The Commission for Regulation of Utilities has written to all the country's energy suppliers to reinforce the importance of consumer protection measures for the winter months and beyond.

This follows "constructive" engagement between suppliers, customer stakeholder groups and CRU on consumer protection measures.

There have been over 30 price hike announcements from Irish energy suppliers, including the likes of Airtricity, Electric Ireland and Pinergy, since the start of the year.

Some suppliers have raised their prices four times so far this year.

The energy and water regulator said it was acutely aware that, in the context of rising energy costs, this winter will be particularly difficult for many consumers, especially given the recent challenging period of Covid restrictions.

Its Electricity and Gas Suppliers' Handbook sets out the minimum levels of service that licensed energy suppliers are required to follow in their dealings with energy customers.

It said that many suppliers have indicated that they go beyond these minimum requirements and will continue to do so this winter.

Disconnection of energy supply for non-payment of bills must only be carried out as a last resort, the CRU stressed.

Consumer protection measures which suppliers are required to comply with include engaging with consumers in financial difficulty, on an individual basis, to agree on affordable payment plans.

Utility companies must also ensure that customers in financial difficulty will have their case heard sympathetically and they must assist customers who are in difficulty to explore ways that they can meet their energy costs.

They should also ensure adequate measures are in place to identify vulnerable consumers including maintaining registers of customers that are critically dependent on electrically powered equipment and that these customers are not disconnected or de-energised at any time for reasons of non-payment of bills and are placed on the most economic tariff available for their circumstances.

Customers who have a smart meter and time-of-use tariff should also be given "hints and tips" on how to reduce or shift energy consumption and communicating the benefits of time-of-use tariffs.

Given the importance of these protection measures, the CRU said it is launching a new winter communications campaign to ensure that customers are aware of their rights.

CRU Chairperson Aoife MacEvilly said that with the increases in energy bills in recent months, it is now more important than ever to highlight the protections in place for customers.

"In addition, the importance of proactive customer engagement by suppliers cannot be underestimated," Ms MacEvilly said.

"Customers who are having difficulty paying their bills but who engage with their suppliers will be offered a repayment plan or a pre-payment meter to help them manage their debt. It is also crucial that vulnerable customers who may be particularly impacted by disconnection or are dependent on electrically powered equipment, request to be registered on their energy supplier's vulnerable customer register," she added.