David Faucette lives in a pleasant subdivision in the rolling Maryland countryside. His all-electric house is big and modern. He has two cars and a good job. He should be happy, but one small fact ruins everything.
Faucette says his electric bills run $200 or more a month. He struggled to keep up payments, but fell behind. His electricity was shut off, and now he owes the Potomae Electric Power Co. $1,179.35.
"We'll probably have to borrow money to pay this," he said, nervously fingering the familiar brown. White and blue bill from Pepco. "You pay fifty or sixty thousand dollars and you think you're in your dream house and it's a nightmare. . . "
Faucette, the manager of an insurance agency office, doesn't deny that he owes Pepco money. That's not the point, he says. The point is that something is awry: how can the familiar, budgetable monthly American electric, bill suddenly soar so wildly out of control?
The situation is especially frightening for Faucette and his neighbors, many of whom suffer the same affliction, because nobody in authority seems to consider it unusual. When Poolesville, Md. homeowners began getting $800 electric bills last winter, they at least knew that the 1977 coal strike was to blame.
Now, residents say, there are many $60,000 houses in the area where Pepco has shut off electricity for nonpayment. Other houses are vacant, their occupants having fled in the face of the high bills but unable to sell, they say.
A Pepco spokesman said the company's records are kept in a manner that makes it impossible to check these assertions without extensive work.
Faucette has begun writing to Congress and state officials to ask what is going on.
"I guess the thing that got me going in this (letter writing) is this thing that happened in California - Proposition 13, that kind of grass roots movement," he said. "I know there are plenty of people out there that have the same kinds of problems we have. And people are just suffering in silence because everybody's afraid to go up against the big boys."
There was a time during the building boom years of the 1960s when electric utilities promoted all-electric homes. They no longer do that, although Pepco still promotes electric heat pumps as competive in operational cost with gas heating - an assertion that critics of the utility question.
The all-electric section of Faucette's subdivision near Upper Marlboro was built after 1972 when natural gas - than as now cheaper than electricity - was in short supply, but before the advent of the energy-efficient electric heat pumps. Thus houses in his immediate neighborhood are equipped with electric resistance heaters - the most expensive kind of heat - as well as electric central air conditioners and other appliances. New houses for sale in the area now are equipped with heat pumps.
Faucette recalled that when he bought the house four years ago. "I thought it was an investment. The real estate guy told me the only thing better than buying a house today is to buy one yesterday."
But the real estate man didn't mention that the house was a all-electric, Faucette recalled, and Faucette didn't think to ask.
At first his monthly electric bills ran $80 or $90, according to Faucette, but than they started to climb. Finally he went on a Pepco "budget plan," paying $159 a month with any deficit or credit to be paid at the end of each 12 months.
But Faucette fell behind in the payments, and at the end of the 12 months received a bill for $1,179.35 - some of it for underpayments, and some for electricity used in excess of his anticipated use.
John Grasser, a Pepco spokesman, said there are 18,523 all-electric houses in Washington's Maryland suburbs with average bills last year of $1,006.03 - about half of Faucette's $1,908 annual bill as projected under the budget plan.
Most of these all-electric homes are new and have heat pumps, according to real estate officials. Because of the continuing natural gas shortage, about 90 percent of new homes offered for sale in the area all-electric with heat pumps.
Nationally, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that 10.2 million of 79.3 million dwelling units in the country were electricity heated in 1976 - a dramatic increase over 1970 when gas hookups were still widely available.
"I think it's frustrating to people," said Grasser. "People are getting - instead of $15 bills like they did once - bills that match their mortgage payments. We don't like it."
He said Pepco has an education program to teach customers how to conserve energy and insulate their homes. The company recommends heat pumps for people like Faucette. And there is a time payment plan for people who get hit with big bills, Grasser said.
Faucette said he has insulated his walls and sealed his windows but can't afford a heat pump.
Edward Evans, a retired Army man who lives across the street, said he has just installed a heat pump for $1,950 that Pepco told him would save 40 to 60 percent of his winter electric bills.The pump is efficient down to 30 degrees farenheit, he said. Then the resistance heating - the most expensive kind - takes over.
"The bills are fantastic," he said. "They're out of reach." He is waiting to see hoe the heat pump works this winter.
Another neighbor, Sara Brice, said she is able to keep her electric bills to a little than $90 a month by carefully regulating her heater and central air conditioner. She never allows the house to grow too hot or too cool, and turns off the units altogether whenever possible, she said.
But Robert Samuels, who lives nearby, said his daughter has asthma and he must keep the air conditioning on all the time. He bills range between $200 and $300 a month.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "If you don't pay, the bills double up on you, and pretty soon you're out the door. . .
"You can't talk to Pepco. They can kill you so many ways. They can turn you in to the credit bureau. They can shut off . . . You go downtown (to discuss a bill). They put you in a booth and a girl comes in with your records. "Your bill is $250," she says, 'We'll give you 10 days to pay it.' It's cold. It's calculated. This is the way they deal."
Samuels and his wife both work and are usually able to meet the bills, he said. But they know they are throwing away money that should be saved for the future.
"We gotta get out," he said, shaking his head. "We're not going back to any inner city. We'll put it up for sale - maybe we can sell it (at a substantial loss) for $40,000 or$45,000 . . . It's pitiful." CAPTION: Picture 1, Faucette's final electric bill shows that he owes the power company $1,179.35.; Picture 2, Robert and Carolyn Samuels stand in front of their Upper Marlboro home, where the electric bill ranges between $200 and $300 per month., By Vanessa R. Barnes - The Washington Post