There's an unfamiliar buzz heard these days as homeowners and office workers alike dig out room fans and snap them up from store shelves in an effort to cut down on steep electric bills, conserve energy and keep cool.

"Now that it's gotten hot and humid, we set the air conditioner at 78 degrees and supplement it with the fan jt night." Said Steve Ramey, who recently bought a home in Alexandria.

Consumer reactions like that, particularly in light of government suggestions to turn up air conditioner thermostats, are becoming more pronounced. And retailers happily are reflecting the impact.

To beat the office heat, federal workers also have been schlepping portable fans to their work stations only to have them confiscated by bosses.

"I had one but I took it home because the building manager said something about conserving energy," said Eric Hill, who was seeking relief in his Department of Agriculture office yesterday.

"I was in a corner in a five-person office and when the sun came in during the afternoon. It was terrible. But I moved closer to the ventilation so it's cooled down somewhat," he added.

General Services Administration policy says fans are prohibited and permits them only in areas where air conditioning isn't effective or if sunshine near windows offsets the air system.

On Sunday, the Department of Energy said it encourages fan use. And yesterday, Dennis Keilman, deputy commissioner of GSA public building services, said his agency is working out new operating guidelines on fan use that should be ready Friday.

"I bought this year with the idea that it would be a strong category," says Joanne Barrett, buyer for the Hechinger Co. "I think it's due to a reluctance by consumers to use air conditioning."

After a strong pre-season sale, she noted, "We'be already sold more than last year at this time."

A popular item this year is a rebirth of the 1930's-style ceiling paddle fans, retailing at $199, along with attic ventilation products. $ because of electric bills, "A lot of people haven't been turning over their air systems and are using window fans instead," observed Bob Zugay district merchandise manager for Montgomery Ward.

Sales for the chain here have blossomed in the past week, and Zugay reasoned that more customers are buying fans to use along with air conditioning systems.

Similarly K mart stores here are anticipating a 10 percent increase in sales. According to a spokesman, who said that inventors were boosted on fan moddels in the $20 to $25 range.

Chet Bigelow, manager for small appliances at E.J. Korvette's Langley Park Store, said that sales, which were strong last summer, will be "even better this year."

As of last week, sales "Have picked up greatly" on inventories, which were increased 22 percent.

In addition to popular oscillating and box fans, attic ventilation systems, which exhaust hot air, have become increasingly popular in recent years, according to "john Shipe, president of AC&R Insulation Co. in Maryland.

Fans, used either to move air or ventilate rooms, are a far cry from the "comfort levels" achieved by air conditioning systems which both cool and dehumidify. But they're definitely cheaper.

Energy experts estimate that fans can save a third or more of the costs of air conditioning and point out that laws of aerodynamics indicate that large-blade fans are more efficient.

And Consumer Reports, which did a comprehensive comparison between the two cooling systems this month, said that during the hot months, fans consume about $12 or more in electricity compared with $50 for a room air conditioner. CAPTION: Picture, Electric fans cram shelves at Hechinger. By Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post