Washington area residents are confused and wrong about the way Washington Gas Light Co. works more often than the company errs in its billing practices, a D.C. Public Service Commission study has found.

The study of the utility's billing practices was recently completed by the commission's staff of auditors and accountants. It will not be made public for about a month, but its principal author, auditor-accountant Dwayne Boyd, summarized its findings for The Washington Post.

"The company won't get a totally clean bill of health, but more often than not [complaints] are a matter of misunderstanding on the part of the customers," Boyd said. "There were no findings of tremendous ripoff, although there will be some findings critical of current practices."

Those results outraged some of the persons whose complaints sparked the study a year ago in the first place. "It's a whitewash, what else can you say?" said Nealfiel Sims, who runs the All Wheel Service welding shop on Bladensburg Road. His five-year battle with Washington Gas has involved court and police action and shows no sign of ending. "They're padding the bills . . ." Sims said.

Thalis Zepatos, research director for the Virginia Consumer Congress, called the results "questionable" and said her organization had received many complaints about Washington Gas. "If there are so many consumers who don't understand what they [the utility bills] mean, then there must be shortcomings in that area," she said.

The study arose from a wave of complaints that followed a rate increase Washington Gas imposed early last year on its 545,000 customers in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. Rather than investigating individual protests, the commission staff focused on overall procedures within the utility, Boyd said.

"We wanted to determine how the company operated and what the effects of those operations were on customers' bills," he said. There were "hundreds of thousands" of complaints that were categorized into several areas of possible abuse, he added.

"A number of things will be criticized in the area of meter reading and estimating. The meters are sometimes not read often enough and estimated bills are therefore wrong . . . there are problems, but I can't say we found anything really abusive," Boyd said. He said the costs of the problems to the public were "not of great magnitude."

Recommendations for change, in the final report to the commission that is now being drafted, will include improvements in control and supervision of meter readers, according to Boyd.

A common complaint was that meter readers often stand in the street as much as 30 feet from a meter and read it from there. "It does seem that they learn how to do that," Boyd said. "That doesn't seem to be a problem."

Some customers complained that their meters went unread for as long as two years, with their bills sky-rocketing when the meter readers finally made an appearance. "I guess it's possible but I don't really know how it could happen," Washington Gas spokesman Paul Young said.

He expressed agreement with the results of the study. "We know there may be some areas of misunderstanding and welcome suggestions from the commission," he said.

Estimated bills are one of the main areas of confusion, most of those contacted agreed.

Washington has a large percentage of homes and apartments with indoor meters that require special arrangements between residents and meter readers, especially if all adults in the home are working, Young said.

Sometimes it takes several months to make the arrangements, and residents for various reasons do not fill out the cards left in the meantime that allow them to read the meter themselves, he said.

"I would have been surprised if they [the commission staff] had found a ripoff, but to say there is confusion is not a trivial statement," said People's Counsel Brian Lederer, who represents consumer interests before the Public Service Commission.

"When people are confused by their bills, they lose confidence in the rate-making," Lederer said. "The study reinforces the need for a consumer bill of rights for utilities."

The people's counsel is appointed by the Public Service Commission to speak on behalf of consumers in rate cases and other proceedings involving utilities.

Washington Gas regulations require that the meter be read every two months if possible