Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ceiling Fans: The Hanging Menace

Here in Maryland it was dry, windy and freezing only a few weeks ago, now the mercury has climbed above 90 degrees, the wind stopped, and the humidity hit the point where you only have to inhale if you want a drink of water.

As the local power company knows, Montgomery County, Maryland usually welcomes in the weather with the cacophony of a couple hundred thousand air conditioners turning on at once, converting piles of money into pure Colombian uncut cold air. One of the multitude of roaring air conditioners was attached to my house, it's metal tentacles reaching out and taking money out of my wallet and beating up the occasional kid for his lunch money.

I was alarmed, and not just because my air conditioning unit was mugging people - I was alarmed at the fact that the air conditioner took a very large amount of energy to make the house a bearable temperature, and due to the lousy insulation in my old house, it had to keep using a lot of energy. I calculated it out to an extra $100 to $120 a month to keep our house cool.

I needed a solution, so I turned to the best model I could think of for saving money, an industrial revolution era sweat shop. Looming far over the heads of the hapless and overworked rabble below, powered by their rage and their deep-rooted hatred of humanity, the ceiling fans loom.

The history of the ceiling fan goes back a long way, and with modern fans the concept is the same, move air around. In a modern home, the ceiling fan is usually only noticed when really dirty or unbalanced - or if it is mounted too low and some unsuspecting fool tries to take off their coat and accidentally hits the fan, sending the dust that's been sitting on it for twenty years flying everywhere, but I wouldn't know anything about that. When functioning properly, the fan gets a nice breeze going in the room, just enough to be comfortable without being obnoxious. It makes higher temperatures bearable without actually dropping the temperature.

Unlike an air conditioner, fans take very little energy, usually around 80 watts on their highest setting, around the power use of one of your ancient Edison-era earth-destroying incandescent light-bulbs. That is why they became very popular in the 70's energy crisis. In fact, they liked ceiling fans so much in the 70's that they had to invent platform shoes so everyone could be closer to them.

In the winter you can set the fans on reverse to push the hot air that collects on the ceiling back down to to you. I haven't tried this myself yet.

There is a huge selection of fans to choose from, though the newer fans actually tend to be much lower quality then the older fans (for example, older fans tended to come with solid wood blades instead of particle board). I read a bunch of articles going on about blade pitch and shape and motor quality, but for my price range I just wanted a fan that worked well and was cheap. I got three from Home Depot, made by Hampton Bay. $40, $50, and $60. If you want to spend a lot more, you can get nicer fans, but for me to spend more money on a money saving device, it better deliver more value - such as allowing me to travel through time or get along with my mother-in-law.

Fans come in a lot of different sizes, but almost all of the ones for sale at Home Depot were 52 inches (a measure of the diameter of the whole unit, not just the blade). To find the proper size for your fan, check out the handy chart here. I have low ceilings so I got "flush mount" fans (most fans have a "flush mount" feature). The theory behind the number of blades a fan has is more blades, more air moved at a slower speed, so less noise and bearing wear.

Installation of these fans is pretty easy, despite the massive instruction novel included with them. Installation is made even easier if you have a great friend like Mark helping you install them. For all three of the fans I had to install, I was replacing an existing light fixture, so the wires were already there. Also, they were strong enough that I did not have to reinforce the receptacle. If you do have to reinforce yours, it's not that difficult, and a lot of fans come with kits to help you do just that (not that you really need them, a 2x4 and some screws will do the job nicely)

The first fan I got went over the kitchen table, it's a 52 inch that did 4000 CFM (Cubic feet of air Per Minute) on high. Unless you were sitting directly under it you didnt feel much air at all. In the bedroom I installed a 52 inch fan that featured 5000 CFM on high and it was perfect. Just a warning to you, don't expect hurricane force winds from a regular cheap-o store bought ceiling fan, you don't really want that, you just want the air moving so that you'll feel a lot cooler and the humidity wont drown you. They look nice too.

It's nice falling asleep knowing that you're comfortable and the A/C isn't on all the time, sucking up money and small children, and the breeze is nice too.

If you are considering getting a ceiling fan, Wikipedia, despite it's obvious biases, actually has a really nice article on them.