Ceiling Fans: Flip the Switch

By Pax Rasmussen

Ceiling fans are year-round energy-saving devices.
by Pax Rasmussen
The heating vents in my apartment are on the ceiling. Regardless of one's knowledge of physics, it should be fairly obvious that this is not the optimal location to bring heat into a living space. Hot air, as we all know, rises, and cold air sinks. Needless to say, the bottom four feet of my apartment get "chilly," which is at best a pleasant euphemism for "my butt cheeks never warm up." I can only assume that for some arcane reason known only to the likes of general contractors, it was too difficult to run the heat ducts through the floor.

Simple solution: A ceiling fan could comfort my keister.

Some place or other, you've probably heard that you should reverse your ceiling fans in the winter. However, there is some confusion as to why and how you should do this.

It's complicated, but one thing I can say for sure is that if you have ceiling fans, you definitely should be using them in the winter. My friend Kathryn Webb, owner of Nostalgia Coffee in Salt Lake City, tells me she can keep the heater on full-blast in her shop and the temp won't rise above 65 degrees, while the air around the ceiling is a nice and toasty 95. Flipping on the fans gets the shop is livable again in about 10 minutes.

The idea is simple: The fans mix the air about. But should you have them pushing air down, or bringing it up? Common sense would say you want it pushing hot air down in the winter, but it's actually not that simple.

At Nostalgia, Kathryn definitely wants the fans blowing air down, year round. The reason for this is that her celings are around 12 feet high, and getting the hot air down from up there is no easy feat. In a typical residence, however, the ceilings are usually about eight feet over- head, and having the fans blow down, while doing a better job circulating the hot air, tends to create an evaporative cooling effect on our skin, making us feel cold, even if the ambient room temperature is comfortable.

So, if your fans are low enough that you can feel the breeze, you want them pulling air up. It still works: the air in your room has nowhere to go when the fans pull it toward the celing, and is forced back down the walls at the side of the room. It's not quite as efficient, but the air gets mixed about without blowing on your skin.

As far as telling you which direction to have the blades moving, I'm out of luck. Different manufacturers tilt the blades in different ways, so there's no guarantee which direction will move the air down. It's usually clockwise, though.

Basically, just turn on your fan on low and stand underneath. After a couple seconds, flip the switch to reverse it. Go with whichever gives less of a breeze. In the summertime, flip the switch the other direction and turn the buggers all the way up!

By some estimates, you can save 10% of your yearly heating bill with this simple exercise. Besides, if your place is anything like mine, the only good the hot air does near the ceiling is keeping your box elder bugs happy.

This article was originally published on February 1, 2008.