Last spring, no one wanted to talk about caulk. Sitting by the phone in Arlington, the staff of the U.S. Energy Department's information hot line grew discouraged. Calls were down from a year ago.
Then Saddam Hussein burst into Kuwait, and the phone lines lighted up like Christmas trees with questions about how to save energy and cut utility bills at home. The volume of calls and letters coming in to the Conservation and Renewable Energy Inquiry and Referral Service has nearly doubled in the past three months over the same time last year.
"Because of the Middle East situation, there's a subdued fear," said Sharon Cooke, spokeswoman for the District's Energy Office, where requests for emergency fuel assistance have multiplied five times and information calls also are up. "People are running scared."
Not everyone is panicking about an energy crunch, despite rising oil prices and a potential battle in the Persian Gulf. Insulation sales at Hechinger stores are up significantly over last year, but weatherstripping is holding steady. More people are calling Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. to switch from oil to gas, but Potomac Electric Power Co. reports no increased demand for home energy audits.
Energy experts say many people already have caulked, weatherstripped and insulated their older homes, set back the thermostat and bought more efficient furnaces. Homes built since the 1970s use about half as much power on average as older ones. Although energy experts say there still is room for savings, overall residential energy use is down slightly since the 1970s despite a growing population, according to a Department of Energy report.
Another reason for the muted concern about energy in this area may be the weather, which has given little cause to switch on the furnace. It has been an average 2.5 degrees warmer than normal in Washington since the beginning of October, according to Accu-Weather, including some November days in the seventies, which is 15 degrees warmer than average.
"With a mild summer and mild fall, people are not getting price signals . . . to switch over their furnace system" from oil to gas, said Nancy Moses, a Pepco spokeswoman.
Pepco last week requested a 6 percent decrease from Maryland regulatory officials in the fuel rate factor that accounts for about a third of each customer's bill. One reason was that the utility made a big purchase of oil in June, "at pre-Saddam Hussein prices," she said. The fuel factor already has dropped in the District.
It was certainly the weather that accounted for the lack of business on a recent Sunday in the weatherstripping aisle of the bustling Hechinger store in Baileys Crossroads.
Retired Army Col. James Franco looked over weatherstripping for his condominium, but said he would probably wait a while to install it.
"When the first frost comes," he said, "that's what motivates me."
Richard H. Irwin, of Falls Church, bought window weatherstripping that he planned to install right away. He already could feel the wind through the windows of his new town house. "I have to assume because I can feel the draft, I'm helping to heat the neighborhood," he said.
Despite the mild weather, B G & E, which serves Anne Arundel and Howard counties and parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has exceeded its 1990 goal for selling oil-to-gas furnace conversions. It is heading for 2,500 total this year, up 200 from last year.
"We've heard quotes along the lines of they want to convert before it gets too bad," spokesman Art Slusark said, referring to rising oil prices. Requests for energy information speeches and weatherizing kits for low-income people are up 20 percent, he said.
The government-funded Montgomery Home Energy Services Center in Kensington, which offers free advice to county residents, reminds its customers that now is the time to conserve "so their bills don't have to be more excessive than they need to be" if energy prices increase, said director Dianne Pellicori.
At the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy's state conservation information hot line, program manager Jennifer Snead recalls that a decade ago, during the last energy crunch, the "hot line was ringing off the hook." This time, call volume is up only 5 percent since August, she said.
What a difference a decade makes. When oil prices shot up in the 1970s, there were federal tax breaks for installing energy-saving thermostats and a workshop on wood stoves on every corner. Now, Hechinger doesn't sell wood stoves any more and the tax breaks have vanished.
But power companies, with a push from state regulators, are offering rebates for energy-saving practices.
Interest in energy conservation had dipped to the point that Virginia dropped the home energy cost-cutting clinics it offered at community colleges in the early 1980s.
"We are probably going to be getting back into that area," Snead said.
ENERGY CONSERVATION INFORMATION GENERAL
Conservation and Renewable Energy Inquiry and Referral Service. This federally funded information center provides consumers with basic tips on conserving energy and information on renewable energy technology. Call 1-800-523-2929, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Energy Hotline:202-724-2100 -- General energy conservation information. Also, District residents qualifying under federal low-income guidelines may be eligible for energy-related assistance including weatherstripping, home repairs, furnace repair or replacement, heating bill assistance and discounts on other utility costs.
Energy Assistance Program:
Anne Arundel 301-626-1910
Prince George's 301-985-5400
Anne Arundel 301-626-1911
Baltimore City 301-396-6046
Howard County 301-313-7240
Prince George's 301-985-5420
Home Energy Services Center:301-942-7475 -- Offers free energy audits, publications, speakers for community groups, information on low-cost financing and other programs, referral list of contractors and quality-control follow-up inspection on work done for energy conservation.
Energy Conservation Programs:
Energy Hotline: 1-800-552-3831 or 804-367-6974.
Fuel Assistance: (Department of Social Services), 1-800-552-3431.
Community Action Agency: Provides weatherization services at no cost to qualifying low-income residents, 804-644-0417.
For consumer information about the "how to" of energy conservation, weatherization, disposal of fuel wastes, call 1-800-552-3831.