Energy Adviser: Ceiling fans keep you cool for pennies

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Many of us Pacific Northwesterners start to wilt when cool, cloudy spring days give way to anything warmer than 80 degrees.

Running an air conditioner — or even a heat pump — adds up. A whole house air-conditioning system costs around $1 to $2 a day to operate, or $30 to $60 for the month. The same is true for a heat pump when operated for cooling.

So consider a technology that may seem a little old-fashioned but saves energy: ceiling fans. You can find them at home-improvement stores for as little as $30, although the price varies depending on how big the room is you want to cool.

"Ceiling fans are very inexpensive to operate," said DuWayne Dunham, an energy counselor at Clark Public Utilities. "At current costs, you can operate a ceiling fan six hours a day every day for a month — 180 hours of it spinning — for a grand total of 90 cents."

When shopping for a ceiling fan, look for one with the Energy Star label, Dunham said.

Admittedly, a ceiling fan doesn't work in the same way an air conditioner does.

"The difference is that the air conditioner actually changes the temperature of the air, while the ceiling fan creates a draft that makes you feel as much as 8 degrees cooler than the air around you," Dunham said. "The fan is not as effective on the hot, scorching day, but it's a great option for moderate days."

A ceiling fan provides another benefit. In the winter, you can switch the fan's direction for a convection effect, which helps to move warm air down from the ceiling. This works best on tall ceilings. If you use a fan on an 8-foot-ceiling in the winter, even with the direction switched, it will merely create a cooling draft, Dunham said.

In the summer, other fans can help too. Running the fan on your forced-air furnace can circulate cooler air through the house for about 25 cents to $1 per day. Like anything that uses electricity, be sure to turn the fans off when you're away to avoid wasting power.

Cooling strategies

Fans are just one part of an effective strategy to stay cool. Here are some other ways to stave off the heat without running up your energy bill:

• Set a reasonable expectation for your indoor temperature. Turn your thermostat to at least 78 degrees. The higher the setting, the more energy you'll save.

• To get maximum efficiency out of your air conditioner or heat pump, have it tuned up regularly. A tune-up is relatively inexpensive and will ensure the system is operating as designed. This will extend its life expectancy, too. Also be sure filters are clean and the outside unit is free of leaves and debris.

• In the mornings and evenings when outside temperatures are cool, open up doors and windows to purge the house of warm air. Then close up the house to keep heat outside during the hottest parts of the day.

• Use drapes, blinds or awnings to keep out heat. Sunny windows can make an air conditioner work two to three times harder. Close blinds in the early part of the day and open them when it's cooler.

• Plant deciduous trees on the south and west sides of your home to shade it from the beating sun.

• Avoid using the oven. Use the microwave, slow cooker or barbecue.

• Run only full loads in the dishwasher during the cooler part of the day. Use the air-dry cycle.

• Use exhaust fans when bathing and cooking.

• Turn off appliances, lights, computers and printers. They not only use electricity, they generate heat.

• Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs that create less heat and use less electricity.

• Be sure the clothes dryer is vented outdoors and run it when it's cooler outside.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.