Never has there been recorded such a cold Jan 17 in metropolitan Washington. It was so cold yesterday there was not only a record low temperature - 2 degrees at National Airport - but a record low high - 18 degrees.

Continuing frigid weather caused or led to an assortment of hardships and inconveniences here and throughout the Eastern half of the U.S., where at least 49 cities experienced record low temperatures.

In Northern Virginia, more than a third of Virginia Electric and Power Co.'s 300,000 customers had their electricity cut for up to 2 1/2 hours when a nuclear power station was shut down by ice floes and two conventional generating plants froze up.

Throughout the Washington area, Metro commuters were left stranded when buses were disabled, automobiles balked at starting, water mains and pipes froze and burst, and schools shut down or were forced to close when their mechanical systems were knocked out.

In Maryland, Gov. Marvin Mandel proclaimed a state of emergency in the partially ice-locked Chesapeake Bay region and asked President Ford to declare a disaster in the state so watermen and others who have been hard hit can apply for federal financial aid.

"I find that the situation is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments," Mandel said in a letter to the President.

In Virginia, Gov. Mills E. Godwin ordered all state agencies to reduce their thermostats to 65 degrees and curtail operations and the use of equipment requiring large amounts of fuel.

Godwin said he took such action because the state's natural gas supply "is approaching the critical stage, and . . . the fuel oil situation is little, if any, better."

While Godwin spoke of an impending "critical" natural gas shortage, an official of the State Corporation Commission said last week's Federal Power Commission decision permitting unregulated gas to flow into the state has alleviated the predicted crisis. The official said the added fuel would head off any cutback of residential customers, who have priority over industries.

The Washington Gas Light Co. asked its customers to lower their thermostats to 65 degrees to help ease natural gas shortages.

A warming trend - though only relatively speaking - is expected for the next several days, according to the National Weather Service.

The forecast for today and Wednesday calls for a high between 18 and 24 degrees. On Thursday - Inaugural Day - it is expected to be 20 to 25 degrees. That means that while the temperature is expected to rise, it will remain below freezing.

Because of the continuing cold weather and associated road problems, public schools in Fairfax and Prince George's counties will start an hour late today.

The source of the numbing weather is the same northern Canadian air that meandering air currents have steered southward across the eastern half of the United States most of this month.

The currents always travel from the eastern Pacific across the continent. But rarely, according to National Weather Service officials, have they meandered so far north - where figid air has been picked up - and have come so far south - where that same air has been deposited.

The persisting cold is having a devastating economic impact in some states. Energy shortages led General Motors and Chrysler corporations to shut down operations in Ohio, Michigan and New York yesterday idling 42,000 workers.

The thermometer plunged to 36 below zero in Roseau, Minn., 24 below in Cincinnati, 20 below in Indianapolis, 19 below in Chicago and 17 below in Pittsburgh - all readings that set or matched record lows.

Minds, like machines, did not always function with efficiency in the bold. A motorist in Rochester, Minn., tried to thaw out his car by setting a pan of burning charcoal under the oil pan. Instead he set fire to the engine's electral system.

Vepco's problems, which forced temporary power cutoffs affecting about 325,000 of the utility's total of 1.1 million customers, were traced to three generating stations, two in Tidewater and one near Richmond.

The Surry nuclear station was shut down when ice floes choked up intake screens that funnel water from the James River to condensers that convert steam back to water.

The floes, deposited against the screens by the shifting morning tide, were finally broken yp by a massive iron gate that was dropped from its suspended resting position. The gate is ordinarily used to shut off the water intake during repairs.

The Yorktown plant was crippled when the control system of its outside boiler unit froze up, and three of the six generating units at the Chesterfield station near Richmond failed to start up after being down for the weekend for repairs. Vepco officials blamed the cold weather, which brought a minus-1-degree reading to Richmond.

Power was cut off in random sections of Vepco's service area for two to 2 1/2-hour periods from 6 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. to compensate for the disabled power stations. Altogether Vepco lost 4 million kilowatts of power of its normal 7-million kilowatt load produced in winter months. Emergency power was bought from other utilities during the morning, but not enough, according to Vepco officials, to forestall the temporary power cut-offs.

Power was cut off at random "from one end of Northern Virginia to another," a Vepco official said. Those power sub-stations serving hospitals, fire and police stations and other emergency centers were not cut off, the officials said.

The cut-off began in Northern Virginia shortly after the record low temperature of 2 degrees was recorded at National Airport at 6 a.m.

When Georgine Farish of Annandale woke up about 6 a.m. feeling chily, although she had gone to sleep with her electric blanket turned on, she sensed that something in the house had gone awry.

Although Vepco said that power in most houses was shut off only an hour or two, Mrs. Farish said the electricity in her home wasn't turned on until 11 a.m. As a result, no one in the Farish family had breakfast yesterday.

Mrs. Farish's daughter, Vicki, a Fairfax County schoolteacher, arrived late for work - like many of the teachers in the system - because her electric alarm clock did not go off.

"But," said Mrs. Farish, "at least my husband and my daughter were able to take a hot shower this morning. There wasn't enough hot water left for me."

Some people coped by putting on extra clothing and building fires in their fireplaces.

People waited in line yesterday to buy winter clothing at Eddie Bauer's "Expedition Outfitter" store at 1800 M St. NW. The store, which carries cold-weather items like down-filled slippers, angora thermal underwear, ald silk-insulating socks, was sold out of down-filled gloves and mittens and seal socks. Customer after customer was told there was little chance of the store getting any more.

One man was told the item he was looking for was out of stock and unlikely to be restocked soon, because the truck carrying the supplies was having a hard time traveling over the ice and snow.

Meanwhile, the phone lines were jammed at area plumbing companies with calls from residents whose pipes had frozen or burst.

"I've been here since 7 a.m. and that phone hasn't stopped ringing for five minutes once today," said Martin Saia of the Saia Heating and Plumbing Co., which serves the District, Maryland, and Virginia.

"The pipes are just not insulated thick enough for extremely cold weather," said Saia. "This area just wasn't built for weather like this," he said.

James Lee, director of maintenance for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies water and sewer service to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said the agency received 300 calls from homeowners reporting water in their houses from burst lines. Lee said 36 water mains burst over the weekend and 12 more yesterday.

Area fire and police officials also reported hundreds of burst water pipes.

Several schools in the metropolitan area were closed because of the power outrage and the water main breaks.

Prince William County schools were closed four hours early and Fairfax County schools two hours early because of the Vepco power failures, according to school spokesmen. Five elementory schools in Alexandria were without heat for a couple of hours, but no schools were closed, a school spokesman said.

Three schools in Arlington - Wakefield High School, Williamsburg Jr. High School, and Abingdon Elementary School - were closed because of heating problems according to school officials.

In Prince George's County, Adelphi Elementary School was closed at noon because there was no heat, while Langley Park Elementary School was closed shortly after 9 a.m. because of no electricity, a school spokesman said.

Anacostia High School in the District was closed shortly after it opened yesterday because of a water main break, school officials said. No Montgomery County schools were closed, although eight classrooms in two schools were reported to have malfunctioning heaters.

Transportation was widely hindered by the cold weather.

An American Automobile Association spokesman said 2,570 motorists reported their cars wouldn't start. All were serviced by 6 p.m.

The spokesman said car batteries lose 35 per cent of their normal power when temperatures outside fall below freezing.

He emphasized that in cold weather like the current spell, motorists should have their car batteries and spark plugs checked frequently. Also, accessories like lights and radios should be turned off to conserve a battery's limited power when the car is not being driven, he said.

A Metro spokesman said 201 of the 1,743 Metrobuses that normally operate during the morning rush hour periods were out of service yesterday, causing frequent delays for commuters. He said water froze in the air lines that provide pressure for the buses' brakes and open and close the doors of the buses.

The spokesman said the affected Metrobuses had to be taken inside one of the Metro system's eight repair barns and a blow torch used along the line to melt the ice.

However, he said many of the Metrobuses were still inoperative during the evening rush hour.

A Potomac Electric Power Co. spokesman said the utility reduced its power by 5 per cent in order to help supply electricity to other electric companies affected by equipment failures to the south and west of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

He said the power reduction would not cause any noticeable impact on household appliances.

The spokesman said Pepco "has been fortunate" in that it has not had any equipment failures like the one experienced by Vepco. He said the company's heaviest demand for service is in the summer and that Pepco has an excess of capacity to generate power during the winter months.