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The old-time ceiling fan cools -- and heats

By Peter TongeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 1980

Hingham, Mass.

A tug on the cord starts the paddle-bladed ceiling fan turning. Seconds later wafts of cooling air, like a gentle sea breeze, wash around us on the floor below.

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On this torrid late-August day, the moving air refreshes us and it is difficult to appreciate that in the colder months that lie ahead, these same blades will warm us, too. Yet this is precisely what this relic of the Victorian age can do for us.

Russ Sears has given me this demonstration. He sells hardware -- everything from a carpet tack to a radial-arm saw -- in a store just across the road here from the oldest continuously operating church in the United States. He also dispenses free advice on how best to use the various products he sells. And this year, more than anything else, folks have been seeking his advice on fans -- how to install them and how best to use them for both cooling and heating.

As energy costs continue to rise, fans are coming back into their own from the smallest desktop fans to attic fans designed to cool an entire house. Right now all fan styles, particularly the old-time ceiling variety, are a hot retail item in stores everywhere.

"We thought we had stocked up with more than enough fans for the whole year," says Mr. Sears, "but by midsummer we were all but cleaned out." Similar tales are coming in from dealers everywhere.

The reasons are easy to find. A small bedside fan can keep a gentle cooling breeze blowing across the bed for pennies a night, compared with the high cost of an air conditioner; the old-fashioned ceiling fan will do the same thing while expending no more energy than is used to burn a single 100-watt light bulb.

In winter that ceiling fan conserves energy by pumping ceiling-hugging warm air backt o floor level. Other fans also improve winter comfort by distributing air from a heated room to more distant regions of the house. In fact, says Mr. Sears, "it is remarkable the way fan sales have paralleled the sale fo wood and coal stoves."

Many people, it seems, install a stove one season and return the next with the question: How can I spread some of my living-room heat around?

The answer, says Mr. Sears, is to use a fan. In the older-style box houses, natural convection carries warm air to the rooms up above; it is in ranch houses that the fan becomes most important in redistributing warm air.

Of them all the paddle-bladed ceiling fan is enjoying the most remarkable resurgence. From its introduction in 1880 through the 1930s it was popular worldwide, particularly in the US and in the hot and humid regions of the British Empire. Now its return is being parked, in part by nostalgia, but mostly because it is effective and relatively inexpensive.

Take the coming winter months. In a typical factory, air temperatures can range from 60 degrees F. at floor level to 90 degrees in the top two feet below the ceiling where the heat slowly conducts through the roof and is wasted. The constant feeding in of heat to warm the lower working levels is expensive so that, in many cases, the installation of large ceiling fans has cut heating bills by up to 30 percent.

The ceiling fans work this way: They continually take the hot air that gathers just below the ceiling and force it back down to the working area. In effect, they recycle the warm air. This satisfies much of the demand of the thermostat so that it calls for heat from the furnace less frequently. At the same time the workers are comfortably warm.