Way Cool: A Guide to Fans

It's that time of year when most of us begin to wonder how we'll keep cool in the summer without running up a huge electric bill. And there should be a way to do it. After all, the air conditioner wasn't common in homes until about 40 years ago. So let's take a look at what we can do to keep cool that doesn't require large amounts of energy.

From the time of the pharaohs the most common method of cooling people has been the fan. And there's a reason for that. Fans work by creating a wind-chill effect on our skin. The movement of air can make it feel like it's six to eight degrees cooler. That's a lot of comfort for just a little breeze!

Fortunately for us, there's a variety of different fans that work with or without air conditioning. Let's take a look at some of the different choices so you can decide which would work best for your home.

We'll start with something called the 'whole house fan'. They create a breeze through an entire house with just one fan. A large belt-driven fan is located in the ceiling of the home's top floor, in a hallway area. The air is pulled through the rooms and halls and into the attic. The idea is that cooler outside air replaces the hot air that would normally be trapped in your home. You can control which rooms benefit by closing doors to block air flow.

Installing a whole house fan isn't cheap. A typical installation by a professional will run in the $1,000 neighborhood. The good news is that it only costs about three cents per hour to operate. The bad news is that you can't use it with your air conditioning and it can be noisy.

A cheaper alternative is to use box fans. Box fans can be placed in windows on the warmest (sunlit) side of the house to pull cooler air through the house. They're relatively inexpensive - $20 to $40 - and require no special installation. Just set them on a windowsill and make sure that they're secure enough not to fall off. They cost one cent per hour to operate. But they're noisy and work best when the outside temperature is about the same or cooler than the inside temp.

Many of us can't conceive of living without air conditioning. When the outside air is ninety a breeze just isn't enough for comfort. But you don't need to crank the A/C down to seventy and watch the electric meter spin wildly all summer long.

Fans can help your air conditioner work more effectively by moving the cold air produced around the room. Ceiling fans are excellent for this task. Use of a ceiling fan will allow you to raise your thermostat 2-4 degrees. That will result in between 10% and 25% less energy use by your air conditioner. A real bargain when you consider that most residential ceiling fans use about one cent of electricity per hour, even on the fastest speed. They actually consume less than 100 watts per hour. And they can be used with or without air conditioning.

The biggest disadvantage to ceiling fans is getting them installed. Because of the weight and the motion they need to be safely secured to your rafters. And if you want the wiring hidden you'll be trying to fish it through ceiling and walls. Not an easy or inexpensive task.

Fortunately, portable oscillating-type fans offer an alternative. While they're not able to move as much air as a ceiling fan, one or more in a room can make it much more comfortable.

And installation is a snap. Plug it in and aim the airflow. If you'll be sitting in the same spot for awhile, just direct a gentle breeze at your chair. If a number of people will be in a room or you'll be moving around, aim the fan along one wall so that the air blows in a circular pattern around the room. And one fan can do double duty, in the living room during the day and in your bedroom at night.

Another alternative doesn't work so well. Some of us living in homes with central heat and air are tempted to leave the circulating fan on all the time. Not a good idea. The air being blown into the room circulates through ducts that often pass through uncooled portions of the house. The effect is that you'll be adding warmer air to your living space. So it's best to set it to 'auto'.

Finally, a word about comparing fans. It looks really hard to do. How can you factor in blade size, motor speed, number of blades, the angle of the blades and the size of the motor?

Fortunately, selection can be simplified. Begin by comparing the fans 'CFM'. That's the maximum Cubic Feet per Minute of air that the fan can move. A bigger number is better. Then consider the blade size. Get the biggest that your space and budget will afford. When possible you want to run a fan at a slow speed to reduce noise. It's easiest to do that when your running a fan at a fraction of it's capability.