The outlook for heating costs this winter is for natural gas customers to pay about 23 percent more than last year, electric customers to pay 2 to 5 percent more and heating oil customers to pay essentially the same.
A household's actual heating bill depends on a number of variables, including the size of the house, the insulation and the habits of the residents, but statistics provided by energy officials suggest that natural gas -- even with the 23 percent increase -- will be less expensive than heating oil during the coming winter.
Washington Gas Light Co. officials estimate that the average homeowner will pay $630 to heat with natural gas this winter, up $119 from last winter. That increase reflects the higher wholesale price imposed Sept. 1 by the area's major supplier, Columbia Gas Transmission Co., which has a surplus of expensive gas and has refused to transport less expensive fuel.
"We probably are as upset by these pipeline increases as our customers, but we still have the best game in town -- we have the best price of any fuel and that will continue to be so for some time to come," said Richard C. Vierbuchen, executive vice president of Washington Gas Light. He said the company has filed an objection to the Columbia increase with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but the agency has taken no action.
Of the area's 1.1 million households, about 53 percent use natural gas heat, about 31 percent use heating oil and about 10 percent use electricity. The rest rely on other fuels, such as kerosene, or are unheated.
The average heating oil customer will pay about $720 to heat his home this winter, industry figures show. That is about $90 more than the natural gas customer will pay.
"But the gap is closing," said Herb Triplett, vice president of Steuart Petroleum Co., one of the area's largest suppliers of heating oil. His figures indicate that the heating oil customer paid $209 more than the natural gas customer last year to heat a similar-sized house.
Triplett said that heating oil prices have stayed the same because the heating oil supply is plentiful and companies in the heating oil market have remained competitive.
Heating oil now sells for an average of $1.20 a gallon in the Washington area, according to surveys of the prices charged by the 21 retail fuel oil companies operating in the area.
The price of electricity, which is the other major heating fuel, has risen slightly from a year ago, primarily because of rate increases won by the companies.
The Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) estimates that its average all-electric customer used $301 in electricity to heat his home last winter.
The same amount of power will cost $306 this winter, or about 2 percent more, company officials estimated.
In the past electric heat has been more expensive than either gas or oil. Pepco officials say that has changed, in part because of the increased efficiency of the electric heat pump.
Pepco representative Nancy Moses said that all-electric customers in Maryland used substantially more electricity for heating than those in the District of Columbia. The Maryland customer, for example, used an average of $341.30 in electricity for heating last winter, compared to the D.C. customer's $260.65, she said.
Moses said that Pepco projects the Maryland customer's bill will rise $10 this winter, to an average of $351.28, because of a rate increase approved by that state.
Pepco hasn't raised rates in the District since last winter. But the company has a request for a 23.7 percent increase that, if authorized in full by the D.C. Public Service Commission, would push the D.C. all-electric customer's bill for heating up $62 to a new total of $322.42.
Rates in Virginia, where most residential customers are served by the Virginia Electric and Power Co., have risen 5.2 percent since last year. That means that an average residential customer with electric heat, who paid $83 for electricity for the month of January 1982, would pay $87 next January.