Whole neighborhoods in the Washington area are switching from oil or electric heat to cheaper -- for the time being, at least -- natural gas.
The move is part of an effort to avoid skyrocketing energy costs that threaten the residents' suburban lifestyles.
Four oil-heat subdivision representing 300 homes in Potomac, Mitchellville, Gaithersburg and Springfield have received commitments for new natural gas service from Washington Gas Light Co. The utility says it is studying similar inquiries from 30 other subdivisions representing 2,000 homes.
While hundreds of individual homeowners and businessmen have been switching to gas since oil prices began shooting upward a year ago, it is only now that entire subdivisions are making the switch.
"It's snowballed," said Frank H. Augustine, who started a move with 18 neighbors in Potomac's Bedfordshire subdivision to switch and unexpectedly found himself leading a total of 50.
With heating oil at $1 a gallon in the Washington area, Augustine could cut his heating bill nearly in half and save more than $600 a year by the switch. That would be enough to pay for his investment in a gas burner and water heater in about three years.
A similar trend toward conversion is emerging among those who have electric heating.
"We're getting raped by Vepco, and I'm just sick and gosh-darned tired of it," said Clarence A. Robinson Jr., a resident in the Tyson's Woods subdivision in Vienna, where electric furnace heat was driven electic bills to more than $400 a month in many cases.
Robinson and several of his neighbors are paying the Virginia Electric and Power Co. 50 percent more for a kilowat hour of electricity than they were a year ago. They have gotten about 90 nearby homeowners tentatively to agree to ask the gas company for service.
Robinson paid nearly $2,100 for electricity in the past 12 months and could cut that bill in half by switching to gas, he estimated.
"I'm paying more than I used to earn in wages, just for the electric bill. That's frightening," said Ray Glass, 47, who is leading an effort to get Tyson's Woods switched to gas.
One neighbor, Douglas Haberlie, recently paid a $470.88 electricity bill for one month's service. That bill exceeded Haberlie's mortgage payment for the month.
"It may not be long before this type of life is going to fall apart," said Haberlie, gesturing at the comfortable living room in his large, modernistic home. "We won't be able to afford it any more."
To cut electric bills, some Tyson's Woods residents are trying some methods that may seem "pretty doggone primitive" in the words of one neighbor: hanging the wash out to dry, turning off the water heater during the day, and installing wood stoves.
The fever to switch is continuing despite a warning last month by Deputy U.S. Energy Secretary John C. Sawhill that natural gas prices "will be moving up quite rapidly . . . I'm not sure that we could really recommend converting from one fuel to another."
But signals coming from elsewhere in the energy department contradict this view.
According to the department's Energy Information Administration, heating a home with oil in the Washington area is 95 percent more expensive than heating with gas now and will be 160 percent more expensive by 1985.
Heating with electric furnaces like those in Tyson's Woods costs about 90 percent more than gas heat now and will cost about 75 percent more in 1985, according to the Energy Information Adminstration.
Heating with electric heat pumps costs 11 percent more than gas now and will cost 4 percent more in 1985, according to the EIA's projection.
The projection shows that the real price of electricity in the U.S. should incerease less than 3 percent a year from now until 1985. The real price of natural gas should increase about 4 percent annually during that period, and oil should go up between 8 1/2 and 10 1/2 percent anually.
The difference between Sawhill's view and the projections produced by his own statistical department is explained by uncertainties about the extent to which Congress will protect residential customers from the effects of the deregulation of natural gas prices that it mandated last year.
Nobody knows whether or when natural gas prices may catch up with oil prices.
About a third of the million homes and apartments in the Washington area are oil heated.
There is a widespread agreement among experts that heating with electric furnaces or baseboard resistance heaters will continue to be substantially more expensive than gas heat during the next decade.
Vepco has nearly 200,000 customers who use electic resistance heat -- the type used in Tyson's woods, where the electric furnaces consist of coils that are made red hot by electricity, heating air that is blown through the house.
Baseboard heating work on the same principle -- wires made hot by electricity to heat air blown into the rooms.
The Potomac Electric Power Co., which serves the District of Columbia and Maryland suburbs, has more than 34,000 all-electric customers, many of whom have this type of residence heating.
Energy analysts say, however, that electric heat pumps will continue to be more efficient than other forms of electric heat because the heat pumps bring in warmth from the outside air that does not have to be created by the action of the electricity itself.
Robert H. Williams, a senior research scientist at Princetown's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, believes that oil and electric resistance heating will continue to be substantially more expensive than gas heat through the year 2000.
But Williams advises against switching from oil to gas right now. It would be better, he says, to wait for a year or two until the general commercial availability of astonishingly efficient new gas heat pumps and furnaces may make heating with gas even less expensive than it is now.
"If you have some money, your best investment is to tighten up your house so it leaks less heat," Williams said. "You can [sometimes] reduce your fuel bill by 50 percent that way."
Homeowners who do this will have the additional advantage that when they finally do invest in the new gas technology, their houses will be tight and they will have less risk of buying an oversized furnace or heat pump. Oversized heaters are a big reason for energy waste, Williams said.
But the Princeton scientist added that he would recommend an immediate switch to gas for those with resistance electric heating because of the immediate and enormous savings in electric bills that he said would result.
Many of the subdivisions that are planning to switch from oil to gas were orginally scheduled for gas service when they were built in the early 1970's, but a nationwide natural gas shortage prevented their receiving it at that time.
That was the case in Springfield's Keene Mill Village, where the drive to switch to gas for 87 homeowners began with Gerry Serody and a neighbor "leaning over our lawnmovers complaining about the price of oil."
He and his neighbors soon became "obsessed" with the idea of switching and finally obtained a commitment for service from the gas company.
Keene Mill Village will receive gas without paying any fee to Washington Gas Light for bringing new mains to the area. Other subdivision have to pay in some cases.
The company's policy is that there is no fee if two years' projected gas revenues from a new group of customers exceeds the $20-per-foot cost of new gas mains to bring gas to an area.
To the extent that the cost exceeds the projected revenues, the new customers must make up the difference. Connections from the mains to the individual houses are free if they are less than 65 feet long.
Residents in the Quince Orchard Manor subdivision in Gaithersburg will have to pay $302 each to Washington Gas Light, but they figure it's worth it.
"These are big houses and we figure to save a lot," said Richard Duncan, who led 75 Quince Orchard Manor residents in the switch from oil to gas.
Duncan and the others will pay about $1,000 each for gas burners and gas water heaters on top of the fees to the gas company, but they figure to recover the investment is less than three years.
An added attraction of switching to gas is that only a small part of the natural gas used in America is imported.
"It's time for Americans to fight back," said Potomac's Augustine. "I'd like to see us get to the point where we could tell OPEC to eat their oil."