Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Save Money by Going Back in Time: Whole House Fans

My grandma & grandpa's house was built in 1953 and like all homes built then, central heat and air was not available. Matter of fact, high-tech for 1953 was Saran Wrap and radial tires, which both made their debut onto the market that year. Also in 1953, the first 3D movie was shown and color television aired for the first time. Air conditioners saw their first milestone when one million window units made their way into homes around the world. These window units were big ticket items then. My grandpa, being a truck driver with a family of 9 to feed, wouldn’t have put much money into this newfangled technology. They knew how to get around heat waves without cool air.

Fast forward 30 years. I remember as a teenager one day sitting in Grandma’s living room on a spring morning and enjoying a cool breeze passing through the house. There was a hum and slight squeak of a motor turning in the background which was abnormal too. I didn’t put two and two together for another twenty minutes and when I investigated found the source of the breeze, it was a HUGE fan mounted between the attic and living space. I had noticed before the louvers which remained closed when the fan was not on. This time, with the fan on, I got my first glimpse of the fan itself. I marveled for a moment at the strength of this thing.

Antique whole house fan like Grandma used to have.


To Buy or Not to Buy?

The whole house fan worked by sucking air through open windows, into the living space and pumping it into the attic. This brought outside temperatures inside and cooled the attic off as well. Earlier this year, I randomly recalled this wonder and decide to investigate this ancient appliance to see if it would fit into our lifestyle change. Step 1, find a serviceable unit somewhere close by which we could turn on and evaluate. Step 1 was short lived. After putting the word out, I found that nobody uses these things anymore. Bummer.

Long story short, here’s what I did learn through the internet.

1. The larger the fan, the more noise they generate.

2. The more blades they have, the less noise they generate.

3. Vibrations travel through the fan and into the frame of the house producing noise.

I ended up purchasing a mid-sized fan for my 1100 sq/ft home. I’ll spare you the installation details, but I will mention that I hung the fan from the rafters to avoid the vibration transfer to the frame! This is the first I’ve heard of this and I haven’t seen anything negative as of yet. You can see the one I purchased HERE.

Fan with louvers closed.


Fan with louvers open.


Suspension system from rafters.


Here’s what we’ve learned from our fan.

1. Hot air outside = hot air inside. (We knew this already, but worth saying again.)

2. Air circulating in a hot house is more comfortable than stagnant air in a hot house.

3. Occasionally, you can get cold and need a sheet to sleep with on a July night in Dallas.

4. My fan is a good bit smaller than Grandma’s was. We get a pretty good breeze with a 24” (4500 cubic/feet per minute) fan, but can only open two or three windows. Strategically, this is ok in most instances because for us, opening a window in the kitchen brings air through the kitchen, dining room, and part of the living room before it moves through the fan. Opening every window in the house creates a very light breeze which does nothing to comfort you. I will go with a much bigger fan next time.

5. The breeze is best by the open window.

6. The two speed option works great. High for daytime use, and low (quieter) for sleeping.

7. Seriously, if you pass gas in the kitchen, don’t expect it to stay in the kitchen. It’ll hit every olfactory nerve between you and the fan.

Side note: It’s currently 101.5° F outside with 25% humidity. I have the WH Fan on, a desk fan on me and ceiling fan on in the living room for Carrie. We are both comfortable. A lot of this has to do with acclimation to the heat and the humidity as we never put the thermostat below 85 and often see temps as high as 89° or 90°.

I do recommend using a Whole House Fan to mitigate the heat. Currently, we use it about 12 hours a day in a Dallas summer. In case you’re wondering, Grandma had her fan removed about 5 years ago in favor of a pull down attic stairway. As far as I knew, it still worked after fifty years. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and get that from her. That’s the kind of heirloom that’s worth passing down. -Jason


Addendum: Illustrations show the difference between Attic Fans and Whole House Fans, as we know them here in Dallas, TX.

8 comments:

  1. Is there a difference between a whole house fan and an attic fan? I've heard people mention fans like this before, but they referred to them as attic fans.

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  2. Annette,

    Hi. Jason here. The difference between the two is simply this. The whole house fan circulates air from the living area into the attic. The attic fan circulates air in through the vents and out through the attic.

    The attic fan is very useful too, especially when the Air Conditioning is on as it lowers the attic temperature to outside temps, sometimes by as much as 30 degrees!

    However, in my other house, I had problems with birds getting into my attic and getting sucked in by the fan. Regrettably, this killed the birds as well as my fan.

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  3. Also, Please see the illustrations I attached at the end of the post.

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  4. Wow, awesome work, Jason! Thank you sharing this with us.

    I am surprised that folks don't really do the whole-house fan thing much anymore! It's a great way to keep comfortable and reduce energy use. My father installed a similar setup in our home in Central New York State. It worked great!

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  5. I absolutely love whole house fans, though they used to scare me as a kid. But evacuating all that heat at the end of the day is such a relief. I really want to install one here, but it isn't at the top of our to-do list yet!

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  6. I grew up in a house with a whole-house fan. Since it was the Midwest, we just ran the thing about an hour a day. I didn't realize they went out of fashion! (our house now was built in 1902 with no electricity, so it never had a fan).

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  7. Rosa,

    I wish the trend would catch on again. We have found it quite handy for a few other things since I wrote the original post. Chief among them is exchanging the air in the kitchen when something goes awry. That is to say, when I'm cooking. -Jason

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  8. Actually, there are still few homeowners that uses whole house fan. It’s a very useful ventilation machine that has been keeping many houses cool for many years. It’s proven and tested machine that is still popular these days. If you’ll compare it with central air conditioner, the whole house fan works faster in cooling your home. And it is more energy efficient, too, consuming only minimal amount of your energy bill than an air conditioner does. ->Brooklyn Fan & Blower Sales Company

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