On this page:

Electric Panel Problems

(February 1996)

I saw this in my house a number of years ago and thought it was just one of those things.  I've since seen it in another Virginia Hills house.  I want you to know about it so you can look for it in your own wiring.  It is potentially very dangerous.

One day it was raining and I noticed that the refrigerator wasn't running.  I went downstairs to check the fuse box and saw water dripping out of the bottom of the metal box.  I looked all around the box for where water might be coming into the house.  Everything was dry.  I then (carefully) removed the front of the fuse box and looked inside.  I was horrified to see that water was dripping into the box from the heavy electrical cable leading in from the meter box outside.  The inside of the fuse box was rusted out, obviously from previous occurrences of the same thing.  Needless to say, this made for a very dangerous situation.  This was not unique to my house.  As I said, last month I saw another house where the same thing had happened to a circuit breaker panel.

Here's what is happening.  Think of that heavy electrical cable that comes from the outside meter box into your fuse box or circuit breaker panel as a big pipe.  Inside that pipe are three big electrical wires, two of which are insulated and one of which is not.  If water gets into the cable (pipe) along with the wires, it can run down the wires into your circuit breaker panel inside.  Water can get into the cable through the cable's insulation if it has rotted away, but more likely it's coming into the meter box and flowing out the bottom of the box into the cable.

I don't have to discuss the dangers of water and electricity!  In addition, if your circuit breaker panel rusts out, you are looking at a repair costing almost $1000.  Here's how you can check to see if this is happening to you.

On a day when it is not raining, inspect the outside of your fuse box or circuit breaker panel for rust, especially at the bottom.  If there is none, you're probably OK.  Wait for the next heavy rain and observe around the panel for water dripping out.  If you see rust or water, you'll need to investigate a bit further.  Carefully remove the four or six screws that hold on the front cover of the panel and carefully lift that cover off.  BE VERY CAREFUL!  DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING INSIDE THE PANEL.  If you are the least bit nervous about this, you should have a professional do it.  Shutting off the main breaker still leaves you with hot wires inside the panel.  The only way to make the panel completely dead is to remove the outside meter, and you can't do this.

Inside the panel, look for rust and the white stains where water has evaporated and the minerals from it remain.  If you see these, you'll need professional help to make the repair.  An electrician should repair or replace the outside box and/or cable to make them watertight.  Don't put this task off.  The longer you go, the more expensive the repair will be.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1996


(October 1993)

Last month we discussed some items covered under the National Electrical Code as part of our discussion of finishing a basement.  This month we'll stay with things electrical and talk about something that is very important to your safety--ground fault circuit interrupters.

When we talk about electrical safety, we are mostly talking about the dangers from shock and possible electrocution.  This happens when electrical current flows through you to ground rather than back through your electrical wiring.  Coming in contact with a "hot" electrical wire would cause this.  Any appliance with defective insulation or bare wires inside has the potential to shock you.  Water is a particular source of danger, as water is a good conductor of electricity.  If a defective appliance were to fall into a container of water, the appliance and the water itself would be electrified.  If you were to touch either, the results would be quite unpleasant.  If this seems unlikely, think of the places where it could easily happen--near your kitchen sink, in the bathroom, or outdoors.  The National Electrical Code has taken this into account in its effort to protect you in these locations (NEC Section 210-8 (a)).

This section of the Code requires that all receptacles installed in bathrooms, outdoors, in garages, or in kitchens within six feet of the sink protected by a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI).  What a GFCI does is measure the current going out of and back into the circuit.  If everything is operating correctly, these should be equal.  If they are not, there is a leak in the circuit, and that may be due to the current going to ground through your body.  When it detects such a situation, the GFCI immediately trips the circuit.  It does this so fast that the danger to you is minimal.

The Code only requires GFCI circuits in new construction and when major electrical work is done to upgrade wiring.  Since installing such circuits is easy and inexpensive, however, I would encourage you to install them in kitchens, baths, and outdoors if you do not already have them.  They could easily save a life!

There are two ways of installing GFCI protection.  The first is to protect the entire circuit by installing a GFCI circuit breaker in your main electrical panel.  This is a job best left to a licensed electrician, but is not a particularly expensive one.  The breaker itself costs about $40-50, and you will require no more than an hour of the electrician's time.

An easier way to install GFCI protection is to replace the standard receptacle with a GFCI receptacle available for about $10-15 in home centers and hardware stores.  BEFORE WORKING ON THE CIRCUIT, MAKE SURE THAT YOU HAVE SHUT IT OFF AT THE MAIN PANEL AND THAT IT IS DEAD!!!  If you are unsure what you are doing or have never worked with electricity, please let a licensed electrician do the work.  If you do the work yourself, follow the instructions that come with the GFCI receptacle very carefully.

One nice thing about the GFCI receptacle is that it can protect all the receptacles "downstream" from the place you install it as well as just that one location.  Therefore if you install it at the receptacle closest to your electrical panel, it can protect the entire circuit from that point on.  One place that should not have GFCI protection is the receptacle that protects your refrigerator.  When the refrigerator kicks on, it can sometime cause nuisance tripping of the GFCI.  Since the GFCI won't reset itself automatically, the circuit might be out for a long time before you noticed it, and your food could easily spoil.  You may have to plan very carefully to install GFCI protection in your kitchen for this very reason.  If in doubt, hire a professional!

To keep your GFCI functioning properly, you must to test it once a month.  You do this by pushing the "TEST" button on the receptacle or breaker.  It should trip.  Reset it, and do it again next month!  If you have appliances that regularly trip the GFCI, replace them.

As the holiday season approaches, remember that it is a very good idea to plug your outdoor lights into a GFCI protected circuit.  If you don't have one, you can purchase outdoor extension cords with GFCI protection.

GFCI circuits or receptacles are inexpensive protection when it comes to electrical safety.  Protect your family.  They're worth it!

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1993

Recessed Lights

(February/April 1995)

Part I

Recessed lighting can be the perfect solution to many of your lighting problems.  Because it does not physically hang down below the bottom of the ceiling, it works well in areas where ceiling height is restricted, such as in a basement.  It looks modern.  It can be used to illuminate artwork or bookshelves.  In this column, we're going to talk about recessed lighting and how you can select what is right for you.  Next time we'll talk about how you can install it yourself.

Recessed fixtures, also known as down lights, come in many varieties.  They can be fixed or able to be aimed (the so-called eyeballs).  They can have lenses covering them or they can have open apertures with various types of baffles. They can come with or without reflectors around the lamp, and they can use regular incandescent lamps, reflector incandescent lamps, or halogen lamps.  ("Lamp" is the correct term for what we would consider a bulb).  You should be able to find a fixture that meets any need you may have.  If you aren't sure what type of fixture is best, you should probably check with a lighting store that can show you the various types displayed and provide you with individual assistance based on your particular needs.  Here are some guidelines:

If you find that you still are confused, you might want to hire a lighting consultant to help you get the lighting effect you want.

A critical thing to check in the fixture you desire is the wattage of the lamp that you may use in it.  If you use a lamp with too much wattage, the fixture will overheat and cause a hazardous condition.  All good recessed fixtures should have thermal protection, that is, a switch that shuts them down if the heat gets too high.  Many owners of recessed fixtures can't understand why the fixture turns on, shuts down after a while, and then works the next time they try it.  That's the thermal protection working.  More than likely they are using a lamp that is too hot for the fixture, and reducing the wattage of the lamp will fix the problem.

One important consideration in selecting recessed fixtures is the nature of the ceiling above them.  Because of the heat they generate, most recessed fixtures cannot be covered with insulation; insulation must be kept three or more inches away.  This means that if you put such a fixture in your attic, there will be a large area around the fixture that is uninsulated and you will be losing heat from the house.  The answer is to purchase a fixture that is labeled "IC" or "direct contact with insulation."  Such fixtures can be covered and surrounded with insulation.

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that your fixture should be UL approved!  Also if you are going to use the fixture in a bathroom, it should be approved for damp locations--and for wet locations if you'll be using it in a shower.

To anticipate something we'll be discussing next time, you will have to know where you are installing the fixture--in "new" construction where the ceiling joists are exposed, in a suspended ceiling, or in an existing ceiling in which you will have to cut a hole.  Most fixtures come with the installation hardware for all three situations, but check the outside of the package before you buy!

Part II

In the last article, I discussed the various types of  recessed lighting.  In this article, I'll give you a general description of how to install the lights.  Remember, read the directions of the light that you purchase.  This will, of necessity, be only a general description.

There are three kinds of installations.  First is installation in new construction, which means that your ceiling is open to the joists of the floor above or to the trusses in the attic.  The second installation would be in a suspended ceiling.  The third would be in an existing ceiling covered with drywall or some other finish.

Installation in new construction is the easiest of the three.  Since the ceiling is open, all you have to do is insert the bar hangers that come with your fixture into the slots in the fixture and attach them to the bottom of the joist/truss.  Once the fixture is secured, it can be centered or otherwise moved on the bar hangers to hang where you want it between the joists.  The fixture should also be adjustable for the thickness of the ceiling that you eventually plan to install.  This is usually done by loosening some screws inside the "can" where the lamp will eventually go.

Of course, you will also have to bring power to the fixture.  Since the ceiling is open, this means that you will have to run electrical cable to the fixture either off an existing circuit or from a new circuit.  This may well be the most difficult part of the job.  I've written a few articles in the past on electrical wiring.  The bottom line is that you need to know how to determine whether there is enough capacity on an existing circuit to put more lights on it.  You need to know what size wire to use.  And, if you're installing a new circuit, you have to work inside your electrical panel.  Understanding how to do these things safely is very important.  If you are not comfortable with your knowledge in these areas, you should hire a professional rather than trying to do it yourself.

To install a recessed fixture in a suspended ceiling, you must first determine where the fixture will go and then mark the center of the opening in the ceiling tile.  Next, use a compass to draw a circle the size of the fixture opening from that center point.  Use a keyhole or a saber saw to cut out the opening.  Replace the ceiling tile in the suspended ceiling's grid.

Some manufacturers make clips to use with the suspended ceiling grid, and you can use these to secure the fixture to the grid.  If you don't have these clips, you can secure the fixture by using the bar hangers and wiring them to the grid.  Once the fixture is secure, make the electrical connection.  Center the fixture over the opening you've cut out, and make the adjustment so that the bottom edge of the can is even with the bottom of the ceiling tile.

The last installation, in an existing ceiling, is the most difficult.  The greatest difficulty will be getting power to the fixture, especially if you cannot access the ceiling space from above.  Electricians know how to "fish" wires from other locations, so you may want them to do this work for you.  You start the installation by marking and cutting out the circular opening for the can as in a suspended ceiling.  You then make the electrical connection to the fixture and remove the can from the frame.  Next, slide the frame of the fixture through the opening and center the hole for the can on your cutout hole.  Install the mounting clips that come with the fixture to the frame and the ceiling so that they line up with the holes for the screws that mount the can.  Slide the can back up into the frame and reinstall the screws.

Once you have this installation complete (and your new ceiling on, if it's an installation in new construction), you can install the trim.  The trim will cover the edges of the hole completely, so if you've made a minor error in your cut, it won't show.

If you are wondering how you can access the wiring if you need to in the future, it's simple.  You can remove the can from the frame again.  Once it's out, reaching up through the hole will give you access to the electrical box with a cover that snaps on and off.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions about insulating in the vicinity of the fixture.  Unless it's an IC fixture, you must leave some space to allow the heat to dissipate.  If your fixture begins to blink off and on, it's a signal that you have either used a bulb with too high a wattage or the fixture is somehow overheating.  You'll need to make the appropriate fix immediately.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1995

Home Computers

(September 1995)

No, this isn't going to turn into a computer column!  But over 30% of all homes now have home computers, and I thought it might be time to talk a little about the care and feeding of these beasts.  There are several things that you can do to protect your computer and avoid problems down the road.

First, where in the house should you put your computer?  That, of course, has a lot to do with how you and your family use it.  There are a few obvious places to avoid, however.  Computers, like all things electrical, don't like water much.  You would be surprised, though, at how many people set the case of their computer on the floor near a laundry room where an overflow could flood it out.  Same if you have a wet basement.  If there's any danger of water getting to it, the computer should not be there!

Also, computers produce a lot of heat.  If you run your computer in a sunny room in the summer, you'll need good air conditioning for that room for your comfort and for the computer's.  Too much heat can cause computer problems, either from chips that unseat themselves, or from actual burn up.  Note:  if the fan in your computer ever stops working, shut down quickly.  Heat is as great an enemy to a computer as water.  On the other hand, if you're working in a cool basement in the winter, the computer will actually help warm a small room.

One of the key factors to locating your computer is the electrical power available to operate it.  Ideally, a computer should be on its own 20 amp electrical circuit.  Why is this?  Let's look at how much current a computer draws.  First, the power supply of a computer draws about 250 watts these days.  A color monitor draws another 200 when it's on.  Add another 12 or so watts for the power supply of an external modem and another 20 for the power supply of a pair of multimedia speakers.  So far, we have 500 watts, or the equivalent of five 100 watt light bulbs.  No problem so far.  However, if you add a laser printer, it may draw an additional 600 watts while it is printing (about 50 in standby--these figures from a Hewlett Packard IIIP).  That brings you to 1100 watts or about 10 amps, meaning that much else on the circuit gets you to the maximum very quickly.  Therefore, if you can't give the computer its own circuit, you need to reduce the load from anything else on the circuit to the bare minimum.  Certainly DO NOT use something like a hair dryer or an electric fry pan, or you'll be changing a fuse or resetting your breaker for sure!

How can you protect your computer from power surges?  You should always plug your computer into a surge protector which should trip before dangerously high voltage gets to the computer.  These are the power strips that you see in stores.  But beware!  The cheap ones offer minimal protection against serious surges such as a lightning strike.  Make sure you get a quality surge protector and that it is Underwriters Laboratory (UL) listed!  The few extra dollars that you spend will be well worth it!

If you are a serious computer user, however, you should probably invest in a universal power supply (UPS).  This is a device that is essentially a big battery and a lot of electronics.  If the voltage from the receptacle into which you plug your UPS drops below a certain level (or goes off entirely), the UPS switches over to the battery and gives you time to do an orderly shutdown without losing any work.  Depending on the size of the device and the load that is placed on it, you should have five to ten minutes to shutdown before you lose power.  The sizes of universal power supplies varies, but for home use you should probably get one in the 400 to 600 VA (volt-amp) range.  The price would be about $150-$300.  As an added attraction, these also provide a $25,000 warranty against damage by voltage surge to your equipment.

What maintenance is necessary on your equipment?  Surprisingly little beyond good housekeeping, actually.  Dust can accumulate on the computer, especially around the intake(s) and outlets for the air that cools the inside.  You should wipe things down with a damp cloth occasionally, especially the back of the case.  Make sure the power is off when you do this!  And never move the computer case when it's on, as this can ruin your hard drive.  And if there is a lot of static electricity in the room, always touch a metal object before you touch the computer!  Computer chips and static electricity do not get along.  Wipe down your monitor screen with some window cleaner and vacuum the hair and dirt out of the keyboard.  That's about all you can reasonably do.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1995

Emergency Generators

(February 2002)

While power outages in Virginia Hills are far more rare than they used to be, they still occur from time to time. And it was not so many years ago that people in Maryland were without power for up to two weeks due to a freak ice storm. Do you sometimes wish you could have an emergency backup system to insure that you had power even when Virginia Power couldn't provide it? If so, you've probably thought about buying a generator. In this article, we'll talk about what you can and can't do and what it might cost. You can then decide whether this is a good idea for you.

First, let's clear up some misconceptions about generators.

Facts about Generators

A generator, at least not one you would buy for your home, isn't designed to provide continuous power 24 hours a day. You will have to shut it down to fill it with gas about every four hours. You will need to change the engine oil often. And the generator will just need some time to cool down and "rest" (the technical term for this is "engine durability"). Don't plan on running the generator more than about 8-12 hours a day. Organizations such as the military that need continuous portable power run generator "sets" that consist of two or more generators.

Anything having an electric motor draws a surge of power of about three times the normal power consumption for the second or two when it starts. While generators have a surge capacity, it is usually only 20% of the total generating capacity. What this means is that if you have a refrigerator and a furnace fan starting at the same time, you'll need a lot of extra capacity or you'll risk burning out the generator or the motors that are starting.

Generator Safety Issues

A generator produces carbon monoxide and must be run outside the house.

You can't refill the gas tank of a generator while it is running.

You must use very heavy duty extension cords, 15 or 20 Amp capacity minimum, if you connect the generator directly to what you are powering with it.

A generator burns about a gallon of gasoline per hour. Where will you store all that gasoline safely?

You may not connect a generator directly to your house's electrical circuits. Doing so poses a serious danger of injury or death to utility personnel working on the power lines because your generator will back feed electricity into the lines when the power is off.

Hooking Up a Generator

This means that you have to have a special hookup if you want to run your house with a generator. One such hookup is called a transfer switch that allows some of your circuits to be powered by the generator. Such a switch must be installed by an electrician, and it isn't cheap. Another disadvantage is that you must select in advance the circuits that you want to power. For any circuit not wired into the switch, you're out of luck. Ten circuits is the maximum most transfer switches allow.

A second way involves installing a new device from GenerLink (www.generlink.com). Virginia Power installs this device between your electrical meter and the meter base outside the house and you plug the generator into it. You can then turn your circuit breakers off individually to control which circuits receive power. The disadvantages involve the risk that you may accidentally place too much of a load on the generator and the cost of the device itself.

Selecting a Generator

The three criteria for selecting a generator are price, quality, and the load it must power.

Most households in Virginia Hills have gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas stoves, and gas dryers which make the load the generator must power much less. Without going into all the details, plan on a continuous capacity of 5000-7000 watts (5kW-7kW) for your generator and understand that it won't be able to run your air conditioning (even if you doubled the size).

For a good quality generator in that size range, plan on spending $2000 - $3000 for the generator and another $1000 to have a transfer switch installed. Is it still worth it to you?

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2002

Energy Saving Ideas

(September 2007)

Whole House Fans

During our hot, humid summers, you need to run the air conditioning 24 hours a day to stay cool; nights may not cool down below 85 degrees and they remain humid. But in April, May, September, and October, the nights are generally comfortably cool and there is little humidity. The problem is how to get that cool outside air into your house. Just leaving the windows open doesn't do the job. The answer has traditionally been a whole house fan in the ceiling below the attic. It blows the hot house air up into the attic where the increased pressure pushes it out the attic vents. At the same time, the loss of air inside the house draws in the cool outside air. An hour or so of running the whole house fan can easily cool down the house.

I know what you're thinking. A whole house fan with its belt drive sounds like a helicopter taking off, and the metal louvers rattle loudly enough to wake the dead. Plus, because the whole house fan isn't insulated, in the winter it's like having a huge hole in your ceiling for your heated air to escape. But those are the old whole house fans. Fans currently being sold are very quiet indeed. They consist of two smaller direct drive fans and have insulated, hinged covers that open automatically when the fan is turned on. They are designed to fit easily between ceiling joists and are not difficult to install if you have some electrical skills. They may even have a remote control to turn them off and on so you don't need to install a wall switch.

The best news is that a good whole house fan can save you 90% or more of what it would cost to run your air conditioning.

Compact Florescent Bulbs

Compact florescents are improving very quickly. You can now buy them in warm white, cool white, and sunlight colors of light. There are even compact florescent bug lights for outside. I've recently seen spotlights and floodlights for your track and recessed lights. The energy saving is again very large. A 13 watt compact florescent replaces a 60 watt incandescent bulb.

Any light that is on for a long period of time is a prime candidate for a compact florescent. Overhead lights, reading lights, room lights that come off and on with a timer, and even outside lights can be replaced with compact florescents. For lights outside, check the compact florescent packaging to ensure that the bulb will work in your application. Some are extremely sensitive to low temperatures.

Battery Chargers

Many battery chargers for cell phones, other electronic devices, electric razors, electric toothbrushes and the like use current when they're plugged in, even if they aren't charging anything at the moment. In the future we will probably see government regulation requiring these chargers to only draw power when they're recharging their device, but for now it's a good idea to unplug any charger that isn't being used. With several such devices plugged in, the amount of energy wasted is surprisingly large.

Turning Off Computers

In days gone by, desktop computer power supplies drew only 200 watts or so of power, and some even less. Now, manufacturers are using 400 watt power supplies, and leaving the computer on uses the equivalent of four 100 watt light bulbs. In the winter when the heat is on in the house, that energy the computer is using is being released as heat, so it's not entirely wasted, but electric heat is expensive heat. In the summer, the computer is adding to the cooling load on your air conditioner. Certainly turn off the computer when you go to bed and when you go to work.

Save Energy, Get a Tax Deduction

The tax deduction for energy improvements to your home applies again for improvements made in 2007. Some of the things that qualify are more insulation, new windows and skylights, and a new furnace, air conditioner, or hot water heater if they meet or exceed certain energy efficiency standards. The total amount of the credit may not exceed $500. If you were thinking of making these improvements anyway, 2007 would be a good time to do so.

For more information, visit the IRS web site at irs.gov and search for "Energy Policy Act of 2005."

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2007

Ceiling Fans

(June 2012)

Should you install ceiling fans in your home? The benefit of any fan is that you feel cooler when it blows air on your skin because it speeds up evaporation of perspiration, your body's natural cooling mechanism. When you sit in the air flow of a fan, you can feel comfortable in a higher temperature, and you can set your air conditioner to a lower temperature, saving you money.

Let's say you use a fan at night instead of running the central air conditioning. The air conditioner would use, roughly, several thousand watts per hour or more. A new, energy efficient ceiling fan running on high might use 100 watts per hour. That's a significant savings. Of course the air conditioner wouldn't run all night, but 8 hours of the ceiling fan would use the same amount of electricity as 20-30 minutes of the air conditioner at the least.

Here's the problem though. The fan only cools you when you are in the air flow. If you leave the fan on in the living room when you're asleep in the bedroom, the fan is wasting energy because it's not cooling anything. A ceiling fan is only useful when it's cooling you, so bedrooms, living rooms, tv rooms, and other places you spend time are good places for ceiling fans. And remember to torn the fan off when you're out of the room for a more than a few minutes.

For a fan that does cool the house—by drawing in cooler air from outside at night and forcing out the warmer inside air—you'd want a whole house fan, something entirely different.

Despite looking much the same as they ever have, ceiling fans can be much more efficient than they once were. The problem is, however, that many homeowners buy inexpensive fans and install them wrong. As a result, they're stuck with a fan that doesn't work well, isn't quiet, and has a relatively short life span. This article will help you choose the right fan for the room.

First, homeowners tend to purchase fans that are too small. Fans are measured by the diameter of the circle made by the outer edges of the blades, also called the blade span. The larger the room, the larger the fan should be. Unfortunately, there are as many guidelines as there are fan vendors, so here are some that seem to work for me. These are sized a bit larger than in some other guidleines:

Room Size Fan Blade Span
Under 110 sq ft. 36-42 inches
110-150 sq ft. 44-50 inches
150-300 sq ft. 52-60 inches
300-450 sq ft. 62-72 inches

The second issue is the height at which you hang the fan. Obviously, a fan hung too low would be a danger to people walking around in the room. At a minimum, the fan blades must be no lower than 7 feet from the floor. With 8 foot ceilings, that means you'll need a low profile fan often called a hugger because the motor and blades hug the ceiling. If the fan is hung too high, however, it won't move the air as well. Here's a table giving you the length of the downrod you'll need if your ceiling is higher than 8 feet.

Ceiling Height Downrod Length
9 feet 3-6 inches
10 feet 12 inches
11 feet 18 inches
12 feet 24 inches
13 feet 36 inches
14 feet 48 inches
15 feet 60 inches

Here's an important point. Fans may not be hung from standard electrical boxes in the ceiling. You will need a special fan box that installs tightly so it can't break free due to the vibration of the fan. Such boxes can be purchased in home centers and hardware stores, but they can be tricky to install if your ceiling is already finished and you can't get into the attic above to install them. You can hire a good electrician to install this special box and your fan.

Which direction should the fan turn? Most fans are reversible, meaning you can set them to turn either clockwise or counter-clockwise. The rule is for your fan to turn clockwise in the summer and counterclockwise in the winter (as seen from above; as seen from below, the direction appears reversed). Yes, ceiling fans can be helpful in the winter because they can force the warm air that has risen to the ceiling back down to the floor. But it's hard to remember this direction rule, and the direction of rotation is confusing, so set the direction this way. Stand under the fan and turn it on. If the air is blowing down on you, that's the direction for the summer. Walk over to a wall in the room. If you feel the air moving down at the wall, that's the direction for winter.

Still, if the fan is in the center of the room's ceiling and you'll be sitting along the wall, you might want to try the winter setting and see if it's more comfortable for you where you sit. If so, use that direction for summer too. In the winter, use the lower settings of the fan or you'll create a wind chill with the breeze.

Good fans will provide you two important pieces of information on the box. First, look for the CFM (cubic feet per minute) rating for each speed. The more air the fan moves, the better. Then look for the watts consumed at each speed. The fewer watts used, the better. Then, if there isn't a clear winner, divide the CFM by the number of watts to get the amount of air moved per watt. Higher numbers are better.

Generally speaking, the more you pay for your fan (for any given size), the better a motor you'll get. This shortcut is complicated by the fact that you'll also pay more for fans with a designer appearance. It's not easy to get a handle on the motor you'll be getting except by researching each manufacturer and model.

Finally you'll need to decide how to control the fan. Many fans, particularly those over beds, are powered, along either the attached light, by a simple light switch. There is a small switch on the fan to reverse direction and a pull chain to select off-low-medium-high. This is acceptable if you can easily reach the switch and chain on the fan.

If you can't reach the chain on a fan mounted higher, the next best alternative is a rheostat switch instead of the light switch that allows you to select the speed but not the direction. It's worth noting that a special rheostat is needed. A simple dimmer won't do the trick.

Finally, many fans are available with remotes that turn the fan on and off, set the speed, and change the direction. The only problem with this system is that the remote can be misplaced, the batteries in the remote can go dead, or the remote can get broken. In any of these cases, the fan won't function until you've fixed the problem or found the remote.

A good ceiling fan, properly installed, will give you many years of effective cooling and savings on your heating and air conditioning bills. The time you spend on careful research of brands and models and the time and care you put into the installation will be well rewarded.

Copyright, Doug Boulter 2012

Back to index