Heating bills will go up for everyone this winter, no matter what kind of fuel you use.
Oil heat users are already bracing for price increases of close to 100 percent over last winter's level. But natural gas will also cost about 15 percent more than last year and electric heat rates will be from 5 to 40 percent higher than a year ago, depending on where you live.
The dramatic increases in heating bills have been caused by changes in federal energy policy, increases in crude oil prices and a leap in oil industry profits.
Only an unusually warm winter or unprecedented energy conservation could hold heating bills to last year's levels.
Based on a survey of local utilities and fuel suppliers, here is the forecast for the winter heating season:
Heating oil prices already have climbed from 50 cents a gallon last fall to an average of 87 cents a gallon last week, according to a survey of 10 local dealers. A typical oil customer who burns 1,200 gallons of fuel a season paid $600 last year and will pay more than $1,000 this winter.
Natural gas heating will cost about 15 percent more this winter throughout the greater Washington area. Washington Gas Light Co. has won small rate increases since last year and is permitted to pass on to consumers increases resulting from lifting the federal ceiling on some gas prices.
Electric bills from Virginia Electric & Power Co. are now running about 20 percent higher than last year because of a rate increase granted by the Virginia State Corporation Commission. Vepco bills could jump another 20 percent by the end of the year if the SCC approves Vepco's petition to pass on higher fuel charges to consumers.
Vepco has been forced to burn large amounts of oil to generate electricity because four of its nuclear power plants are not in service.
Electric heating bills for Potomac Electric Power Co. customers in Maryland are up 3.9 percent because of a recent rate increase and are expected to increase slightly more because of fuel adjustment charges during the heating seasons. Pepco has another rate increase pending before the Maryland Public Service Commission, but no action on it is expected soon.
Electric heating bills for District of Columbia Pepco customers will be about 10 percent higher this winter than last. Pepco recently was granted a rate increase by the D.C. Public Service Commission that raised bills about a penny a day; the rest of the increase is for higher fuel costs, which are passed on to consumers through a different formula than in Maryland. Pepco's latest request for a rate increase is not expected to be acted upon much before spring.
No one knows yet how much all the increases in heating costs will add up to.
Also unknown is what impact the weather and energy conservation will have on this year's heating bills.
Last winter was a normal winter, according to weather forecasters, despite the Feb. 19 snowstorm. The temperature averaged about 1 percent warmer than usual, according to Washington Gas Light statistics.
If this winter is colder, fuel consumption and heating bills are expected to go up, but how much is difficult to predict because people are changing their heating habits.
Washington Gas officials say that for the last several years, conservation had reduced gas consumption per customer about 3 percent a year below expected levels.
Oil heating customers will probably cut their fuel consumption by more than that, predicts Walter Meighan, president of Griffin-Consumers Co., one of Washington's biggest heating oil distributors.
"None of us yet know the full impact on consumption of conservation," he said. "We've seen it drop every year for the last five years."
Consumers are turning down their thermostats and installing more efficient oil burners that cut fuel use, Meighan said. A $328 flame retention burner can pay for itself in less than 2 1/2 years, he said. "We're putting them in every day, every week."
Like most heating oil suppliers, Griffith is encouraging customers to sign up for budget payment plans that allow them to spread bills over the whole year instead of paying for each tank of oil when it is delivered.
Until this year, budget plans generally were billed over 10 months of the year, but most oil distributors have now eliminated the summer vacation break and spread the payments over 12 months, said James Windsor, the one-man staff of the Oil Heat Association of Greater Washington.
For the typical 1,200-gallon customers, the budget plan payments last year -- were about $60 a month for 10 months. This year the same amount of oil will cost $87 a month for 12 months.
Fuel oil sales in the Washington area are declining, Windsor said, not only because of conservation, but also because consumers are switching to cheaper natural gas.
Washington Gas Light press officer Susan Butz said the gas company has received more than 4,000 requests to switch to gas and has made committments to convert 1,100 homes, more than 300 apartment buildings and nearly 100 businesses.
Switching from oil to gas can cost from $500 to $1,500 or more and required a private heating contractor to install the new furnace or burner.
The average Washington Gas customer burned 1,024 therms of natural gas last year, costing $607 at current prices. The same customer with an oil furnace and an electric water heater would have paid $1,013 in energy bills, the gas company claims.
Instead of switching to natural gas, oil heating customers may be able to save money by switching oil suppliers, according to Washington Consumers' Checkbook, a nonprofit consumer group.
The group's survey of heating oil prices in July found a range of 11.5 cents per gallon. A Washington Post check of 10 dealers last Friday showed the range had widened to 13 cents per gallon.
Fuel oil prices quoted by the 10 dealers averaged 87.46 cents per gallon and ranged from just over 82 cents -- at Thomas W. Perry Co. and Metropolitan Fuels Co. -- to 95 cents at T. Washington Fuel Co.
But Checkbook President Robert Krughoff cautioned that the cheapest fuel oil price may not be the best deal, because fuel oil suppliers also service the furnaces of their customers, and the quality of service varies widely.
Krughoff also warned against jumping from oil company to oil company as a "will-call" customer because the customer will receive a lower priority that way.
A fuel oil company that offers the lowest price now may not be the cheapest later in the winter, the consumer group said.
Recent price surveys by The Post, however, indicate the rate of increase in oil prices has slowed considerably. In the last two weeks, the average price is up only about a penny a gallon and several major suppliers have not raised their rates this month.
Although some sources are predicting fuel oil prices will top $1 a gallon this winter, there are other indications that prices will stablize and could even fall if there turns out to be an oversupply of fuel oil.