Ceiling fans can be breath of fresh air in old houses


When it comes to keeping your old house comfortable during hot summer weather, ceiling fans are cool.

They're fairly inexpensive, easy to operate, and come in styles and sizes to fit any decor. Installation is usually not difficult, especially if there's already a light fixture where you want the fan. If the ceiling is uneven, peaked or cathedraled, there are devices that can keep the fan level. In general, as long as there's a place to mount it, you can install a fan.

Almost any room is a good candidate for a ceiling fan -- living room, dining room, great room or family room, porch, screened porch and bedroom could benefit from the air-moving properties of a ceiling fan. There are fans designed for porches or gazebos that have plastic blades and weather-tight housings.

One thing ceiling fans do require is good support. That's the caveat in installing a fan in place of an existing light fixture: It could be easier, because the electrical connection is already there, but it could also be harder, if the mounting area isn't sturdy enough. In a new house, remodeling job or addition, it's usually simple to install the ceiling outlet box for the fan on a joist or on solid wood bridging between two joists. There are ceiling outlet boxes that have built-in bolts to secure the fan. Be sure your electrician knows where you plan to put ceiling fans, so the outlet boxes can be installed properly.

If you're installing the fan in an existing ceiling, and the support proves too flimsy, there are some alternatives. The most disruptive is to tear out part of the ceiling and install wooden supports. However, you may be able to find an outlet box with spreader bars. You need a hole in the ceiling only as large as the outlet box, then you work it up into the hole and open the spreader arms to grip the joists on either side of the opening. Make sure the spreader box is rated for use with a ceiling fan.

Putting the fan together is the easy part. You can do that yourself. But in most jurisdictions, the law requires that licensed electricians make the electrical connections, even in an existing outlet box. If you'd like to install a fan in an existing ceiling with no existing electrical connection, you must hire an electrician.

A ceiling fan can be used both summer and winter, if it has a switch to reverse the direction of the blades. In the summer, the blades push air down, creating a breeze. In winter, the blades pull warm air up and distribute it around the room.

Like televisions, VCRs and CD players, some ceiling fans come with elaborate remote-control capabilities. Or you can just use an old-fashioned pull chain, as the owner of the house Randy has been building did with fans at either end of the front porch. Virtually all fans can be outfitted with light fixtures, which come in an array of styles.

Fans are a big part of a summer air-management program. The trick is to keep hot air moving out and cooler air moving in. Ceiling fans keep air moving so it feels cooler on your skin. Hot air needs a way to escape: Open a window in a central location on an upper floor, or, if your house is one-story, a window on the hot side of the house. Open windows on the cool side of the first floor. If you install a window fan -- a simple $15 box fan works fine and may be the biggest value-for-money bargain in the cooling business -- it can help pull cooler air through the house.

You should also try to keep hot air out as much as possible. Keep blinds and curtains closed on the hot side of the house, or use plantings or awnings to keep sun off the windows.

One air conditioner may cool several rooms if you use good air-management techniques and use exhaust fans to pull air through the house.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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