Energy conservation is beginning to take hold in the Washington area among some consumers of home heating oil -- and soaring prices seem to be the cause.
The typical Washington homeowner who heats with oil has cut consumption 27 percent in the face of a 195 percent increase in home heating oil prices since the 1973 arab oil embargo, according to a study by Griffith Consumers, the largest home heating oil distributor here.
The most marked conservation, however, has come during the last year, when a new oil crisis sent prices soaring about 65 percent over what they were last December. During that period, oil heat users trimmed back 11 percent the Griffith study shows.
During the same six-year period since the embargo, the natural gas provided by Washington Gas Light Co. has gone up 95 percent in price, and natural gas users here have responded by trimming their consumption 5 to 10 percent.
WGL figures indicate there may not be any conservation at all among its customers this heating season, which follows a year in which natural gas prices rose 2 to 8 percent in local jurisdictions.
The gas company has sold about 2 percent more gas so far this year than last, although this year is only about 1 percent colder than last.
That doesn't prove that a small amount of conservation isn't hidden in the figures, according to a WGL spokesman.
But clearly users of natural gas, the cheapest form of home heating, aren't cutting back as strongly as users of oil, the most expensive form.
"People are using every known device, from insulation to new flame retention burners to changing their living habits, to cut oil consumption," said Griffith President Walter Meighan.
Meighan said he and others in the industry have been "peaching" conservation for a decade, "but it didn't really happen until the price went up and the economic reward was sufficient."
Its price more than anything else will do it," said James Dailey, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. "It's all right to be patriotic, but [that's] too nebulous."
A check of several oil heat distributors here showed that sales are down from 5 to 13 percent this year over last when differences in weather are taken into account.
So far, this heating season has been about 30 percent warmer than normal, but just about the same as last year.
Home heating oil prices here leveled out for several months at the beginning of the heating season, but just this month have jumped another 4 cents to an average of 92.14 cents a gallon, accoring to a survey of 15 local distributors taken yesterday by The Washington Post.
Gasoline prices here have soared about 52 percent during the last year, and the average gallon of gasoline now costs $1.09, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. In response to this and to difficulties in obtaining supplies, motorists have cut back their driving 7 percent or more, local officials estimate.
"Citizens are aware of the tightness of supply and the need to conserve," said D.C. energy chief Chuck Clinton. ". . . I would hope a lot of the conservation is because people are pitching in, but I suspect some of it is because they can't pay the higher prices."
About a third of the homes, businesses and government buildings have are heated by oil and a third by natural gas, with the rest divided between electricity and coal.
While homes heated by oil have cut back consumption substantially, it is not clear that the same is true for oil-heated apartment buildings, where tenants are not charged individually according to the amount of heat they use or may therefore lack an incentive to cut back.
Griffin studied 300 long-time customers randomly selected to represent all Griffith customers and, by extension, oil heat users here in general.
Griffith, which has about 40,000 residential customers, is one of about 50 oil heat distributors in the area. On Dec. 1, 1973, Griffith's price was 30.1 cents for a gallon of home heating oil. Yesterday the price was 88.9.
The 27 percent conservation rate that Griffith found in its study may be close to the maximum obtainable.
"The most you could conserve if you did everything in the world to conserve would be 20 to 30 percent," said Joe Amato, a medium-sized Silver Spring oil distributor.