SHOCKED householders are being hit with utility bills of double the normal amount due to the heavy use of electricity, gas and oil over the Christmas big freeze.
Families who spoke to the Irish Independent yesterday said they have received energy bills that are as much as €300 higher than normal -- reflecting the higher use of gas and electricity over the December and January period.
Electricity and gas usage surged to record levels in December as the country was gripped by two severe bouts of snow and ice.
The bumper utility bills are expected to send more people into arrears on their electricity and gas accounts as the bills are coming through letterboxes at a time when wages and social welfare payments have been slashed by the Budget.
Energy companies are already struggling to deal with more than 275,000 households that are in difficulty with their utility bills.
The ESB admitted yesterday it now has 175,000 customers who are struggling to pay their bills and are on payment plans. That is 10pc of its customers.
Bord Gais said that 100,000 of its customers are in arrears -- 60,000 gas customers and 40,000 electricity customers.
Airtricity said 20,000 of its customers were in arrears on their gas and electricity bills.
A spokeswoman for the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) said it was dealing with thousands of people who were finding it impossible to pay their utility bills.
The bills arriving at the moment, which cover December and January, are double the cost of the bills for the previous two months, according to Simon Moynihan of the price comparison site Bonkers.ie.
Gas consumption was 20pc higher in December than normal, Bord Gais said.
Many families had heating systems on around the clock over Christmas to counter the cold weather.
The ESB started sending out bills last week and it is bracing itself for more customers being unable to pay.
"It is a struggle for people and some will find it very difficult to pay on foot of the Budget changes," an ESB spokesman said.
The average electricity bill for a family is around €1,000 a year, with the average gas bill at around €727. But these are expected to be higher this year because of the surge in usage.
Households have also been hit with a public service obligation (PSO) charge on electricity bills which adds almost €40 a year to the average bill.
Mr Moynihan said families could save €200 a year by switching to a cheaper supplier for gas and electricity. Flogas has the best value for gas, while Bord Gais has the best prices for electricity, he said.
This year is gearing up to be one of the toughest for family finances on record.
Households have been hit by lower income tax credits and the new universal social charge. Child benefit has been cut by €10 a month for the first two children, and €20 for the third child. And social welfare payments are down by €8 a week.