Ten years ago, Ric Campbell started building solar collectors in a garage on Roland Place NW.
Like many alternative energy enthusiasts, he viewed solar and other nontraditional sources of energy as cost-efficient ways to beat the rising cost of domestic and foreign fuel.
So, in March, after years of supporting his solar research through such jobs as installing solar panels and auto mechanics, Campbell and some friends started Ecotech Inc. to market energy systems through a catalogue.
He said that with his experience he hoped to put together a service that would keep itself going and allow him to spend more time on solar research.
The first obstacle, Campbell said, has been a Reagan administration energy policy that places less emphasis on the development of alternative energy sources and more on the ability of the market to respond to the country's energy needs. And, in this case, he said, less emphasis means fewer dollars.
But since the Carter administration policy that termed the energy crisis the moral equivalent of war has been replaced by a call for trust in the miracle of the market place, Campbell said the Washington-based company is hoping the magic will touch its sales.
Its 70-page, illustrated booklet sells for $2 and features a five-page section on the history, use and application of solar power.
In the past seven months it has been advertised in Popular Science magazine and in the journals of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.
The Ecotech menu displays a number of appliances ranging in price and utility from a $2 bulb-miser socket, which reduces the initial power surge that often burns out the filament on an electric light, to a $30,000 wind generator.
And, of course, the catalogue offers several photovoltaic, or solar, cells for heating water or for use in a larger system to supplement heat in a living space.
Campbell, the sole investor in the company, runs Ecotech out of a three-story house.
Customers choose from the items pictured in the catalogue and write or phone their orders in to the five-person Ecotech staff, which buys the merchandise directly from the various suppliers and distributes it to customers.
Spokesman Bob Gilbert said the company is still recovering from a substantial financial loss suffered at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn.
He said several members of the Ecotech staff traveled to the fair, spending two months working a solar energy display. Unfortunately, they were not able to use most of their solar powered displays because a promised outdoor site was withdrawn at the last minute and they were forced to display indoors.
"We are struggling," Gilbert said. But, he added, things are turning around. "We are starting to see some serious orders."
At first the company averaged only about $250 in weekly sales. That has doubled since they returned from the fair in August, and Gilbert said that they are negotiating with several companies for orders that would double the $30,000 in total sales generated since March.
Gilbert said, "It takes three to six months until you see come kind of results from a catalogue. People like to shop around."
The largest selling item advertised in the book is a $45 continuous-flow water heater designed to save energy by heating only the water passing over a heating coil in a small tank, thereby saving the cost of maintaining a large supply of hot water.
The magazine also promotes a range of free-standing wood burning stoves and fireplace inserts, as well as ceiling fans and alcohol stills for use in the production of gasahol. It even features a solar-powered hot tub.
The catalogue is more attractive for those who "want to shop from home and for all the people who don't live in a metro area," Gilbert said.
Campbell, who is doing research in the field of low-cost solar cells, which he referred to as "very promising," said his original goal was to "get information out to people at the lowest possible cost . . . and to reach enough people to make us profitable."
In addition to the company's slow financial start, he said, it faces another problem. "For most people," he said, "this applied solar technology is an unknown commodity.
"A lot of people feel helpless," he said, because "they aren't aware of their alternatives."
Then, there is the attitude of the current administration.
"The administration has panned solar energy and says the market has solved the energy crisis . . . The market isn't that inspired," he said. "Nothing has changed since the Arab oil embargo. There is a false euphoria because . . . of a slight drop in oil prices."
Competition to the Ecotech catalogue in this area comes from two retail stores called New Energy Sciences that are owned by Solar Venture Group, a division of Solarex Corp. of Rockville.
"We are looking to become the solar-powered Radio Shack," said Tyson's Corner New Energy Science's manager Gregg Clemmer.
"There is no overlap from what I've seen of their catalogue," he said, but "it seems to be the way to reach the people who want to buy."