconnection is almost always a last resort.
All suppliers are obliged to follow an industry code of practice on disconnection.
"It is our policy that we will not disconnect customers who are engaging with us," said a spokesman for Bord Gais Energy (BGE).
"Disconnection will only take place when the customer ignores us, including our calls, texts, letters and bills."
Bord Gais has set up a new call centre in Clonakilty, employing 40 people, solely to deal with customers' debt issues.
Very often, it will be the companies who will approach you first.
For instance, ESB customers who fail to pay their bi-monthly bills after 14 days will receive a number of reminders over a period of months via SMS or automated voice messages, as well as letters and telephone calls.
Either way, once you have contacted your supplier to inform them of any difficulties in paying, you will be offered a number of options.
Pay in instalments
Like the more than 110,000 households who have already taken this step so far this year, you can enter into a budget plan or payment arrangement with your suppliers.
This will typically spread the total cost of your yearly bill over equal monthly or weekly instalments so that you know exactly what you need to pay each time.
For instance, Flogas can obtain your previous year's gas consumption history (even if you were previously with Bord Gais), and use it as the basis to calculate your annual gas bill, taking into account current pricing plus VAT and supply charges.
The firm then divides the total cost into 12 monthly or 52 weekly payments.
Another option is to agree to have a pre-payment meter, or 'budget controller' installed in your home.
ESB has 23,000 customers who have 'token meters' installed in their homes, which can be installed free of charge. There are no extra standing charges for having such a meter in your home.
The Commission for Energy Regulation is making a further 17,500 pre-pay meters available for electricity customers of all suppliers who are experiencing great difficulties in paying their bills. BGE now has over 25,000 gas customers on pre-payment meters.
However, if you are a customer of Airtricity or Flogas for either gas or electricity (or both), pre-payment meters may not yet be available, as only ESB and Bord Gais are regulated to offer such meters. But both companies offer a pre-payment alternative in the form of payment 'swipe' cards that you can use to make full, part or "top-up" payments any time at any post office or PostPoint outlet without the need to bring along your bill.
This could help you take more control of your payments and avoid the build-up of debt.
Airtricity is issuing its SmarterEnergy cards to all its customers, while Flogas's Natural Gas EasyPay card is available on request.
If you have other debts, you can contact your energy suppliers through MABS or St Vincent De Paul or any other voluntary agency as part of your efforts to deal with all of your debts together.
All suppliers of energy maintain that they have perfectly good working relationships with the voluntary agencies they deal with.