Nothing says summer like a ceiling fan lazily (or furiously) circling above your head. A saving grace during the warmer months, ceiling fans are a great addition during the cooler seasons too.
We give you the low-down on what you should look for when buying a ceiling fan, including how to find the right sized fan for your room, installation and running costs, which features you should consider and how to use your fan in winter.
Ceiling fans don't actually lower the room temperature, but instead work the same way a breeze does: by moving air around and over your skin, which cools you by accelerating perspiration evaporation.
They can be an effective, low-cost alternative to air conditioners or even heaters during the cooler months.
Ceiling fan types
There are two broad categories of ceiling fan: alternating or direct current. Within these two categories are a number of alternatives that use different materials, sizes and blades.
Some include a built-in light which is useful if you want to install a fan but only have a single fitting in the roof.
Ceiling fans using an alternating current (AC) motor are the most common type you'll find in an existing installation. And they tend to be cheaper with a range of options under $200.
Fans using a direct current (DC) motor are becoming more common and deliver even greater efficiency, lowering running costs.
Speed options with DC models also allow more control over air movement – up to seven settings – compared to most AC models, which have only three settings.
The DC motor has an internal inverter and is therefore compatible with normal AC electrical systems, so you don't need to do anything special to install a DC ceiling fan in a home. In fact, a DC-powered ceiling fan can't be connected directly to a DC power source.
Your fan can pull double duty and keep your home comfortable in winter by bringing the heat down to the living area without creating an uncomfortable warm draught.
Reversing the direction of the fan, from anticlockwise in summer to clockwise in winter, draws air upwards rather than downwards, moving warm air around in winter without creating a downward breeze in the room.
This is useful on its own or when used together with a heater or reverse-cycle air conditioner.
DC fans deliver up to seven speeds including reverse. But even if your fan can't go in reverse, you may find one of the slowest normal speeds works well for you in winter by driving warm air down from the ceiling without creating a significant draught effect.
Optimise your home's efficiency
Specifying ceiling fans in all rooms will not only help you meet the latest National Construction Code, it's also required for the top rating (7 stars). Under the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) rating, including more ceiling fans will also improve your comfort in summer and winter.
Our most recent ceiling fans test data found that DC fans are cheaper to run than AC fans, generally speaking.
The results are estimated based on eight hours of use per day for six months of the year, used in summer to keep cool and part of winter to help move warm air down to the living area. Electricity is priced at 30 cents per kWh.
Over this period, AC fans have an average running cost of $25 a year, with the cheapest starting at $15 and the most expensive maxing out at $44. DC fans have an average running cost of $12.87 a year, the cheapest being $8 while the most expensive is $17.
This isn't too bad if you only have one or two fans operating regularly. But the costs can increase pretty quickly if you're running a bunch across multiple rooms.
Aim for more energy-efficient models and remember to turn them off if the room isn't in use – unlike air conditioners, ceiling fans are designed to make you feel cooler, not the room.
The first thing you need to figure out is the size of your room and your preferred operating speed range. If these don't match up, the fan won't suit your requirements.
Your best option is to measure your room, record the dimensions, then take them to the retailer or manufacturer's website. Most provide a sizing chart that recommends optimal models based on the size of your room.
A 52-inch (132cm) fan is considered the standard size, and if it has more than three speeds, it should deliver the air movement you need for a comfortable night's sleep without blowing your bed sheets off.
Ceiling fans can keep your home comfortable in winter by bringing the heat down to the living area
If your room is on the smaller side, then a 48-inch (122cm) fan will be a better choice. The smaller size may also give you a better chance at getting the air movement you want, even if you select a three-speed model.
Larger fans over 54-inches (137cm) are better for larger square rooms, around the 5x5m mark or bigger. Not only can they move air around the entire room, their proportions are appropriate to the space, so they'll look good too.
However, long open areas that are more of a rectangular shape will benefit from multiple 52-inch models, as they can deliver a more consistent airflow throughout the area. In any case, you'll likely run large fans like these at their lowest speed most of the time.
Does ceiling height make a difference?
Absolutely! Minimum ceiling height needs to be between 2.1–2.4m for the best performance.
If your ceiling is significantly higher, around 2.7–3m or more, you'll most likely need an extension rod to lower the fan to an optimal level. These are often included or available for an additional fee, though not with every model, so double-check before you buy.
Some ceiling fan lights can only be replaced by an electrician.
A fan with an integrated light can be a useful feature. If you rely on existing lights such as downlights mounted in the ceiling around the fan, you could end up with a strobe lighting effect – great for parties, less so for relaxing on a warm evening.
Some ceiling fans with integrated lights come with universal fittings, which means they accept bulbs with a standard Edison screw (E27) or bayonet (B22) mount, although you may need to select a light design that can fit into the light housing.
Models with proprietary LED lights that are provided as an all-in-one light kit are increasingly common. These kits typically cost more and you can't simply replace a fitting with a standard light bulb. So always check the fitting before you buy.
Remember to turn your ceiling fan off if the room isn't in use – unlike air conditioners, they're for making you feel cooler, not the room
Some fans are adaptable, which means you can buy a fan without a light kit and fit one later if you change your mind.
However, this is becoming less common and can be confusing when making your purchase online, as many models are now available as a version with the light and one without, so you can't add a light later or adjust the one that's included.
A good way to confirm what model to buy if you want to add a light later on is to check out the accessory kit at an online retailer or the ceiling fan brand website. If a light isn't among the options, you won't be able to add a light to your ceiling fan later.
This inability to add a light to an existing fan is becoming more common with the increased use of integrated LED kits in the ceiling fan design.
Controlling the lights
It's important to pick a fan that lets you control the lights with a separate switch. This can be a remote (including an app if you use smart bulbs) or a standard wall switch. That way you can turn it on/off or adjust the brightness without having to change speed settings.
Conventional dimmer switches, aka the round knob mounted on your wall, can cause the motor to hum in some ceiling fans with light mounts.
If you want to connect the light to a dimmer switch, speak to the retailer or manufacturer first to make sure it doesn't suffer from interference.
Do you need an electrician to change the bulbs?
You can replace standard screw (E27) and bayonet (B22) bulbs yourself, just like any light fitting.
The bad news is that for many of the integrated light models, the warranty often stipulates that the light kits are replaced by an electrician, even though many of these kits involve no more than unplugging the LED kit and plugging in a replacement.
So if you do decide to get an electrician to change the light fitting, get your money's worth and have some other jobs ready, as the whole process would take no longer than a few minutes.
You may be able to DIY a pull-cord or remote control fan, but a fan with a wall switch will need to be professionally installed as it's illegal to attempt it without an electrician's licence. You'll also void the warranty if you attempt to wire one up and there's a chance you could electrocute yourself.
We had a look around and found that most electricians will charge between $100 and $200 per fan. You can probably negotiate a lower rate if you need a few installed at once. You'll also have to pay a service fee which varies depending on who you hire.
It's no fun choosing between a hot room and a noisy one. If it's possible to hear the fan in operation before you buy it, do it! Check the noise with the fan on 'low', particularly if it's for use in a bedroom, and on 'high' for a living room setting.
That said it's not generally the noise of the fan that most of us find irritating, it's the distracting clicking or knocking sounds.
Why does my ceiling fan make humming or buzzing sounds?
Humming or buzzing sounds in ceiling fans are caused by ripple control signals sent through the electricity supply (to switch devices such as hot water systems on and off for off-peak tariff switching).
This is a known problem that's unlikely to be covered by the fan's warranty. Your electricity supplier may be able (or even required) to fix the problem, so contact them in the first instance to see how they can help.
Do blade materials make a difference to the fan?
The materials you choose are for the most part a personal choice. Our testing over several years hasn't revealed any particular material (plastic, wood, aluminium or stainless steel) to be better for noise or airflow.
They all perform in a similar manner with the main differences determined by the quality of the motor as well as the design and shape of the blade. The number of blades also isn't an issue with high performance delivered for models with two, three and four blades.
In terms of noise, fans with wooden or plastic blades have been found to be slightly quieter over years of testing, which make them more suitable for bedrooms.
But the results are not conclusive, so don't make the blade material your reason for buying or not buying a model.
As far as durability, fans have no problems dealing with the heat: it's the humidity that's the issue. If you live in an area with high humidity such as North Queensland, then selecting a tropically rated fan may be a good idea.
It's not only the blade materials that have to deal with the humidity, but also the motor which should be sealed to help keep out moisture.
What to consider when buying a ceiling fan
Ceiling fans can dominate your space, so depending on your decor and priorities, design might be a big factor in your decision.
There are plenty of well-designed ceiling fans that can enhance the look of a room – a retro-style ceiling fan might suit your home much more than a bulky, wall-mounted air conditioning unit.
Controls and settings
- Pull-cord: Connected to the bottom of the fan, simply pull once for the lowest setting and again for the next highest.
- Wall switch: Usually combined with the light switch, wall switches are easy to use but require professional installation.
- Remote control: Also easy to use and allows for easier fan installation in situations that make it difficult to rewire to a light switch.
Fan balance kit
This helps correct wobbles that can rob a fan of efficiency and create extra noise.
Smart fans can automatically start when the temperature reaches a certain point, or can use a proximity sensor associated with an app on your smartphone.
The good news when buying and using a ceiling fan is that its impact on the environment is relatively low and you're most likely to use your fan for decades before you have to consider getting rid of it.
While we've highlighted the improved efficiency of a ceiling fan with a DC motor compared to an AC motor, don't get rid of your old fan just to save a couple of dollars a year. Almost all ceiling fans are an environmentally sound way to keep you feeling cool in summer and also warmer in winter.
But when it's finally time to dispose of your fan, you can try Planet Ark or your local council with a separate e-waste pickup.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.