There's bad news for Washingtonians looking for an old-fashioned way to beat the heat on these sweltering September days: there is an acute shortage of electric fans.

Visits to about a dozen retail outlets and telephone calls to nearly 30 more turned up only four high-priced models at one upper Northwest appliance store, and one store expecting a shipment from a Missouri company.

In mid-July it had been reported that fans and air conditioners were in short supply, but consumers expecting stores to restock their shelves were disappointed.

Wholesalers and retailers alike attribute the shortage to the year's unusual weather and to the fact that selling fans is risky business and nobody wants to be overstocked with a highly seasonal item

"It's a very unprofitable business and a lot of manufacturers have gone out of business," said Walt Mooney, a buyer for the Reliable Home Appliances stores in the Washington area.

In the past 5 to 10 years, Mooney said, leading fan manufacturers such as General Electric, Sunbeam and Burns Air King have stopped making fans and Westinghouse discontinued its entire small appliance line. Other companies have cut back production.

Industry sources said the Vernco Corp., which supplies Sears, went out of the fan business just six weeks ago, but will continue to make a limited number of fans for Sears.

"It used to be that sales were strictly based on speculation on how the weather would be in the country," a spokesman for one of the area's large wholesale companies said. "Manufacturers would try to make what they could sell and sell what they make."

After getting caught with an overstock last year, few companies appear to have speculated on this summer's extreme heat.

"Very few of our distributors have any," said Manuel Keyser, co-owner of Tanen Sales Co., one of the few outlets in town that have had fans this hot summer and they got caught short."

Although stores have been reluctant or unable to stock up, fans have been in demand. "Last week alone we could have sold another 140," Keyser said.

"You have a situation where you have a tremendous demand and no supply, yet the people who are making fans are going out of business," said William L. Hunt III, vice president for sales and marketing with Patton Electric Co., of Fort Wayner, Ind., a leading fan manufacturer and largest supplier of fans to the federal government.

Hunt said one reason manufacturers are giving up on fans is that they priced themselves out of the market with inexpensive models.

"They'd sell those old 20-inch, breeze-box fans with list prices of only $8.88 or $9.99," Hunt said "and it would cost more to make them than they could sell them for."