If anyone had ever told me I'd look at a $34 electric bill and nonchalantly toss it on the counter, I wouldn't have believed it," said Diane Rothman.
"A year ago, it was 91-something. Last month, it was $133.04. Next year it might be $200. If it went of $200, I'd say 'Ouch' pretty loud," said Jenny Goeke.
"Before we moved in, the landlord told us the utilities would run about $100 a month," said Mary Doran. "We weren't intelligent enough to ask to see some bills. Last month's bill? Two hundred and sixty-three. I'll tell you, I'm growling."
These are the plaintive sounds of modern life in the all-electric townhouses of Annandale's Pinecrest Heights.
The 196 three-story Brick houses were built between 1972 and 1978. They average four bedrooms and three baths, sell for about $92,000 (approximately $7,000 below the Fairfax County average for comparable size and style) and rent for $400 to $500 a month. All except the original 45 houses are all-electric, and those 45 use gas only for heat.
The residents are a wide-ranging mix of diplomats, military families, older couples -- even an occasional cabinet member (Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland and his wife, Helen, live on Maxfield Drive).
In most respects, residents agree that Pinecrest Heights is a good place to live.
The community association sees to it that the garbage is picked up and the front lawns are mowed. A swimming pool and an elementary school are less than two blocks away.
As for location, is isn't everyone who lives eight miles from downtown Washington, a mile from a shopping center, 500 yards from a golf course and a few feet from Little River Turnpike.And when they were built in the early part of the last decade, all-electric homes were billed as the cheapest to heat and cool.
But these days, when Pinecrest Height residents run into each other at the communal mailboxes, utility bills are the recurring topic of conversation.
The surge in the size of their bills is so much on everyone's mind, and so widespread, that a lot of people don't even say hello any more.
"All they ask is, 'How much was yours?'" says Dan McKinnon, 45, a Navy captain who is president of the community association. "And you don't wonder what they're talking about."
"Sometimes you don't even know their names, but you remember their bills. You know, you say to yourself, 'Oh, yes, that was the lady who paid $245 last month,'" said Mary Doran.
Bills are running so high that Ron Colbroth, a photographer, and Alexandra Tolstoy, a graduate student, have not turned on their furnace at all this winter. They depend on sweaters and long underwear instead.
Whenever Mary Doran cooks, she turns off her furnance. She always draws the drapes at night and tries to close off littleused rooms whenever she can.
Jenny Goeke does without a freezer, and limits herself to four loads of wash a week. She never turns the thermostat above 68 degrees during the day, and usually turns it down to 60 at night. "And if I leave the house during the day for even three hours, I'll turn it down to 60 then, too," she said.
In the Rothman household, the main circuit breaker is always switched to "off" when the family is gone on a trip. "No sense heating hot water that just sits there," says Diane Rothman. And according to family policy, all Rothmans must kick a nickel into a kitty every time they leave the television room without turning off the set.
Even the Berglands, whose house is gas-heated are feeling the pinch.
"We've always had the lowest bill wherever we lived," said Helen Bergland. "We raised seven children to turn out the lights. We're conservative people."
Even so, their February bill was $39.25, up nearly 50 percent from the previous January, when it was $27.16.
Pinecrest Heights' case of the kilowatt blues is, of course, anything but unique in Northern Virginia.
Not only was the Virginia Electric Power Company granted an 11.8 percent rate increase effective Jan. 1, but the company's three nuclear generating plants have been shut down for extended periods in the last year, forcing the company to burn oil and coal, which in turn has forced costs up even more.
According to a recent national magazine article, the electric bill for the average Northern Virgina household has risen faster in the last five years than any in the nation.
Across the nation, heat in all-electric houses is costing an average of $40 a month more than in gas-heated homes, and about $10 more than in houses with oil-burning furnaces, according to utility spokesmen. Besides, Fairfax County has more all-electric and mostly electric communities than any other jurisdiction in the Washington area.
Still, according to real estate agents familiar with Pinecrest Heights, electric bills are not forcing anyone to leave or scaring anyone out of moving in.
"Like everywhere else, people are just taking a deep breath and living with it," said one agent.
Indeed, some Pinecrest Heights residents -- McKinnon and Rothman among them -- are so bullish about the subdivision's future that they have bought second houses there, which they rent.
The more common Pinecrest Heights landlord, however, is a military officer or diplomat who is on temporary assignment away from Washington.
"He holds on to his place and rents it out because he knows he won't be able to afford the same house three years from now," said John Trimble, vice president of the community association.
Real estate agents say that as many as 10 percent of the tenants are foreign diplomatic families. In some cases, their presence has proved to be an unexpected bonus for Americans in Pinecrest Heights.
One recent morning, McKinnon discovered his Ecuadorian next-door neighbor trying to clear four inches of snow from his front walk with a broom. The man had never seen snow before, much less tried to remove it, McKinnon later learned.
"I loaned him a snow shovel. His English wasn't too good, but I could tell he appreciated it by his smile," McKinnon said.
Diane Rothman has neighbors who are Indian, Thai, Japanese and South American. "It's a little UN in here," she said. "My husband and I think it's a plus. I'm not sure you could find this wide a range, even in the city."
Pinecrest Heights hardly approaches the firstname friendliness of a small town, however. Average annual is about 20 percent.
"Although I might talk to people, I very seldom know their names," Mary Doran said. "It's not unfriendliness. It's more a question of indifference."
"It's a very rare day that someone would knock and say, 'Hi! Got time for coffee?'" added Diane Rothman.
Rothman said the transience of Pinecrest Heights has posed problems for her children, too.
The one time in six years that she and her 10-year-old daughter's best friend from down the block moved.
"For weeks, my daughter cried and said she would never have a best friend again, because you can't trust them to stay," Rothman said.
Crime, too, is on the minds of Pinecrest Heights residents. Seven burglaries were reported to Fairfax County police during 1979 -- five more than in the previous year.
Two month ago, Trimble organized a Neighborhood Watch program. Residents jot down the license numbers of strange or suspicious-looking cars. "We haven't had any trouble since it started," Trimble said of the program.
Police advised Trumble's group that one of the best ways to ward off burglars is to keep front and back lights burning all night.
"So it's a Catch-22," Diane Rothman said. "People would like to cut down on electricity, but for one reason or another, they don't or they won't."