Low-income families in Maryland who fall behind in their utility payments will be able to avoid having their heat cut off during the winter months by working out a minimum payment plan under new regulations established by the state's public service commission.

The new regulations, which grew out of a directive by the state legislature, are part of a growing effort by government officials and utility companies to strike a reasonable balance between trying to protect struggling families without creating utility company losses, a part of which often end up being financed by other utility customers.

In recent years, with rapidly rising fuel costs, the problem has become particularly acute.

A national survey released yesterday found that an increasing number of poor families face utility shut-offs despite the economic recovery.

In 1983 alone, 4.7 million people in over 1.6 million households using natural gas had utility service disconnected, the National Consumer Law Center reported.

Based on current trends, that number could increase to 1.8 million households this year, the report concluded. The report, based on information supplied by 67 gas utilities, also found a sharp increase in the amounts of money owed at the time of termination.

In the Washington metropolitan area, however, the numbers appear to be holding steady or declining. Washington Gas Light Co. officials say they expect shut-offs this year to be about the same number as the 33,000 last year or slightly lower.

Pepco anticipates fewer shut-offs than last year; the number for the first nine months has been 15,400, compared with 15,700 in the same period last year. Vepco's number of shut-offs is higher, but, as a percentage of customers billed, it held steady at about 0.4 percent in 1982 and 1983.

In each case the numbers reflect the number of shut-offs, including some customers whose utilities have been cut-off more than once. Most customers are reconnected, usually within a relatively short period, according to utility officials.

Only nine states have no regulations to prevent utility shut-offs during the winter months. In addition to the new "winter heating protection program," which will be tested for a two-year period in Maryland, the state also prohibits any cut-offs of utilities during the winter unless the company files an affidavit that the termination will not impair health or be life threatening.

The District of Columbia prohibits cut-offs on days when the temperature is forecast to be 32 degrees or less during the next 24 hours and prohibits shutting off utilities in apartment buildings with a master meter.

WGL and Pepco officials said that their own policy in all jurisdictions is identical to the District policy and that shut-offs are preceded by personal contacts with the customer. Nor are they sitting around in vans waiting to disconnect during a winter warm spell, they said.

"In the winter time, we don't disconnect -- it's got to be a pretty aggravated case, which means sombody just flat refusing to deal with us," said John Derrick, vice president for customer services at Pepco.

Pepco gives delinquent customers a 15-day notice, sends a followup bill with a reminder, and makes another contact before shutting off service. In Maryland, and on a trial basis in the District, the utility company also takes an interim step before cut-off. The company installs a "service limiter," which provides just enough electricity to keep the lights and refrigerator on and a furnace motor running. If the customer attempts to use more electricity, the electricity is cut off until the customer pushes a reset button.

Because the amount of electricity passing through the "service limiter" is inadequate to heat a house using electric heat, the device is not used in those households.

Vepco has no set policy for handling cut-offs in the winter months. "We treat each customer on a case-by-case basis," said Nolene Hassett, a Vepco spokeswoman. "We don't want to cut somebody off because it costs money and we don't want sombody freezing." Vepco, too, tries to make personal contact with the customer before terminating service, she said.

In addition to state and utility programs designed to avoid shut-offs, local offices dispense funds under the Federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to aid low-income utility customers. Community organizations and programs such as the Washington area fuel fund, financed by the utilities and contributions, provide additional aid.

The average amount of money owed at the time of termination has risen substantially since 1981, according to the National Consumer Law Center.

On average, households owe $368 at the time of shut-off.

The average for WGL customers is $300 to $350, according to spokesman Paul Young.

Losses because of nonpayment by customers were $6.4 million, or 0.83 percent of revenue last year.

The average for Pepco customers is $50.20, with customer bad debt accounting for a loss of $3.6 million, or less than 0.3 percent of revenue.