SINEAD RYAN - CONSUMER CHAMPION
Monday March 26 2012
THERE has been a doubling of arrears on gas and electricity bills in the past year.
More than 400,000 families have addressed this by purchasing pre-payment meters for their home, and energy companies are struggling to cope with demand.
Last week Bord Gais realised it had undercharged 57,000 of its metered clients by about €59 each because it mis-programmed the latest price increases into them.
Happily, it's not going to chase those customers for the money, but absorb the bungle itself.
Our table this week shows how metering works. A gas meter costs €373 to install (the price is set by the energy regulator and due to drop to €110 soon), but it's free if you are in arrears. Indeed, your energy supplier is not allowed to disconnect you without offering you one - 90pc of metered houses received theirs free of charge.
A portion of each top-up goes towards your arrears, so you're getting your debt down slowly. The meter beeps when you hit €2 credit, so you know it's time to top up. If you forget, the meters are designed not to disconnect at key times, e.g. over the weekend or bank holidays, so you won't be left in the lurch.
You will need separate gas and electricity meters - each one is about the size of a paperback book. Research has shown that having a meter reduces peak time consumption by 8.8pc.
Those most at risk from keeping their fuel bills paid are the elderly. According to Age Action, 51pc go without necessities like food and clothing to buy fuel.
It says 1,284 "excess winter deaths" occur during even a mild winter; 94.7pc in people over 65.
Discounts abound, but they depend on three things: where you live, how you pay your bill and what kind of package you have.
If you're still receiving paper bills and paying them by cheque - stop. Direct debit saves up to 4pc and online billing another 2pc.
Both main suppliers offer bundles -- that is, if you get both electricity and gas from them you can make a saving. Electric Ireland has 14pc discount on electricity and 6pc on gas for customers who switch back to them. Bord Gais gives a choice of 6pc/12pc off your joint bill - you choose which one gets which discount. Go for the bigger saving on electricity -- it costs more.
A three-bedroom home uses about 5,300 kw/h of electricity - the average bill is €1,116 a year. This includes VAT at 13.5pc and the PSO levy of €19.33.
The basic standing charge is €105.88, so you can see that not everything is just for fuel, where the discount is normally applied.
For gas, the average bill is €876 a year on the same size house.
The Energy Action charity provides free attic and cavity wall insulation along with lagging jackets for the 400,000 households who qualify for fuel allowance. Call (01) 45 45 464 for details. There is no waiting list.
Also, we can't recommend Bonkers.ie highly enough for comparisons on energy providers and general advice on savings.
They have all the latest information and keep tabs on all suppliers.