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Ceiling fans add comfort and save money too

Consumer Reports' guide to finding the right ceiling fan for you

Published: July 2015

Unlike air conditioners, ceiling fans don’t lower a room’s temperature or remove humidity from the air. But you can save energy and money by using ceiling fans and turning off the air conditioning when possible or by turning up the thermostat a few degrees and letting the fan do the rest. Because most ceiling fans performed similarly on low and high speeds in Consumer Reports’ past air movement tests, there are no ceiling fan ratings. But we did find some features that make a difference if you plan to buy one.

Ceiling fans come in a variety of styles and finishes. In the past, we tested a number of three-speed, 52-inch diameter fans, the most popular size. We found that spending more didn’t guarantee better performance but did get you fancier finishes on the motor cover and blades. We also learned to predict how noisy a fan would be by just looking at its design. Here’s what else our tests revealed:

Fans save energy. The recommended indoor temperature for summer is 78° F but some folks dial the thermostat back to much cooler. According to Energy Star, you can save 3 to 5 percent on air-conditioning costs for each degree you raise the thermostat. Using a ceiling fan, which costs little to run, can make you feel up to 4° F cooler. And here's another way to save: Fans cool you not the room so turn it off when you leave.

Airflow and blade shape matter. Look at cubic feet per minute (cfm) numbers on the box to get an idea of how well the ceiling fan moves air. A higher number means more air movement, but don’t fret over small differences. Our tests showed comparable airspeed from fans rated from 5,000 to 5,600 cfm. Fans with the most airflow also made the most noise, but it was wind noise and fluttering, not motor noise. And be wary of fans with large blades that have ridges, bumps, or other surface texture; those often make more noise on high than fans with smooth blades.

Wobble can be fixed. Most fans came with balancing kits, a combination of weights that you attach to the blades to make up for slight differences in blade weight and removable clips that help you determine where to place the weights. You can eliminate most of the wobbling with the kits, but it’s a trial-and-error process.

The right ceiling fan

Look for the Energy Star. Fans that earn the Energy Star label move air 20 percent more efficiently than standard models. Energy Star fans with light kits are 60 percent more efficient than conventional fan/light units and can save you more than $15 per year on utility bills.

Select the right size. While 52-inch fans are the most popular, that size, give or take a couple of inches, works best in rooms that are 225 to 400 square feet. Choose a 42- to 44-inch model for 144 to 225 square feet. Opt for a larger fan if your room size is on the borderline, and run it on a slower speed, which is quieter.

Suit your style. From basic to ornate, ceiling fans can bring back memories of “Casablanca” or have a Jetsons-like modern twist. Motor-cover finishes include brass, bronze, and pewter. Basic fan blades have a paddle shape, while variations include oval and leaf shapes or wicker-like textures. Finishes include cherry, oak, maple, and painted blades.

Know installation requirements. Install a ceiling fan in the center of the room at least 7 feet above the floor, 8 to 9 feet for optimal airflow. Generally blade tips should be no closer than 24 inches from the wall and from drapes. Check manufacturer’s directions for specifics. If you’re replacing a light with a fan, be certain that the electric box in the ceiling can support the weight of the fan. Not sure? Check the installation instructions or call an electrician.

Check the wet/damp rating. If you’re placing a ceiling fan in a bathroom or outdoors, you need to find one that meets UL’s wet/damp rating. If the fan is indoors in a moist room, look for a UL “damp” rating. If the fan will be placed outdoors on a porch, look for one with a UL “wet” rating. Energy Star says that fans with these ratings have such features as sealed moisture-resistant motors, rust-resistant housing, stainless steel hardware, and all-weather blades.

All about light kits

Ceiling fan light kits can be purchased three different ways: integrated into the fan, included with the fan at the time of purchase, or sold separately. Many of the light kits that are sold separately are “universal,” meaning they can be used on a number of different fan models. Similarly, most ceiling fans are light kit adaptable. However, there are many cases where compatibility is only between light kits and ceiling fans under the same brand.

If your fan doesn't include lighting, be sure to purchase an Energy Star certified light kit. This lighting is efficient and long lasting, so you won't have to make frequent bulb changes. There are three common types of light kits. Branched or stemmed light kits have cans or globes that can point up or down. Uplight kits sit on top of the housing and point toward the ceiling, casting a softer light.

Nearly all Energy Star qualified ceiling fan light fixtures use bowl lighting, which can be attached  either directly to the ceiling fan housing or below the fan. Bowl and shade designs range from clear to alabaster, crystal, or tiffany. The fancier the glass design, the more expensive.

Lightbulbs. Not all CFLs and LEDs are intended for use in ceiling fans. If yours has bowl lighting, look for a lightbulb that can be used in an enclosed fixture. If your fan has cans or globes in which the bulb points down, you’ll need lightbulbs specifically intended for use in ceiling fans. Keep in mind that lighting affects energy use. LEDs are more efficient than CFLs and CFLs are more efficient than halogen lightbulbs. Incandescents are the least efficient of all and are being phased out.

Match the fan to the room

A ceiling fan should look great, even at rest. The style you choose should add to the room decor, like a piece of furniture, only on the ceiling. You might want to install more than one fan in very large rooms such as a great room or an open floor plan.

Hang it high. A fan at 8 to 9 feet is best for optimal air flow so if your ceiling is higher, use a downrod to position the fan at the proper height.

Connect with color. Coordinating the fan’s finish with other furnishings helps create unity and balance in a room. You can match the color of a wood fan blade to the floor. Metal fan finishes can coordinate with door knobs, cabinet hardware, and even kitchen faucets and bathroom fixtures.

Blend it in. Fans are big and kind of clunky to conceal. If you want to make one less visible, choose a very simple style in a color that blends in with the ceiling. A flush-mounted fan will disappear into the ceiling a bit more.

Keep it clean

Clean all household fans at least once a season. Dirty fan blades don’t move air efficiently. A ceiling fan that is covered with dust or pollen can fling the offending particles around the room as it's whirring away And if you have a fan in the kitchen, cooking grease can make it a dust magnet. That’s why it’s important to keep the fan clean, especially if you use it year-round. Doing so requires a ladder, an all-purpose cleaner, and a little effort.

Cover the floor and furniture. Spread drop cloths or old sheets on the floor and over any furniture that's near or under the fan. Try to cover an area about twice as wide as the fan. Position the ladder so that you can see the top of the blades. Remove any globes and hand-wash them in the sink.

Dust then wash.  Start by removing loose dust with a cloth or duster. Then moisten a cloth or sponge with an all-purpose cleaner—don’t spray liquid on the fan—and wash each blade. Don’t apply heavy pressure, which can bend the blades and cause the fan to not work properly. Dry thoroughly; damp blades attract dust.

Cool tools. A special tool—a long-handled, U-shaped brush—is available from hardware stores and home centers. The blade fits in the inner part of the U, so both sides can be cleaned at once. If you don’t have this tool, a few cleaning websites recommend using an old pillowcase, slipping it over each blade and then pulling it back to remove dust and dirt. If cleaning the ceiling fan is a chore you hate, try waxing the blades with car wax, which can prevent dust from sticking.

—Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

Air Conditioner Guide


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