A new voluntary code to deal with disconnections by energy companies has been launched by Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte.

It promises that no customer facing difficulties in paying his or her bill will lose supply if they engage with their provider.

The code is to come into effect next month.

Last year about 11,000 households are estimated to have been disconnected by the country's five main energy suppliers for failing to pay their bills.

The utilities say this is only done as a last resort.

But this winter, Mr Rabbitte extended the seasonal moratorium on disconnections from two months to four, until the end of March, pending the agreement by the country's main energy suppliers of a voluntary code on disconnections that was launched today.

The Irish Energy Suppliers umbrella group makes "a firm commitment" never to disconnect a customer who is engaging with its members about his or her bill.

The group says the installation of pay-as-you-go metres played a significant role in reducing disconnections last year - by 30% in the case of electricity and 16% in the case of gas.

Welcoming the Energy Engage Code, the St Vincent de Paul Society praised the installation of 140,000 meters as "a great success".

However, it expressed worries about the number of customers in arrears who are unable to access a metre.

Energy suppliers say it is not possible at present to instal pre-payment meters in less than 10% of homes, for example, in properties using Day/Night meters and in apartment blocks.

However, the Electricity Association of Ireland said it is confident that ESB Networks, will soon succeed in resolving difficulties.

Addressing the launch at the society's headquarters in central Dublin, Minister Rabbitte described the code as "a first step" in easing the burden on families experiencing difficulties with energy bills.

He advised such households to phone their supplier, the St Vincent de Paul Society or the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) about their problem.