Ceiling fan

Ceiling fan

A ceiling fan is a fan, usually electrically powered, suspended from the ceiling of a room, that uses hub-mounted rotating paddles to circulate air.

Casablanca Fan Co. ceiling fan from the early 1980s.

A ceiling fan rotates much more slowly than an electric desk fan; it cools people effectively by introducing slow movement into the otherwise still, hot air of a room, inducing evaporative cooling. Fans never actually cool air, unlike air-conditioning equipment, but use significantly less power (cooling air is thermodynamically expensive).



Collage of three photos of an extraordinarily rare Panasonic-brand ceiling fan from the early 1980s; model unknown, believed to be F5210WH. Example of an early high-quality imported ceiling fan.

The first ceiling fans appeared in the early 1860s and 1870s, in the United States. At that time, they were not powered by any form of electric motor. Instead, a stream of running water was used, in conjunction with a turbine, to drive a system of belts which would turn the blades of two-blade fan units. These systems could accommodate several fan units, and so became popular in stores, restaurants, and offices. Some of these systems still survive today, and can be seen in parts of the southern United States where they originally proved useful.

The electrically powered ceiling fan was invented in 1882 by Philip Diehl; he had engineered the electric motor used in the first Singer sewing machines, and in 1882 adapted that motor for use in a ceiling-mounted fan. Each "Diehl Electric Fan" had its own self-contained motor unit, with no need for belt drive.[1]

Diehl was almost immediately up against fierce competition due to the commercial success of the ceiling fan. He continued to make improvements to his invention; the "Diehl Electrolier", was a light kit fitted to the ceiling fan to combine both functions in one unit. By World War I most ceiling fans were made with four blades instead of the original two, which made fans quieter and allowed them to circulate more air.

By the 1920s ceiling fans had become commonplace in the United States, and had started to take hold internationally. From the Great Depression of the 1930s until the 1950s ceiling fans faded out of vogue in the U.S.[1], almost falling into total disuse in the U.S.; those which remained were considered items of nostalgia.

Meanwhile, they had become very popular in other countries, particularly those with hot climates but without the infrastructure or resources for high-energy-consuming and complex air conditioning equipment. In the 1960s some East Asian manufacturers started exporting ceiling fans to the United States. They caught on slowly at first, but found great success during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, since ceiling fans consume far less energy than air conditioning units.

Due to this renewed commercial success, many American manufacturers also started to produce, or significantly increase production of, ceiling fans. The Casablanca Fan Company was founded in 1974. Other American manufacturers of the time included the Hunter Fan Co. (which was then a division of Robbins & Myers, Inc), FASCO (F. A. Smith Co.), Emerson Electric, and Lasko; the latter two were often branded as Sears-Roebuck.

During the rest of the 1970s, and through to the late 1980s, ceiling fans remained popular in the United States. Many small American manufacturers, most of them rather short-lived, started making ceiling fans. Throughout the 1980s the balance of sales between American-made ceiling fans and those imported from Asian manufacturers changed dramatically. Even the most basic U.S-made fans sold at $100 to $250, while the most expensive imported fans rarely exceeded $85.

In the United States, due to the ever-reducing cost of air conditioning ceiling fan sales once again started to decline from the early to mid 1990s. With the reduction in sales came a reduction in research and development by U.S. manufacturers, and features were dropped to reduce costs. Once-standard features, such as solid wood blades, built-in variable-speed dials, high-quality stator/rotor ("stack") motors, and die-cast steel construction, were largely replaced by cheap, standardized parts.

Since 2000 important inroads have been made by companies offering higher price ceiling fans with more decorative value. In 2001, Washington Post writer Patricia Dane Rogers[2] wrote, “Like so many other mundane household objects, these old standbys are going high-style and high-tech.” Newer companies such as Minka, Fanimation, The Modern Fan Co., The Period Arts Fan Co. and Monte Carlo brought well-built fans with distinctive design to the market.


Unlike air conditioners, fans only move air—they do not directly change its temperature. Therefore ceiling fans that have a mechanism for reversing the direction in which the blades rotate (most commonly an electrical switch on the side of the unit) can help in both heating and cooling.

In summer, the fan's direction of rotation should be set so that air is blown downward (Usually counter-clockwise). The blades should lead with the up turned side as they spin). The breeze created by a ceiling fan speeds the evaporation of perspiration on human skin, which makes the body's natural cooling mechanism much more efficient. Since the fan works directly on the body, rather than by changing the temperature of the air, during the summer it is a waste of electricity to leave a ceiling fan on when no one is in a room.

In winter, ceiling fans should be set to turn the opposite direction (usually clockwise; the blades should spin with the downward turned side leading) and on a low speed. Air naturally stratifies — that is, warmer air rises to the ceiling while cooler air sinks. Unfortunately, this means it is colder on or near the floor where human beings spend most of their time. A ceiling fan, with its direction of rotation set so that air is drawn upward, pulls up the colder air below, forcing the warmer air nearer the ceiling to move down to take its place, without blowing a stream of air directly at the occupants of the room. This action works to even out the temperature in the room, making it cooler nearer the ceiling, but warmer nearer the floor. Thus the thermostat in the area can be set a few degrees lower to save energy, while maintaining the same level of comfort. It is important to run the fan at a low speed to minimize the wind chill effect described above.

An additional use of ceiling fans is coupling them with an air conditioning units. Through-the-wall/through-the-window air conditioning units typically found in rented properties in North America usually have both the tasks of cooling the air inside the room and circulating it. Provided the ceiling fan is properly sized for the room in which it is operating, its efficiency of moving air far exceeds that of an air conditioning unit, therefore, for peak efficiency, the air conditioner should be set to a low fan setting and the ceiling fan should be used to circulate the air.


There is an exception to the standard rule of blowing air down in the summer and pulling it up in the winter. When a ceiling fan is mounted in a room with very high ceilings (two stories/levels high or higher),or at the head of a tall set of stairs, the mode of operation is reversed. In this scenario the fan is mounted so high up that there is no significant "wind chill effect". The purpose then becomes to move hot air down in the winter and pull cold air up in the summer.[3]

Parts of a ceiling fan

The key components of a ceiling fan are the following:

  • An electric motor (see Types of ceiling fans below for descriptions)
  • One to six paddles (called "blades"); usually made of wood, MDF, metal, or plastic; which mount under, on top of, or on the side of the motor. The majority of residential ceiling fans have either four or five blades[citation needed], while most industrial ceiling fans have three. However, a very few specialized art fans (fans made more for artistic appearance than functionality) have other numbers of blades, such as one, or eight or more.
  • Metal arms, called blade irons (alternately blade brackets, blade arms, blade holders, or flanges), which connect the blades to the motor.
  • Flywheel, a metal or tough rubber double-torus which is attached to the motor shaft, and to which the blade irons may be attached. The flywheel inner ring is locked to the shaft by a lock-screw, and the blade irons to the outer ring by bolts that feed into tapped metal inserts. Older flywheels may become brittle and break, a common cause of fan failure. Replacing the flywheel requires disconnecting wiring and removing the switch housing to gain access to the shaft lock-screw.
  • Rotor, alternative to blade irons. First patented by industrial designer Ron Rezek in 1991, the one-piece die cast rotor receives and secures the blades and bolts right to the motor, eliminating most balance problems and minimizing exposed fasteners.
  • A mechanism for mounting the fan to the ceiling
    • Some fans mount using a "ball-and-socket" system. With this system, there is a metal or plastic hemisphere mounted on the end of the downrod; this hemisphere rests in a ceiling-mounted metal bracket and allows the fan to move freely (which is very useful on vaulted ceilings). Some companies have come up with slight modifications of this design.
    • Some fans mount using a "J-hook" (also known as a "claw-hook") system. In this system, a metal hook (which comes in a variety of configurations) secures to a ceiling-mounted metal bolt (again, available in a variety of configurations). Usually, there is a rubber bushing inserted between the hook and the bolt as a noise-reduction agent.
    • Some fans can be mounted using a low-ceiling adapter, a special kit which must be purchased from the fan's manufacturer. This eliminates the need for a downrod, and is therefore useful in rooms with low ceiling clearance.
    • In recent years, it has become increasingly common for a ball-and-socket fan to be designed such that the canopy (ceiling cover piece) can optionally be screwed directly into the top of the motor housing; then the whole fan can be secured directly onto the ceiling mounting bracket. This is known as a "close-to-ceiling" mount.

Other components, which vary by model and style, can include:

  • A downrod, a metal pipe used to suspend the fan from the ceiling. Downrods come in many lengths.
  • A decorative encasement for the motor (known as the "motor housing").
  • A switch housing (also known as a "switch cup"), a metal cylinder mounted below and in the center of the fan's motor. The switch housing is used to conceal and protect various components, which can include wires, capacitors, and switches; on fans that require oiling, it often conceals the oil reservoir which lubricates the bearings. The switch housing also makes for a convenient place to mount a light kit.
  • Blade badges, decorative adornments attached to the visible underside of the blades for the purpose of concealing the screws used to attach the blades to the blade irons.
  • Assorted switches used for turning the fan on and off, adjusting the speed at which the blades rotate, changing the direction in which the blades rotate, and operating any lamps that may be present.
  • Lamps
    • Uplights, which are installed on top of the fan's motor housing and project light up onto the ceiling, for aesthetic reasons (to "create ambiance")
    • Downlights, often referred to as a "light kit", which add ambient light to a room and can be used to replace any ceiling-mounted lamps that were displaced by the installation of a ceiling fan
    • Decorative light bulbs mounted inside the motor housing - in this type of setup, the motor housing often has glass panel sections which allow light to shine though.


  • Commercial or industrial ceiling fans are usually used in offices, factories or industries. Commercial ceiling fans are designed to be cost effective and can save more than 75% on energy. The industrial or commercial ceiling fans only use three blades plus a high-speed motor to function. To use more blades would strain the motor and use up more electricity. It can be purchased with an ultra quiet motor. These energy efficient ceiling fans push massive amounts of air compared traditional ceiling fan. If it’s summer they keep the air circulating and in winter they push warm air from the ceiling to the floor.
  • A hugger or low profile ceiling fan has been installed as close as possible to the surface of the ceiling without the ceiling fan blades scraping it. Hugger fans are usually installed in rooms which have lower ceilings. Hugger ceiling fans can’t be used in rooms with vaulted ceilings. In cold climates, a ceiling fan may disperse heat to warm up the room as well by dispersing downwards the warm air that rises to the ceiling surface. Though the ceiling fan cannot lower room temperatures, when used in tandem with a room air-conditioner it may be able to disperse the cool air all around the room.
  • Outdoor ceiling fans may be used in covered locations but outside the house proper, such as in a porch exposed to the garden. The outdoor ceiling fan should never be placed where the elements (especially water) can reach it and its motor. Outdoor ceiling fan should be covered with a rust-proof finish and non-warp blades. Outdoor fans are made of materials which can withstand cold, heat and humidity.
  • Energy Star ceiling fans are manufactured under the Energy Star label. Usually energy star fans hold the distinction of being more energy efficient (50%), have lower price tags, and save a lot of money on energy savings. There are also energy star ceiling fans cooling other types of structures besides home such as warehouses, offices, businesses, and schools. Energy star ceiling fans are available in home repair stores and furniture stores, or you may order the product online at a discount online store.

Operating a ceiling fan

A Hunter-branded "Eclipse", which is a basic modern ceiling fan with standard pull-chain controls for the fan motor and light kit.

The way in which a fan is operated depends on its manufacturer, style, and the era in which it was made. Operating methods include:

  • Pull-chain/pull-cord control. This is the most common method of operation for household fans. This style of fan is equipped with a metal-bead chain or cloth cord which, when pulled, cycles the fan through the operational speed(s) and then back to off. These fans typically have three speeds (high, medium, and low); however, the speed range can be anywhere from one through four.
  • Variable-speed control. During the 1970s and 1980s, fans were often produced with a variable-speed control. This was a dial mounted on the fan which, when turned in either direction, continuously varied the speed at which the blades rotated—similar to a dimmer switch for a light fixture. A few fans substituted a rotary click-type switch for the infinite-speed dial, providing a set number of speeds (usually five).
    • Different fan manufacturers used the variable-speed control in different ways:
      • The variable-speed dial controlling the fan entirely; to turn the fan on, the user turns the knob until it clicks out of the "off" position, and can then choose the fan's speed.
      • A pull-chain present along with the variable-speed control; the dial can be set in one place and left there, with the pull-chain serving only to turn the fan on and off. Many of these fans have an option to wire the light kit to this pull-chain in order to control both the fan and the light with one chain. Using this method, the user can have either the fan or light on individually, both on, or both off.
      • "Vari-Low": A pull-chain and variable-speed control are present. Such a fan has two speeds controlled by a pull-chain: high (full power, independent of the position of the variable-speed control), and variable (speed determined by the position of the variable-speed control).
  • Wall-mounted control. Some fans have their control(s) mounted the wall instead of on the fans themselves; such controls are usually proprietary and/or specialized switches.
    • Digital control. With this style of control, all of the fan's functions—on/off status, speed, direction of rotation, and any attached light fixtures—are controlled by a computerized wall control, which typically does not require any special wiring. Instead, it uses the normal house wiring to send coded electrical pulses to the fan, which decodes and acts on them using a built-in set of electronics. This style of control typically has anywhere from three to six speeds.
Old-style and new-style chokes.
    • Choke. This style of switch takes varying physical forms. The wall control, which contains a motor speed regulator of some sort, determines how much power is delivered to the fan and therefore how fast it spins. Older such controls employed a choke—a large iron-cored coil—as their regulator; these controls were typically large, boxy, and surface-mounted on the wall. They had anywhere from four to eight speeds, typically four or five. Newer versions of this type of control do not use a choke as such, but much smaller electronic circuitry; the switch is typically mounted in a standard in-wall gang box.
    • Solid state variable speed control. These controls, commonly used on industrial fans, can control more than one (up to 15) fans with one switch. 2.5 to 6 amp controls typically mount in place of a typical wall switch, while 8 to 15 amp controls are larger.
  • Wireless remote control. In recent years, remote controls have dropped in price to become cost-effective for controlling ceiling fans. They may be supplied with fans, or fitted to an existing fan. The hand-held remote transmits radio frequency or infrared control signals to a receiver unit installed in the fan.

Types of ceiling fans

Many styles of ceiling fans have been developed over the years in response to several different factors such as growing energy-consumption consciousness and changes in decorating styles. The advent and evolution of electronic technology has also played a major role in ceiling fan development. Following is a list of major ceiling fan styles and their defining characteristics:

A cast-iron ceiling fan made by Hunter, dating from the early 1980s. This model is called the "Original".
  • Cast-iron ceiling fans. Cast-iron ceiling fans account for almost all ceiling fans made from their invention in 1882 through the 1950s. A cast-iron housing encases a very heavy-duty oil-bath motor, usually of the shaded-pole variety. These fans must be oiled periodically, usually once or twice per year, since they use an oil-bath system for lubrication. Because these fans are so sturdily built, and due to their utter lack of electronic components, it is not uncommon to see cast-iron fans aged eighty years or more running strong and still in use today.
    • The Hunter 'Original' (manufactured by the Hunter Fan Co., formerly a division of Robbins & Myers, Inc.) is an example of a cast-iron ceiling fan. It has enjoyed the longest production run of any fan in history, dating from 1906 to the present (it is still being manufactured as the "Classic Original", with several spin-off models). The Original employed a shaded-pole motor from its inception until the late 1980s, at which point it was changed to a permanent split-capacitor motor. Though the fan's physical appearance remained unchanged, the motor was further downgraded in 2002 when production was shipped overseas; the motor, though still oil-lubricated, was switched to a "skeletal" design, as discussed below.
A close-up of the dropped flywheel on a FASCO ceiling fan.
The Emerson "Heat Fan", one of the first fans to use a stack motor.
  • Stack-motor ceiling fans. In the late 1970s, due to rising energy costs prompted by the energy crisis, Emerson invented a new style of electric motor designed specifically for ceiling fans, the "stack" motor. This powerful, energy-efficient motor aided in the comeback of ceiling fans in America, since it was far less expensive to operate than air conditioning. With this design (which consists of a basic stator and squirrel-cage rotor), the fan's blades mount to a central hub, known as a flywheel. The flywheel can be made of either metal or reinforced rubber, and can be mounted either flush with the fan's motor housing (concealed) or prominently below the fan's motor housing (known as a "dropped flywheel"). Many manufacturers used and/or developed their own stack motors, including (but not limited to) Casablanca, Emerson, FASCO, Hunter, and NuTone. Some manufacturers trademarked their personal incarnation of this motor: for example, Emerson came out with the "K-55" and "K-63" motors, and Casablanca with the "XLP-2000". One of the earliest stack-motor fans was the Emerson "Heat Fan", aka the "Universal" or "Blender Fan", a utilitarian fan with a dropped flywheel and blades made of fiberglass or plastic. This fan was produced from 1976 through 1983 and, while targeted at commercial settings, also found great success in residential settings. Another stack-motor fan; one without the dropped flywheel; is the Casablanca "Delta" (3-speed model as compared to the "Zephyr" which is a variable-speed model) pictured at the beginning of this article. While this motor is not nearly as widely used as in the 1970s and 1980s, it can still be found in certain high-end Casablanca and Emerson fans.

One disadvantage of this type of fan is that the flywheel, if it is made from rubber, will dry out and crack over time and eventually break; this is usually not dangerous, but it renders the fan inoperable until the flywheel is replaced.

  • Direct-drive ceiling fans employ a motor with a stationary inner core with a shell that revolves around it (commonly called a "spinner" or "pancake" motor); the blades attach to this shell. Direct-drive motors are the least expensive motors to produce, and on the whole are the most prone to failure and noise generation.[1] While the very first motors of this type (first used in the 1960s) were relatively heavy-duty, the quality of these motors has dropped significantly in recent years. This type of motor has become the standard for today's fans; it has been (and is) used in all Hampton Bay and Harbor Breeze ceiling fans, and has become commonly used by all other brands.
    • Spinner fans employ a direct-drive motor and do not have a stationary decorative cover (motor housing). This accounts for most industrial-style fans (though such fans sometimes have more moderate-quality motors), and some inexpensive residential-style fans (particularly those made overseas).
    • Spinner-motor fans, sometimes incorrectly referred to as "spinners", employ a direct-drive (spinner) motor and do have a stationary decorative cover (motor housing). "Spinner-motor" fans account for nearly all fans manufactured from the late 1980s to the present, including nearly all fans made overseas.
A spinner fan.
  • Skeletal motors, which are a high-quality subset of direct-drive motors, can be found on some nicer fans. Examples of skeletal motors include Hunter's "AirMax" motor, Casablanca's "XTR200" motor, and the motors made by Lasko for use in their ceiling fans. Skeletal motors differ from regular direct-drive motors in that:
    • They have an open ("skeletal") design, which allows for far better ventilation and therefore a longer lifespan. This is in comparison to a regular direct-drive motor's design, in which the motor's inner workings are completely enclosed within a tight metal shell which may or may not have openings for ventilation; when openings are present, they are almost always small to the point of being inadequate.
    • They are larger than regular direct-drive motors and, as a result, are more powerful and less prone to burning out.
  • Friction-drive ceiling fans. This short-lived type of ceiling fan was attempted by companies such as Emerson and NuTone in the late 1970s with little success. Its advantage was its tremendously low power consumption, but the fans were unreliable and very noisy, in addition to being grievously underpowered. Friction-drive ceiling fans employ a low-torque motor that is mounted transversely in relation to the flywheel. A rubber wheel mounted on the end of the motor's shaft drove a hub (via contact friction, hence the name) which, in turn, drove the flywheel. It was a system based on the fact that a low-torque motor spinning quickly can drive a large, heavy device at a slow speed without great energy consumption (see Gear ratio).
  • Gear-drive ceiling fans. These were similar to (and even less common than) the friction drive models; however, instead of a rubber wheel on the motor shaft using friction to turn the flywheel, a gear on the end of the motor shaft meshed with gear teeth formed into the flywheel, thus rotating it.
Three fans driven by a single motor and belts.
  • Belt-driven ceiling fans. As stated earlier in this article, the first ceiling fans used a water-powered system of belts to turn the blades of fan units (which consisted of nothing more than blades mounted on a flywheel). For period-themed decor, a few companies (notably Fanimation) have created reproduction belt-drive fan systems. The reproduction systems feature an electric motor as the driving force, in place of the water-powered motor.
  • Punkah style ceiling fans. These fans are based on the earliest form of a fan, which was originally cut from a palmyra leaf. A punkah fan moves slowly in a pendular manner with a rather large blade and is nowadays electrically powered. In comparison to a rotating fan it creates a gentle breeze rather than an airflow.


In 1954, Hunter Fan Company came out with an auto-balancing ceiling fan. The technology uses a flexible disc that ensures fan blades operate smoothly and evenly with each rotation - even when weighted, tweaked or otherwise warped. The technology is beneficial to builders that have to deal with call-backs when ceiling fans are not properly installed.

In 2008, Germany-based company Oliver Kessler Design released their THE SOLITAIRE punkah fan which uses a computer controlled brushless motor to mimic the slow pendular movement of a manually operated punkah fan. It features counterweights to balance the blade which can be as large as 1,5 m2 and runs efficiently, with as little as 10 W power consumption. THE SOLITAIRE punkah also features a safety stop that cuts off the motor if anything blocks the blade. In 2009 they released the SynchTool; it can wirelessly synchronize the movements of up to 999 of their punkah fans.

Computer controlled THE SOLITAIRE punkah fans with peacock feather blades (Jumeirah Beach Residence, UAE).

In 2009, Hunter Fan Company released the first-ever ceiling fan and wireless speaker combo. The product received a lot of attention including positive review from Gizmodo and a feature on Today Show.[citation needed] The fan uses a small transmitter to send a signal from a sound source (an MP3, receiver, etc.) to the fan, which then "showers" down sound over the room. The product is called Concert Breeze.

Safety concerns with installation

A typical ceiling fan weighs between 15 and 50 pounds when fully assembled. While many junction boxes can support that weight while the fan is hanging still, a fan in operation exerts many additional stresses — notably torsion — on the object from which it is hung; this can cause an improper junction box to fail. For this reason, in the United States the National Electric Code (document NFPA 70, Article 314) states that ceiling fans must be supported by an electrical junction box listed for that use. It is a common mistake for homeowners to replace a light fixture with a ceiling fan without upgrading to a proper junction box.

Another concern with installing a ceiling fan relates to the height of the blades relative to the floor. American law states that no fan can be mounted with its blades closer than seven feet from the floor; this often proves, however, to not be high enough. If a person fully extends his or her arms into the air — as sometimes happens during normal tasks such as stretching, changing bedsheets, or recreation — they may become seriously injured if there is an operating ceiling fan mounted too close. Also, if one is wearing a tall hat, carrying a ladder, long wooden board, pipe, or some other long and awkward object, one end may inadvertently enter the path of rotation of a ceiling fan's blades; this can be very dangerous if the fan is operating at the time, and can cause damage to the fan regardless.

The risk of damage/injury is lower when the fan is pushing air downward, because in that case any object that hits the blades will be deflected downwards by the face of the blade (just like the air).


Wobbling is not at all created or influenced by the ceiling on which the fan is mounted, or the way in which the fan is mounted, or anything else along those lines. Rather, the one and only cause of wobbling is fan blades being out of weight-alignment with each other. This can happen due to a variety of factors, including: blades being warped, blade irons being bent, blades or blade irons not being screwed on straight, blades being different weights or shapes or sizes (minute differences matter), etc.

Contrary to popular misconception, wobbling will not cause a ceiling fan to fall.[citation needed] Ceiling fans are secured by clevis pins locked with either split pins or R-clips, so wobbling won't have an effect on the fan's security. To date, there are no reports of a fan wobbling itself off the ceiling and falling. However, a severe wobble can cause light fixture shades or covers to gradually loosen over time and potentially fall, posing a risk of injury to anyone under the fan, and also from any resulting broken glass. It is important that, when installing the fan, the installer closely follows the manufacturer's instructions with regard to using proper mounting screws. It is also important that all screws (especially the set screws which hold twist-on downrods in place) be tight, and any ceiling fan light fixtures are properly assembled with their shades and covers securely attached.


  1. ^ a b c Scharff, Robert; Casablanca Fan Co.. The Fan Book. Reston, VA 22090: Reston Publishing Co, Inc.. pp. 128. ISBN 0-8359-1855-6. 
  2. ^ Dane Roger, Patricia. "Eye on Design, Washington Post June 14, 2001". pp. H5. 
  3. ^ Holladay, April. "Ceiling fan direction". WonderQuest. http://www.wonderquest.com/Fans.htm. Retrieved 2009-06-1*. 

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