A few years back when Hank Ryan ran a clothing store in Winsted, Conn., he was startled to find that home-energy costs were rising a whole lot faster than even his most expensive men's suits.
What did he do about it?
Specifically, he insulated and tightened his lakeside home and added a solar greenhouse, or sunspace, as it is often called, on the south-facing wall.
The greenhouse performed so well that Mr. Ryan went into the business of building greenhouses for others. Now he's about to take yet another step and take his show on the road, so to speak, in an educational venture that will cross the continental United States.
Ryan has built a greenhouse on wheels - a showcase of alternate energy ideas - which he will use to spread the word on passive solar energy. Although he is now touring New England, on Nov. 1 he will leave Winsted on a ''whistle stop'' tour that will end in Santa Cruz, Calif., at the end of January. For a thorough test of the heating capacity of his greenhouse, he will take a northerly route through the colder states of the country.
The greenhouse has been built so that it will face south, gathering up the sun's heat as he travels west.
With federal support for alternative-energy programs drastically cut back, Ryan feels it is imperative that ''we take the message to the people and not wait for them to come to us,'' as he puts it. The message: that passive solar is a simple (once you appreciate the basic principles) and relatively inexpensive way to cut energy costs.
Despite all that has been written about passive solar, it remains a mystifying subject to many people until ''they see it in action,'' Ryan says.
''I fell into that category,'' he admits. All that started to change, however , when he read the book ''From the Ground Up'' by John Cole, founder of the Maine Times, and Charles Wing, founder of the Cornerstones Energy Institute here in Brunswick. Later he took the Cornerstones' hands-on greenhouse-building course and found out ''how simple passive solar really is.''
Solar greenhouses are attached to a house for three reasons:
* To save energy by trapping the sun's heat and pumping it into the house.
* To create a sunny living space.
* To grow food in winter.
According to Ryan, a homeowner can build his own greenhouse for between $15 and $25 a square foot; but if he calls in a contractor the cost is $40 and up.
Ryan converses easily with those who visit his rolling greenhouse in discussing all aspects of alternate energy.
''I guess you could say that I want to be the Charles Kuralt of appropriate technology,'' he smiles in discussing the forthcoming ''on the road'' tour.
A majority of sponsors (''one sponsor, one stop,'' says Ryan) who have signed up so far are manufacturers or sellers of appropriate-tech hardware (window-shade companies are a prime example). Civic groups interested in promoting an awareness of energy conservation in their town have also expressed interest.
So far 30 sponsors have signed up, and Ryan is looking for more.