A Guide to Understanding How Ceiling Fans Work

ceiling fan

They keep us cool in summer. The keep us cool at night when the blankets are too much. They spread heat throughout the room in winter. Some have multiple lights, while others only have one. Some have no lights at all. You pull a chain to turn on some, while light switches turn on others. They are ceiling fans, and we can’t imagine life without them. But how do they work? 

How Ceiling Fans Began

Although we can’t fathom how they were powered in 500 B.C. when ceiling fans were first mentioned, it’s easier to see how they were used leading up to the 20th century. Some ceiling fans were made of palm branches while others were made of wood. They were moved using a rope and pulley system, and were placed over dining room tables or in a home’s parlor, where people gathered.

It wasn’t until 1882 that ceiling fans were motorized. Philip Diehl took the motor from a Singer sewing machine and added it to his ceiling fan. The fan was a hit. When other people such as the Hunter fan company began making their own fans, Diehl took his to the next level by adding a light to his ceiling fan. Then two more blades were added to the original two, and you have the ceiling fan we know and love today. 

The Mechanics of Ceiling Fans

When we pull the chain or flip the switch to turn on the ceiling fan, electrical energy heads for the motor. When it gets there, it’s routed to a coil of wires encircling a metal base. When the electricity enters this coil, it spins around clockwise, creating a magnetic force. The electrical energy is now mechanical energy. It makes the fan blades begin to spin. 

How All This Makes You Feel Cooler

To begin with, you have to understand that ceiling fans don’t actually cool or heat. They circulate the air already in the room. The way it works is actually like a game of catch you play with your kids with baseball and glove. 

Warm air rises. When it enters the fan’s zone, the heat gets “caught” in the baseball glove or the fan’s zone. The blades swing into action by cutting the air in half. The heat is dissipated. The air is returned (like the baseball thrown back to the kids) by the blades to the lower half of the room as cool air. 

Now walk over to your ceiling fan. On the side of the housing is a switch. Push the switch down. Watch as the fan blades slow to a stop and then reverse their spin. In winter, the fan blades should be pushing air down onto you. In the summer, they should be sucking the air up towards the ceiling. 

With the blades’ action reversed, heated air is pushed down upon you. Cool air displaces it, is heated, and blown back through the room. It’s called a downdraft, and it’s how you remain warm in winter. 

How The Body Reacts

The fan is moving air around the room at a steady rate. Your body is producing heat at a steady rate. This heat produces perspiration. It evaporates from the skin when the cool air from the fan hits the body. When it evaporates, it requires more heat to make it happen. This means more heat is leaving your body. 

The air in the room will remain the same temperature no matter what. However, the downdraft and the breeze therefrom constitute a “wind chill,” which aids in cooling you off. 

Ceiling Fan Buying Tips


Fans with 52 inch blade lengths are better suited for large open spaces of perhaps 400 square feet. A smaller room at 225 square feet would require a smaller fan at 44 inches in blade length. Anything less than that, and you would only need 42 inch fan blades. 

Blade Count

Most fans have from two to five blades. The normal number is four. It is believed that more blades process less air due to the blades taking up the space air used to occupy. More blades, however, do affect price, so choose accordingly.

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