Natural gas prices in the Washington area are 1 percent higher now than a year ago and are expected to remain stable in 1985 or rise no more than 4 or 5 percent in line with inflation, Washington Gas Light Co. says.

Richard C. Vierbuchen, executive vice president of the utility, said the lifting of federal price controls today will not affect winter gas bills.

He added that domestic exploration and production of natural gas have been bolstered by the gradual lifting of the controls, and the price of gas has risen 1 percent because of inflation.

Residential gas prices in 1985 will average 3 percent higher than in 1984 nationwide and are increasing less than the overall inflation rate, according to the Energy Information Administration's short-term energy outlook publication.

Currently, a dearth of natural gas is successfully competing with lower-cost oil, a Department of Energy spokesman said.

In this area, Washington Gas has been able to hold down its price because of the unusually warm winter, said Tom Julia, Washington Gas Light spokesman. The company also has access to an abundant supply of gas.

"We have been able to go outside the traditional sources and purchase gas directly at lower prices, saving customers more than $15 million this year," he said. Savings in gas prices are passed on to customers.

The company also is cutting costs. Washington Gas has trimmed its work force to about 3,000, from 3,300 a few years ago, Julia said. "We are thinking lean."

The company is "bringing in new large customers, such as hospitals and universities, to keep the average costs of gas to the consumer down," he said. Spreading the fixed costs of providing gas to customers over a larger amount of purchased gas reduces the amount of fixed costs residential customers must pay, he said.

Consumers also can contribute to lower gas bills by installing more efficient furnaces and weatherizing homes. Efficient furnaces can lower bills by as much as one-third, he said.