The University of Maryland plugged big leaks in underground steam heating pipes after aerial infrared photography revealed them.

Drug Fair saved $612,000 last year by cutting back the light in its 170 stores, saving $300 per month per store.

Patricia Stevens-Brown of Southeast Washington saved $109 last winter just by turning down her thermostat and installing weatherstripping in her all-electric condominium.

As energy prices soar, many Washington area home owners and businesses are saving money with energy-saving steps like these.

Often such investments are suggested by private or utility company "energy auditors" -- a growing corps of specialists who study buildings and predict which steps will save energy. Depending who does them, home audits can be free or cost up to $100.

At the same time, many people are confused by the vast array of energy-saving ideas, services and equipment now available. There are indications that many remain skeptical of energy-saving ideas, perhaps because of the costs of implementing them or uncertainty about whether they really will pay off.

For example, executives of the Potomac Electric Power Co. said they are disappointed with the response to their well publicized offer to perform inexpensive "home energy audits." Only a few thousand of Pepco's 300,000 customers have asked for an audit over the past two years.

One of them, Jack Jones of Riverdale, installed $813 worth of wall insulation after a Pepco audit said it would pay for itself in about 4 1/2 years.

Jones' oil bills, when adjusted for rising oil prices, indicate that he saved about $70 from the investment last winter -- and that the payback period could be twice as long as Pepco suggested. If oil prices continue to soar, that time could be cut back.And he will save money.

Richard. M. Crawford said he had not followed any of the suggestions. "I'm military and figure to leave in a year or so . . .I don't think if I put $1,000 in storm windows that I could get $1,000 more in price (on the house) . . . It has cost me additional on my electric bill, but only a small amount (compared with the cost) of the storm windows and of other things that were recommended.Extra insulation is definitely not going to pay."

Even the most sophisticated home owners contacted by The Post were not able, or had not taken the time, to calculate the savings they had realized from improvements.

"it's confusing (for home owners)," said Dave Cawley, head of the Anacostia Energy Alliance, which performs free audits for home owners. "how do you know if you're really saving? How do you know what to do?"

Until the bills start rolling in, a home owner has no way of knowing what he will, in fact, save from his improvements. The only thing he can count on, in some cases, is a credit on his federal income taxes for the cost of certain kinds of energy-saving improvements, up to certain limits. (None of the savings cited here count these tax savings.)

After an improvement has been made, a home owner can calculate his savings by getting a monthly list of "degree days" from the National Weather Service, which shows the relative warmth of each month from year to year. With a complete set of bills before and after the improvement, the home owner can calculate the savings and adjust the figures for differences in the weather.

Even then, it may be difficult or impossible to calculate savings exactly because each house and its occupants have their own quirks and changing habits. b

For example, Jeane Rothman of Capito Hill paid $350 to install double-insulated glass on her back porch on the advice of an auditor from Cawley's group.

Her gas bill went up 3 percent after the improvement and her electricity bill went up 6 percent -- because she had three more people living in the house and bought several new appliances.

"i'm really gratified that our usage isn't up more, that's amazing," said Rothman when a reporter gave her the figures.

Often simple and inexpensive steps can save as much or more than costly improvements.

Back in 1973, the Frank W. Stephenson Jr. family of Rockville set their thermostat back from 72 to 66 degrees -- and consumed about 40,000 fewer cubic feet of natural gas in their home. Between 1978 and 1979, an automatic setback thermostat worth $50 and six inches of attic insulation worth $120 lopped off another 20,000 cubic feet of gas consumption.

Robert Naismith, an energy auditor with Potomac Energy Group Inc., a private Alexandria firm, recalled the case of an affluent client who complained that his "passive" solar heat system -- consisting of many southern-exposure windows -- didn't seem to be working.

Naismith was stumped until he talked to the maid and found out that she was closing the drapes all day on the south side of the house because it got too hot in one room.

The problem was solved -- and big dollar savings realized -- after the maid was told to leave the drapes open all day and a hot air circulator was added to warm other parts of the house from the sunny rooms.

"our clients pay us to make judgements" said Naismith, who charges $100 for inspecting a house, talking with the owner and then writing up a report.

Larry Baskir, the owner of a rambling house in Chevy Chase, had been planning to replace his old oil furnace for $2,500, but first sought Naismith's advice. Naismith suggested that by spending only $400, he could bring the old burner up to the efficiency of a new one.

"right away the $100 was worth it," Baskir said of Naismith's fee. Baskir also spent $50 for plastic sheeting for his windows at Naismith's suggestion, and with the two improvements, realized a savings of $400 last winter.

Baskir, an aide to U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), hired the auditor last year after realizing that, while he was writing home energy conservation legislation for his boss, he did not know enough to intelligently improve his own home.

While Naismith takes a traditional approach to energy auditing, George Palmer of Energy Inspection Services started his business a fews months ago with high-tech flair.

For $50 to $90, Palmer will come to a home with a portable infrared scanner and a computer console that he plugs into a telephone.

The infrared scanner -- like the one the University of Maryland used -- shows heat leaks as dark or colored spots. It can be used to locate heat loss even from pipes inside walls, as the university found when it discovered spots where insulation on underground steam pipes had deteriorated.

With his computer console, Palmer can offer clients a computer printout on the spot, analyzing their energy use and prospective savings.

Energy Conservation Management Associates of Arlington performs house audits for $20 to $50 and also sells energy-saving devices like water-restricting shower heads, according to salesman Loren Booda.

Many of the independent energy auditing companies are critical of Pepco's audits, but a reporter who accompanied a Pepco auditor on one observed him giving dozens of useful tips to a home owner.

The home owner, who asked not to be identified, said he was pleased with the audit, which cost him $25.

He had not filled out Pepco's mail questionaire to get a free audit, he said, because in some cases the information sought was so technical that he did not know how to answer.

The Virginia Electric and Power Co. does not do residential audits on a regular basis, nor does Washington Gas Light Co. But under federal law, they will have to offer audits by early next year.

Vepco has been doing audits for some of its industrial and business customers -- Drug Fair, for example.

According to a spokesman, the drug chain began reducing the lighting in its stores about three years ago. By now, the stores have only 25 percent of the lighting tubes they had in the poast, and the wattage in these has been reduced from 75 to 60 watts.

Drug Fair's annual saving of $612,000 is impressive, but it is dwarfed by the savings of larger businesses.

American Telephone and Telegraph, the world's largest corporation in terms of assets, recently was presented with an award by U.S. Energy Secretary Charles Duncan and Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) for -- in Percy's words -- "successfully adhering to a policy of zero energy growth even though the volume of Bell System business has grown by over 60 percent" since 1973.

An AT&T spokesman said the savings amounted to $810 million between 1974 and 1979.

How did AT&T do it?

Just the way Washington home owners do it, according to the spokesman: "by removing lights and fluorescent tubes by the thousands in 28,000 buildings, for one thing." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Chart, How the Frank W. Stephenson Jr. Family, Rockville, Saved $900 in Natural Gas Costs and $1200 in Electricity Costs Since 1973 . . ., By Alice Kresse -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Mike O'Conner uses Probeye, which scans house or business for lost heat areas. By Tish Tobin for the Washington Post; Picture 3, O'Conner with his Probeye device. A Polaroid camera is attached at rear of device to photograph energy leaks. By Tish Tobin for The Washington Post