HOMEOWNERS hit with enormous water bills because of leaks will have the repairs paid for by the Government.
A 'first-leak' policy is being developed whereby repairs will be carried out on private properties with a problem once charges are introduced, the Irish Independent has learned.
It had been expected that homeowners would have to pay for any repairs on their properties from their own pockets.
But the first-leak policy is aimed at softening the blow for the public, who will be hit with annual water bills – likely to average €300 – from late next year or early 2015.
The scheme, set to be part of the meter installation process, will cover the cost of repairing pipes between the footpath and hall door.
It will not cover internal leaks, and detailed arrangements on how the scheme will operate are being worked out with Irish Water, which will take control of the entire network on a phased basis between now and 2016.
The Department of the Environment last night confirmed that the policy was being drafted in consultation with Irish Water. "We are working on a proposal on customer side leakage," a spokesman said.
"Minister (Phil) Hogan's objective, as part of a range of conservation measures to be put in place, was that where leakage is found through the water meter installation programme on the customer side, a first fix free or equivalent scheme will be provided."
Experts said the cost of fixing and replacing these pipes ranged from €800 to €1,200 per property. This means the bill to complete repairs could be as high as €60m.
Similar schemes are in place across the UK. Anglia Water pays for pipe repairs, but only for people on social welfare.
The policy being developed here will apply to all homeowners regardless of their income, but any subsequent leaks will have to be repaired by the customer.
One source said the move would help drive home the message that water was expensive to produce and should be conserved.
It comes after studies in Galway and Dublin found that as many as one in 20 homes in the State could have a leak.
One Galway property was drawing 61,000 litres of water a day from the public mains – the amount normally used by 420 people.
The State spends €1.2bn a year on water services, including building new treatment plants, replacing old pipes, disposing of wastewater and treating 'raw' water so it is fit for human consumption.
"Much of the water infrastructure is not good quality, it's not fit for purpose at all," one source said.
"There's been a lot of bad building where pipes aren't buried deep enough, and something like this is critical. It tells people there's no threat to them financially until it's solved, and the other advantage is if it's a big leak, by fixing it we save water.
"You've got to bring people with you when they're paying to protect the resource. Fixing the leaks is part of it. It will take time to do this, but this is the only way."
Water meters will be installed in just over one million homes over the next three years, with work beginning next month.
Charges are expected to be introduced at the end of next year or in early 2015.
Up to 300,000 homeowners – primarily people living in apartments which cannot be metered – will pay their bills based on average consumption, called an "assessed charge".
Some homes will also pay an assessed charge until meters are installed. It is understood that people who use less than the average amount of water will be given a refund or credit against future bills.
The first-leak policy could benefit thousands of homes.
Based on leak detection rates in Dublin, 50,000 homes throughout the country could have a leak in the pipe running from the water mains into the property.
Among the options being considered to fund the repairs are asking Irish Water to complete the work, or introducing a grants scheme where local contractors could be hired, boosting employment.
The Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), which will set the tariffs, could also be asked to factor in the repair bill when determining the charges to be levied on homeowners.
Another option is funding the works directly under the Water Services Investment Programme, which is administered by the Department of the Environment.
Junior environment minister Fergus O'Dowd told the Engineers Ireland annual conference in Dublin yesterday that selling the message to the public about water metering and the importance of conservation was the biggest task facing Irish Water.
Up to 60pc of water was wasted in Co Roscommon through leakage, he said.
It was "critical" that Irish Water was accountable to the public and to the Oireachtas, and did not become like an "HSE on wheels", he added.