- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

Customers of Washington Gas Light Co. have flooded the company's switchboard to question their home-heating bills, which rose dramatically this month.

The average bill from the company is about $225 this month, up from $131 one year ago and $144 in January 1999. Washington Gas has 820,000 customers in the District of Columbia and its suburbs.

The company blames colder weather and rising gas prices for the higher bills. It has placed a recording on its customer-service phone line to explain the price jump.

"Winter is always our busy time of year, but we have seen a significant increase in the number of calls," said Lorre Bowman, a Washington Gas spokeswoman. She could not provide the number of calls received.

In the fall, the company predicted its customers' bills would increase this winter and tried to warn them through newsletters, newspaper and radio advertisements and Web site bulletins, Ms. Bowman said.

"No matter how much information we have been trying to get to the customers … I think when they saw it on paper, it was still a bit of a shock," she said.

Several customers interviewed yesterday near the Washington Gas payment office in Northwest agreed.

Pat Stone, a Stafford County, Va., resident, said it cost him about $240 to heat his home in December, up from roughly $130 in November.

"My wife opened the bill and was shocked. We weren't prepared for that," Mr. Stone said.

Starr Hatton, a District resident, said her gas bill this month was about $100 this month, up from about $50 the previous month.

"I did not expect this. It was a big surprise… . What can you do? You have to heat your home," she said.

The return of colder temperatures after last year's mild winter has increased demand for natural gas and pushed up its price nationally, according to the American Gas Association, a D.C.-based trade group.

The National Weather Service said last week the two-month period of November and December 2000 was the coldest on record. The average national temperature during the period was 33.8 degrees, breaking the record of 34.2 degrees set in 1898.

Residential customers who heat their homes with natural gas should expect to pay 70 percent more on average this winter than they did last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"Residential natural-gas customers got hit with a double-whammy this winter: record cold weather in November and December on top of nationwide increases in the wholesale price of natural gas," said David N. Parker, president of the American Gas Association.

Ms. Bowman said Washington Gas is distributing pamphlets at local Giant Food supermarkets and Lowe's hardware stores that offer tips on lowering energy costs.

The tips include changing furnace filters monthly and wrapping an insulated blanket around home water heaters.

In addition, she said the company offers a budget payment plan that allows customers to spread the cost of winter heating into the warmer months.

Ms. Bowman said the company also urges customers who have trouble paying their bills to seek help from the Washington Area Fuel Fund, a program for poor families from Washington Gas and the Salvation Army.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which has 78,600 customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, could not provide its average residential bill, but said it also tried to warn its customers that costs would rise this winter.

"We have tried to convey to our customers the need to conserve energy," said Makini Street, a Baltimore Gas spokeswoman.

Both companies said they tried to prepare for the winter by stockpiling natural gas during last summer, when prices were cheaper.

District resident Larryl Matthews said he is one of the few Washington Gas customers who did not experience a big jump in his January bill.

Mr. Matthews is enrolled in the company's budget payment plan. He declined to give the amount it costs to heat his Southeast home, but he said his bill rarely fluctuates.

"It's helpful at times like these," he said.

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