HOUSEHOLDERS will be forced to pay a flat-rate fee for water when charges are introduced in early 2014.
This is because work installing meters in more than one million homes across the State will not begin until the autumn of next year -- just four months before the charges are introduced.
It means that, instead of customers paying bills based on usage, the vast majority will be forced to pay based on their estimated usage.
The charge will be based on the size of the house and the number of people living in the home.
And the use of an "assessed" charge means there will be no financial reward for households which try to reduce consumption. This is despite the Government repeatedly insisting that each home would be given a 'free' annual allowance of water, after which they would pay based on the amount used.
The Department of the Environment yesterday admitted that many homes would not pay bills based on usage when charges are introduced in 2014, but insisted there was no change in government policy.
"The objective is to have meters in as many houses as possible," a spokeswoman said.
"Any houses that don't have a meter when the charges come in will pay on an assessed basis.
"The roll-out (of meters) is beginning on a staggered basis, and that will start very shortly. An assessed charge is based on what people use, it's not a flat-rate charge, it's assessed."
The Irish Independent has previously revealed that some 300,000 homeowners, most living in apartments and terraced houses, would be forced to pay flat-rate charges as it won't be possible to install meters on their properties.
The introduction of water charges is a condition of the EU/IMF bailout. The metering programme, which is expected to cost €500m, is not expected to be completed before summer 2016 -- meaning some households could be forced to pay based on estimated usage for more than two years.
Irish Water programme director, John Barry told the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) annual conference in Dublin yesterday that the metering programme would be "very challenging".
"It's going to be a very intrusive programme," he said. "That's why we will have to have customer call centres in place before metering begins."
He added that bills could be sent to homes by the first quarter of 2014.