Washington area residents who have trouble paying their heating bills can get help from their utility company and -- if they qualify -- from government heating assistance programs.

All three local gas and electric companies usually will work out payment plans for customers who cannot pay their bills because of illness, unemployment or other financial problems.

In addition to the special emergency programs, the utility companies offer equal monthly payment plans that enable consumers to budget for their bills. Typically, the customer's annual gas or electric use is estimated and then split into 11 or 12 payments that the customer pays over the year's time.

Here are the numbers that customers can call if they want to sign up for the equal payment plans or to ask for special arrangement because of economic hardship:

Washington Gas Light at 750-1000; Potomac Electric Power Co. at 833-7500, and Virginia Electric and Power Co. at 998-0200. In addition, the gas company has a downtown Washington office at 1100 H St. NW for customers who want to talk in person with a service representative.

Low-income customers who may qualify for federal help under the Home Energy Assistance Program will be referred to the program office in the jurisdiction in which they live, utility officials said. Last year, more than 15,000 homes served by Washington Gas received government help in paying winter heating bills.

The government program has been modified since last year, so that more customers qualify under the new guidelines. However, this year's program is restricted to providing assistance only for the main source of heat. This means that a customer whose home is heated by natural gas may be eligible for federal assistance in paying his gas bill but not his electric bill, said Chelsey Williams, a spokeswoman for the D.C. assistance program.

Residents who want to find out if they qualify for the federal assistance with winter heating can call one of these agencies:

District of Columbia: 393-3236 or 393-3237.

Maryland: Montgomery County, 279-1014; Prince George's County, 699-2662; or Charles County, 843-3770, extension 208.

Virginia: Alexandria, 750-6566; Arlington, 558-2105; Fairfax County and Falls Church, 591-3791; Loudoun County, 471-6050 extension 365; and Prince William County, 361-4131 extension 45.