Fan fare

A ceiling fan can help reduce energy costs, but make sure you follow installation directions carefully

July 26, 2008|By ROB KASPER

Ceiling fans don't lower the temperature of a room, but they do make us feel cooler. That is what the ventilation experts say. A U.S. Department of Energy publication points out that a ceiling fan moves the air in a room, and that when air moves over our skin, we feel comfortable. This government research, in other words, confirms common sense.

Like a lot of folks who suffer through Maryland summers, I welcome any breeze and cheer the work of whirling blades. So recently I looked into the idea of adding a ceiling fan to my life.

Ceiling fans, which cost about 3 cents an hour to run, can save money on the household cooling bill. Working in concert with air conditioning (which costs upward of 50 cents an hour to run), or in lieu of it, a ceiling fan pulls the cold air up from the floor and distributes it throughout a room.

People who have ceiling fans brag about their coolness and efficiency. Al Sprock, who has six ceiling fans in his well-shaded three-bedroom home in Carroll County, told me he had turned his air conditioning on only six days this summer. My younger brother told me the ceiling fans whirling in his three-bedroom home in the Kansas City suburbs enable his family to be comfortable with the air conditioner's thermostat set at 78. The Department of Energy says turning your thermostat two degrees higher could lower your cooling costs by 4 percent to 6 percent.

I consulted with Sprock, who is an electrician, and my brother, who has installed ceiling fans in his home, because working with electricity scares me. If presented with a new ceiling fan (which are sold in stores and online for anywhere from $40 to $800), my initial reaction would be to call an electrician, or my brother, and get them to hook it up.

Jack Sprock, who is one of Al's brothers and runs Complete Electric Service Co., says the business gets about 10 requests each summer to install ceiling fans. That job usually costs from $125 to $200, he said. Rob, the youngest Sprock brother, ends up doing most of them.

I met all of the Sprock brothers and their fellow worker, Gary Fox, this week when they showed me how to install a ceiling fan. The fan went in the ceiling above a bed in Al's home. This was a "honey-do" task that Al had promised his wife, Sandy, he would complete, someday. So the Sprock brothers and Fox pitched in.

It did not take this crew very long. Working on what amounted to their lunch break, this foursome cut a hole in the ceiling, ran a new wire from the supply box in the attic to the ceiling fixture, installed a fan-rated electrical box that straddled a ceiling joist, secured the fan motor to the ceiling brace and attached the blades. Occasionally one brother would complain that part of the job, such as climbing in the attic, "was not part of my job description." But the work got done. They even made the bed. As Al arranged the decorative pillows on the bed, he cracked, "We don't do windows."

About 45 minutes after they had started, the fan was whirling. "Don't tell people it took four electricians to install one fan," Jack jokingly said.

"We do have a lot of experience," said Jack, who is 63 years old. Al is 65 and Rob is 56. 'We call ourselves the gray-haired electricians," said Al.

The Sprock brothers grew up in the Belvedere Gardens neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. After a stint in the Air Force, Jack took over Sprock & Sons, the business run by their father, John, also an electrician.

At my urging, they outlined some of the key points of installing a ceiling fan.

First of all, they said, when picking the style of the fan, it is wise to bow to the wishes of the woman of the house. Men tend to judge ceiling fans by the blades - 36 inches long is the norm-and how much they weigh, rather than the look. Jack Sprock said he likes a fan that weighs at least 20 pounds. A heavier fan, he said, is a sign that its motor houses a larger magnet and will probably last longer than lightweight motors.

Another important factor, they said, is the fan's proximity to the ceiling. According to the Department of Energy guidelines, ceiling fans are only appropriate in rooms with ceilings at least 8 feet high. Fans work best when the blades are 7 to 9 feet above the floor and 10 to 12 inches below the ceiling. Fans should be installed so their blades are no closer than 8 inches from the ceiling and 18 inches from the walls, the guidelines say.

An absolutely essential component of any fan installation job, the electricians said, is using a fan-rated wiring box. These metal boxes are fastened to a ceiling joist and hold the fan in place as its spins. Jack showed me three types of these boxes. One is called a pancake because it resembles a flapjack. Another is called a straddle box that fits over a joist. A third is a hanger box, which comes in two styles, and has a metal bar that fits between beams. These devices are sold at electrical supply houses.

"You have to have those fan boxes," Jack told me. "If you don't, there is a good chance the fan and the wiring will wiggle loose. That is not good." And, he added, "there is the possibility of electric shock."

After looking into the benefits of ceiling fans, I became a believer. But that mention of the "possibility of electric shock" cooled my fervor to get one. So I think I will wait until my brother comes for a visit. Then, following the example of the Sprock brothers, I will try to get my sibling to do most of the work.

Tools needed

*Measuring tape

*Dry-wall saw

*Power drill with driver bits

*Wire strippers and wire connectors

*Fan-rated writing box

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