We base a lot of our posts on the questions we get asked most often on the job. The debate of ceiling fans vs. AC is one which I’ve avoided spouting about online for some time now, mostly because it gets my blood pressure up. Those of you who have read some of our articles know that we at ASM pride ourselves on honesty; we’re straight shooters. So which is better, ceiling fans or AC? Do ceiling fans really save energy and money? The short answer is “no,” ceiling fans don’t save energy. Not only that, but they can cost you extra money if used improperly, but people often buy ceiling fans because they think it saves them energy and money. In this article I will discuss the ceiling fan vs. AC debate, and show you how the use of ceiling fans will save you neither energy nor money (now, that’s not to say that you can’t use them if you like them, it’s just that they don’t save energy as some would lead you to believe). We will do this by first discussing where the ceiling fan myth originally came from, then we’ll discuss why ceiling fans don’t save energy with modern air conditioners, we’ll then do a simple cost calculation on ceiling fans vs. AC. Finally, to help you out, we will finish up with some useful air conditioning tips that will actually save you money on your energy bill.
Ceiling Fans vs. AC – Why Ceiling Fans Are Here
I will assume, for arguments sake, that no one is honestly considering getting ceiling fans instead of air conditioning, as this would be a poor choice unless you lived in the North like Bozeman, Montana, where it is cool most of the year. If you were using fans without any air conditioning then of course fans are cheaper. There’s no debating that. But there’s one undeniable reason why air conditioning is so much more expensive than ceiling fans – it works. Who wants to live in a 98 degree house? That’s what summer is like here in Santa Clarita, and even if ceiling fans blow air at you, they don’t remove humidity or actually lower the temperature of the room. So we will instead focus on whether or not ceiling fans save energy and money when used with an air conditioner.
First, ceiling fans don’t cool the air, they instead cool your skin by passing air over it and allowing your body to more efficiently cool itself using perspiration. I often talk to my dad about the 40’s and 50’s when he grew up, and he talks about the horrible heat in New York City during the summertime. He said that every electric fan in the house was running 24-7, and how people had to go to the beach just to get away from the heat. But if fans are so great, then why was air conditioning even invented? In fact, this heat is why places like Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore became so popular in the summertime – to get away from the heat.
Now I’m going to nerd-out on some AC history for a moment, so bear with me, but in 1947 window air conditioning was finally starting to become affordable to the middle class. A novelty to most, central air conditioning wouldn’t become “standard” in most houses until the late 60’s, allowing the population to grow in arid climates like Las Vegas and my home, Southern California. You see, the ceiling fans vs. AC debate isn’t even close to a new one. The problem was though, early air conditioners were extremely inefficient by today’s standards and insulation was minimal at best. Ducting was poorly routed and even larger rooms often only had one small vent leading into them, making one side of the room hot and the other cold. Enter the ceiling fan. By circulating the air, someone figured out that you could increase the efficiency of your air conditioner using a ceiling fan. Done; problem solved. Ceiling fans save energy, we can all go watch Netflix now, right?
Why Ceiling Fans Don’t Save Energy in Modern Homes
The problem is, this is not 1971. Although ceiling fans did save energy by circulating air back in the 60’s and 70’s, this isn’t the case anymore. The name of the game in air conditioning these days is efficiency and it’s good friend insulation. Any home built since the late 90’s has plenty of insulation and (if installed correctly) should also have an air conditioner that is designed to circulate air through your house properly. Anything installed since 1998 will be pretty good, and anything since 2005 will be a model of efficiency. I know what you’re thinking, “but won’t ceiling fans still help the AC circulate air?” No, it actually hurts it. While older air conditioners were just randomly blowing air into one side of a room (and ceiling fans could help circulate that air), modern air conditioners don’t work like that. In fact, you can think of a modern air conditioner as working more like your cardiovascular system – the air conditioner is like your heart, your ducting is like your arteries, and the interior of your house is like your veins. The air conditioner blows air through your ducting into the far reaches of your house in a very specific, designed and organized manor. It relies on proper air flow to return this air back to the air conditioner where it can be cooled and circulated again. Would a ceiling fan help? Let’s imagine that your heart pumps blood to the extremities of your body, where it is used, and then circulates back to your heart. Then let’s imagine that your friend Mark walks in and turns a ceiling fan on in your leg, spinning the blood around and keeping it from returning back to your heart. As you might imagine, the outcome would be less than desirable. The same is true of ceiling fans when used with modern air conditioners. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use one if you like the way it feels! I’m just saying it doesn’t save energy or money, and it definitely doesn’t increase your AC’s efficiency. As such, we recommend using ceiling fans only if your air conditioner was installed before 1995, and if you forget everything else mentioned in this article, remember this: ceiling fans don’t cool air, they cool your skin – there is absolutely no reason to keep a ceiling fan running when you are not in the room!
Still not convinced? Ceiling fans had their part in the history of air conditioning, no doubt, but the only way they save you money is if you use them in a very specific way: you increase the temperature on your thermostat, and only run ceiling fans in the rooms that you are in, turning them off as you leave each room. The key part is, however, that they save you energy because you turned your thermostat up to begin with, not that you are using ceiling fans! You could always just turn your thermostat up a bit and leave it at that. In fact, a 2002 study conducted by the California Measurement Advisory Council (CALMAC) found that only two percent of people actually do turn up their thermostat when using their ceiling fans, and if done properly, the best possible outcome would be a 15 percent reduction in energy costs. Here is the study, you can read it for yourself: Utility Ceiling Fan Study.
Some people are natural skeptics. These people are after my own heart and for you, I offer the following demonstration. If you are still not convinced, then for argument’s sake, let’s calculate the cost of purchasing a ceiling fan and decide whether or not it will save you money. The average ceiling fan runs between $100-$400. So let’s pick $250 just to say that we are right in the middle. Let’s also say that we purchase five fans, one for each room of a four bedroom house, plus one for the living room.
5 X $250 = $1,250
Next, we have to set some ground rules. Remember, that ceiling fans only save you money if you increase the setting of your thermostat. I would argue that you couldn’t raise it by more than about 5 degrees and still be comfortable. But let’s just say that we raise our thermostat by 10 degrees for argument’s sake. From 72 to 82 degrees. We know as a general rule of thumb, that increasing our thermostat by one degree Fahrenheit corresponds to around a one percent decrease in your electric bill. As such, raising our thermostat by 10 degrees gives us about a ten percent reduction in our electric bill:
1% X 10 degrees = 10%
Let’s say that our electric bill each month is $200.
10% X $200 = $20
Wow, that’s $20 savings each month. Not bad. Now, let’s figure out how long before we pay off our $1,250 investment in new ceiling fans.
$1,250 / $20 = 62.5 months, or a little over 5 years. Again, not too bad.
But now, we have to factor in the cost to run the ceiling fans. At a cost of $0.01 per hour to run, that couldn’t be too bad right? Let’s say that there are, on average, two fans running at any given time throughout the day (assuming that everyone is good and turns the fans on and off as they enter and exit rooms).
2 fans X 24 hours X $0.01 = $0.48 per day to operate a ceiling fan, or $0.48 X 30 = $14.40 per month to run our ceiling fans.
Unfortunately, we now need to subtract this from our original savings made by turning the thermostat up by 10 degrees. If you’ll remember, we saved $20 per month.
$20 – $14.40 = $5.60
As you can see, our actual savings made by using ceiling fans is only around $5.60 per month. Now let’s see how long before we pay off our ceiling fan bill:
$1,250 / $5.60 = 223 months, or 18 and a half years.
Conclusion: in order for you to actually start saving money by purchasing ceiling fans in the very generous hypothetical situation above, you would need to use them for eighteen and a half years. Not only would you have to use them properly, but you’d have to only use them only when you were in the room, turn them off when not in use (this goes for kids too…yea right), and keep your house set at 82 degrees instead of 72 degrees…for 18 and a half years to break even. Don’t believe everything that you hear. As we know from the study done by the state of California, only two percent of people were actually able to accomplish this. To be perfectly honest, who the heck wants to deal with that hassle? Not me, but if you believe that you are one of the chosen ones that can make this work, by all means go for it. For the rest of you, when someone tells you that buying their ceiling fans will safe you money, just walk away. If it’s too good to be true, it is. Don’t even listen to their sales pitch because there is a reason that air conditioning is more expensive than using just ceiling fans, just as there is a reason that a Porsche 911 will always out perform a 1971 Ford Pinto (unless my wife’s driving it) – nice things cost money.
Ceiling Fans vs. AC – How to Actually Save Money on Your Electric Bill
1. The real way that you increase efficiency is by turning up the temperature on your thermostat, not the fact that you have ceiling fans running. For more information on how to do this, read: What Temperature Should I Set My Thermostat To?
2. Another way that you can save money is by purchasing a programmable thermostat – a learning thermostat that can learn your habit patterns. Imagine a thermostat that knows when you go to work, and turns up your thermostat to save energy. Imagine it turns down the temperature when you are asleep so you sleep better. Programmable thermostats are here, so if saving money on your energy bill is your thing, take a look at this comparison between the leading two smart thermostats – they each run you only a couple hundred dollars (a lot cheaper than five ceiling fans priced at $1,250): Nest vs. Honeywell Lyric Review.
3. The final way you can save money on your energy bill is to spend a little extra when you buy a new air conditioner. An AC with a higher SEER value will use less energy, so here is a good article on SEER vs. EER.
Final Thoughts on Ceiling Fans vs. AC
In the end, ceiling fans are something to use if you like a breeze while you sleep, or if you like the way they look. They just aren’t going to save energy like they once did in the 70’s. I in no way want you to think that I am slamming ceiling fans! I love them while I sleep, but when you look at the ceiling fans vs. AC debate, a ceiling fan just isn’t going to save you money unless you can brave ninety degree temperatures with only a ceiling fan to help you for twenty years. It isn’t worth it. If you live Southern California, click below to see if you are in our service area. For more information on this and other air conditioning questions, visit the ASM Air Conditioning Blog.