New Twists & Turns: Top-Rated Indoor & Outdoor Ceiling Fans

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New energy-efficiency standards loom on the horizon for ceiling-fan manufacturers, but many already switched to new motors and lights in anticipation of the change. Experts also tell us that ceiling fans should get smarter in the next 2 years, but this technology will cost you.

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A ceiling fan is a simple device. You turn it on, it moves air around a room, and you turn it off. That hasn’t stopped manufacturers from pushing to make this device even simpler to operate—from building in timers to providing a remote control. Now, one manufacturer makes a model that turns on automatically when you walk into a room and turns off when you leave. Experts with whom we spoke tell us that they expect other manufacturers to innovate, too.

Meanwhile, the federal government wants to ensure that ceiling fans become more efficient than they are now.

The effect of all of this should make for a more comfortable environment, but your wallet might feel the heat.

SHIFTING STANDARDS. More manufacturers than ever before now market energy-efficient ceiling fans. Although this trend has been developing for years, the most recent work appears to be an effort to stay ahead of federal regulations. Department of Energy in 2013 proposed regulations that would deliver energy savings from ceiling fans. At the time, DOE suggested that new standards would be announced in 2015. However, at press time, DOE continues to take public comment on proposed changes, and it now hopes to issue standards by summer 2016. Manufacturers then would have to bring their lineups into compliance by summer 2019.

Among the proposed changes is a move to direct-current (DC) motors from alternating-current (AC) motors. Ceiling fans that have a DC motor consume less energy than do models that have an AC motor, because after the fan achieves its desired speed, a DC motor’s built-in magnetic drive uses minimal electricity to maintain the ceiling fan’s motion. As a point of comparison, a ceiling fan that has an AC motor typically uses about 84 watts on its highest speed setting; a ceiling fan that has a DC motor uses about 30 watts on its highest speed. On the lowest speed, the use is 10 watts and 1 watt, respectively.

Manufacturers wouldn’t be unprepared for such a requirement, because they’ve used DC motors in ceiling fans since 2009. Although no numbers were provided, Jason Stevens of Fan Man Lighting, which sells and repairs ceiling fans, tells us anecdotally that the number of ceiling fans that have a DC motor increases each year.

According to CPS Energy, which is a utility company, the average cost to run a ceiling fan that has an AC motor is about $1.42 per month. That’s based on an average use of about 6 hours per day. Several manufacturers claim that ceiling fans that have a DC motor are up to 70 percent more efficient. From that we calculate that a ceiling fan that has a DC motor would cost 43 cents per month to operate under the same conditions.     

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Wendell Porter, who is an engineer at University of Florida and who specializes in energy efficiency and ceiling fans, tells us that ceiling fans that have a DC motor typically have a longer lifespan than do their AC-powered counterparts. Consequently, ceiling fans that have a DC motor are more likely to pay themselves off through savings on your electric bill, although our calculations show that it still would take years to do so.

At 43 cents per month, even the lowest priced ceiling fan that we found that  has a DC motor could take up to 29 years for you to recoup the difference in purchase cost. That, of course, also assumes that the ceiling fan is used year-round, as it more likely would be in a southern climate. In a northern climate, where you might use the fan only during the summer, you might not recoup the cost at all.

Several manufacturers oppose a federally forced changeover to more-expensive DC motors, because it could drive up the cost of a ceiling fan. Stevens tells us that he sympathizes with that argument.

“The silly thing with fan motors is they’re one of the most efficient appliances already,” he says. “To make it more efficient, it’s like, ‘OK, why?’”

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