Recently, many area residents received fliers from Washington Gas Energy Services announcing an "Opportunity to Save on Your Natural Gas Costs." David Venezky of Mount Vernon put his in "a pile of to-do items" until he noticed a newspaper headline forecasting a sharp increase in energy prices -- up to 44 percent more than last winter to heat homes this winter.

Venezky decided to review WGES's offer, which touts a low fixed price of 33.9 cents per therm for one year -- if you sign up by the end of this month. But, like other consumers now facing a choice between staying with their longtime utility company or changing to perhaps a cheaper energy supplier, he felt uneasy about the decision.

While deregulation programs now are empowering consumers to shop for the best price for fuel and energy services, there hasn't been a rush to enroll. Since 1996, when Washington Gas started its Customer Choice Program in Maryland, 66,089 residential gas users have switched. Virginia and the District's pilot programs, initiated a year ago, have signed only 17,049 and 7,367, respectively. With limits on how many consumers can enroll, Maryland's is 66 percent full, Virginia's, 54 percent, and the District, 6 percent. But interest is rising as temperatures fall.

"As customers better understand deregulation, they will see the benefits and participate," said James Wagner, Washington Gas manager of regulatory affairs, who likens the response to the early days of long-distance telephone deregulation when concerns about quality and uncertainty about changing outweighed saving a few dollars.

"You have many customers who have been Washington Gas customers for a long time . . . and suddenly they are being asked to choose another supplier. But one of the keys here is that they are still our customers."

In fact, consumers who do nothing will continue to buy gas from Washington Gas. Consumers who contract with a new supplier will see a difference only on their heating bills -- presumably as savings. The new suppliers will deliver the gas to the utility's local pipeline, but Washington Gas will continue to deliver it to all households, read gas meters, and provide around-the-clock emergency service.

"There is no need to worry that in January gas will not be delivered," said Wagner of consumers' greatest concern. "We will be there should their supplier not deliver the gas. We are the supplier of last resort. The only thing that is changing is there is now a competitive market for the gas commodity . . . The theory is prices will go down over time."

Over the past three years, Maryland customers in the program saved between 5 and 10 percent on their heating bills, said Wagner. Current deals vary, however: ACN Energy recently has promoted a rate that remains 2 percent less than the utility's price. AGF Direct Gas Sales & Servicing Inc. is offering a one-year fixed rate (32.9 cents per therm in D.C., 31.5 cents in Maryland, and 29.65 cents in Virginia) or its "Always Cheaper Plan" that keeps its rate 5 percent lower than the utility rate.

But follow the asterisks and read the fine print. Some suppliers charge service fees; others impose penalty fees if a customer leaves the program before the contract period ends. David Venezky noted that WGES's 33.9 cents rate is accompanied by fine print about an additional 5.25 cents per therm "balancing fee" that Washington Gas included in its "purchased gas" charge.

After reading the WGES fact sheet and gas service agreement, Venezky dug out his highest gas bill and estimated his prospective savings. He calculated that WGES's 33.9 cent deal would have saved him $16.37 that month. "Of course," he added, "the unknown is what rate will Washington Gas charge in the future."

For additional information on the Consumer Choice Programs, telephone Washington Gas, 703-750-1000 or 800-752-7520, or check out its Internet Web site, http://www.washgas.com/custinfo/choice/index.htm.

The Post's Sunday Business section will look at utility deregulation in detail, providing additional information for consumers.