Ceiling Fans Cool the Energy Burn

By Jeff Feldman


A good couple of years ago, I perused a magazine article highlighting inventions that have changed the world. I was surprised to see that the ceiling fan made the list. I can’t fully recall the author’s rationale for including the humble ceiling fan among such heavy hitters as the printing press, the public library, and the telephone. But as I sit here today in the summer swelter, with my ceiling fan spinning faithfully above me, I am in full agreement on its inclusion.

It was German-American inventor Philip Diehl who, in the mid 1880s, first mounted a fan blade on a sewing machine motor and attached it overhead. We have enjoyed the ceiling fan’s cooling breezes ever since.

We are all familiar with the simple premise of ceiling fan operation: air moving across the surface of our skin makes us feel cooler and more comfortable at warmer temperatures. A study conducted in Florida several years back revealed that proper use of a ceiling fan allows us to raise our air conditioner setting 2 degrees without any loss of comfort. This minor adjustment can result in up to a 14 percent reduction in annual cooling energy usage. With both energy prices and daytime temperatures rising steadily, the humble ceiling fan can offer some extravagant savings.

The problem is that many people don’t use their ceiling fans properly. That same Florida study found that we tend to run the ceiling fan but don’t bother with the corresponding bump of our AC those 2 degrees. This, of course, results in more energy usage, not less.

The other issue is that many of us turn on ceiling fans and then leave the room. The fan’s breezes cool us only when we are present to appreciate them. A ceiling fan whirling away in a vacant room is simply a waste of energy. You may argue that a ceiling fan contributes to air circulation within your home, but according to “the Green Curmudgeon” at GreenBuildingAdvisor.com, you’d be wrong. This includes the myth about running ceiling fans in reverse in the winter months. A Consumer Reports study reveals that the notion of fans reducing air temperature stratification—heated air sitting up toward the ceiling – is inaccurate, at least in spaces with the standard 8-foot ceilings many of us have in our homes.

Home energy auditors armed with infrared cameras have taken aim at running ceiling fans. Their findings? Those ceiling fan motors get hot! An active ceiling fan can measure 100 degrees, the equivalent of having a small heater mounted to your ceiling. This heat output is offset by the cooling effect of the fan, but only if the fan is actually blowing on you. The bottom line: don’t waste energy and add heat to your living space by running fans in unoccupied rooms.

I encourage those in the market for a ceiling fan to plan to spend a bit of money to get a good one. Those $50 specials at the big box stores that wobble and rattle give well-built ceiling fans a bad name. One of your key shopping criteria should be energy efficiency. Energy Star certified fans are 60 percent more efficient than non-qualified models. You can check out the 2014 list of Energy Star’s most efficient ceiling fans (over 52 inches) at http://tinyurl.com/lsj2b4t.

At the top of the Energy Star list sits the Haiku by Big Ass Fans. These lovely, bamboo-bladed, high tech fans—some of them come equipped with a room occupancy sensor!—operate on only 5–6 kWh of electricity each year, costing less than an estimated 70 cents per year . Of course these fans also cost over $1000 to purchase and so the payback period is a bit extreme.

For those looking for a good, solid, efficient fan that won’t break the piggy bank too badly, I suggest looking into Emerson fans. Emerson’s Carrera EcoMotor line of fans use only 14 kWh of electricity for an estimated annual operational cost of $1.59. Various motor finishes and wood blade packages can be mixed and matched on these fans and they are light kit adaptable. I installed Emerson fans in nearly every room of our home over seven years ago and have been impressed with how solidly built and well-designed they are. At around $400 apiece, this was a sizeable investment, one we did in stages, but we have enjoyed the quiet operation, the cooling breezes and the energy savings ever since.

Jeff Feldman is a speaker, writer and consultant on green living and green building. You can reach Jeff at GreenPathConsulting@gmail.com.