CASH-strapped families are turning off the heat in a desperate attempt to save money.
New figures show domestic gas consumption fell by almost 20pc last year as a series of austerity Budgets hit home.
The reason is two-fold: last winter was much milder than the Big Freeze of 2010, and people are increasingly turning off the heat to save money.
It could be worse this winter as energy suppliers hiked prices last October – meaning an extra €67 for electricity and €85 for gas per year.
And those rises pushed standard annual bills up to well over €2,100 for customers with both gas and electricity, according to analysts.
The latest figures show that 7,140 domestic customers have had their electricity disconnected so far this year, along with 4,090 gas customers.
But in a further blow to struggling families, the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) has decided that customers cut off from their gas and electricity supplies will be forced to continue to pay up to €70 in fees to get reconnected.
The fees were reduced in 2010 and will not change in the foreseeable future.
"There's a cost and it's being recovered," a spokesman said. "The CER does not consider it appropriate to change the policy at this time."
In a decision published yesterday, it said the €35 charge for disconnection from the electricity supply, and €35 reconnection fee, would remain in place until at least next December.
The €30.87 disconnection, and €30.87 reconnection fee for gas, will also remain. This represents 50pc of the costs, with the remainder absorbed by the utility companies.
Customers can only be cut off as a last resort.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) said many people, particularly the elderly, were reducing costs. This year gas and electricity prices rose by 9pc and 6pc respectively.
"We are seeing a reduction in the number of disconnections. People are rationing their gas, and it's more evident around older people," said SVP spokesman John-Mark McCafferty.
"Given drops in income and higher costs, with people avoiding disconnection, it would be reasonable to assume people are cutting down consumption."
He added that anyone in arrears was entitled to a pre-paid meter, and to pay back the arrears in an instalment plan.
The CER Retail Market 2011 annual report also shows:
• Total customer demand for gas saw "significant decreases". The drop in domestic use was 19.8pc, compared with 12.6pc for business.
• Demand for electricity also fell across all sectors. The drop in domestic use was 2.5pc. This compares with a 3.9pc fall among small businesses.
• Some 30,000 customers a month switched supplier.
"The financial difficulties being faced by consumers is evident in the levels of customers in arrears and those who have had their supply disconnected for reason of non-payment," the report says.
An HSE study published earlier this year found that fuel poverty had caused a number of "avoidable" deaths among the elderly during winter months.