The arrival of winter heating bills undoubtedly will inspire Washington area residents to examine their homes and their habits for possible energy savings.

But to do that effectively, they need to have an energy audit of their residences, according to Charles Clinton, director of the D.C. Energy Office. "The audit is important to help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your dwelling, to know where you are losing energy and what steps you take in a prioritized order to stop the leakage," he said.

Residents who want home audits have two choices: They can use the free literature distributed by utility companies and local energy offices and check their homes themselves, or they can pay $15 to have a utility company representative come to the house, recommend steps that need to be taken and suggest which to take first. The typical audit takes two to four hours and covers a broad range of questions.

"They check weatherstripping and caulking. They look in the attic for insulation. They look for leaky faucets. They check furnace efficiency," said Susan Butz, a spokeswoman for Washington Gas Light Co.

Companies also will supply a list of financial institutions that will lend money to consumers who want to take energy-saving measures.

Later this year, District residents will be able to get free audits from the utilities under a ruling by the Public Service Commission. But the free audits won't be available in time to help this winter.

In Virginia, customers of the Virginia Electric and Power Co. are eligible for a $15 refund if they implement some of the company's recommendations. For example, if the auditor recommends ceiling insulation and the customer has that done, he would get a $15 refund. But Vepco doesn't refund the fee for other secondary conservation steps, such as caulking and weatherstripping.

Neither Potomac Electric Power Co. nor WGL offers any refunds on the audit fees.

Audits are offered to utility company customers under the terms of the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. But because each state can decide on the design of the audit performed by the utilities within its borders, there are some variations in what companies are doing.

Maryland, for instance, developed and implemented its utility audit plan more than two years ago. As a result, both WGL and Pepco have auditing programs underway for customers there. But because plans for the District and Virginia haven't been completed, WGL has chosen not to offer an auditing service there.

"When the plans for Virginia and the District are approved, we will begin an auditing service," said a WGL representative. Meanwhile, Pepco and Vepco decided to go forward with auditing plans they developed.

Here is a summary of audits available to area residents, based on the jurisdiction and the company:

District: The city's plan is nearing the final stage of approval and should be in place later this year. Under that plan, WGL and Pepco will be required to perform free energy audits for customers requesting them. Until then, Pepco is doing audits, based on a company plan, for $15. Pepco customers can call 872-4626 for the audit. WGL has decided not to offer audits until the city's plan is approved.

Maryland: WGL and Pepco will send a representative to audit the homes of customers living in single-family houses or in multifamily dwellings of four units or fewer. Those audits are conducted in keeping with the plan developed and implemented by the state.

Federal law prohibits customers from having more than one utility company audit, however, so they must choose the WGL audit or the Pepco service. WGL customers can call the company at 750-1000 to request an audit; Pepco customers can call 872-4626.

Virginia: The state decided to adopt the federal auditing plan rather than develop its own. But the federal plan hasn't been approved, so WGL isn't auditing homes in Virginia. Pepco and Vepco have developed their own audit plans, however, and their representatives have been visiting customers to tell them how to save energy.

Both companies charge $15 for the audit, but Vepco will refund the money in some instances. Pepco customers can call 872-4626 for an audit; Vepco customers can telephone their nearest local business office.