Friday, June 09, 2006

Window Fans: An Energy Saving Alternative

In a previous post, I mentioned my fondness for keeping my house open to the fresh air on all but the hottest nights. I live in Bellevue, Nebraska, near Omaha. We have the hottest, muggiest, nastiest summers anywhere. I once attended a summer conference in San Antonio, and on the way to the hotel the cabdriver was waxing eloquent about their hot, humid weather. Well, maybe I hit Texas on an unusually comfortable week, but the weather during the conference was a relief compared to what I’m used to in Omaha.

While I do like to conserve both money and energy, I’m not a masochist; I like it cool and comfortable. But most mornings and evenings, it cools down enough to open the windows and let in a little breeze.

Friends and in-laws I’ve talked to about window fans smile and nod, and act like they know what I’m saying, but I’ve found they don’t really get it. What it takes for someone to understand how a window fan can cool an entire house is a demonstration. When they stand in front of a window on the opposite side of the house and feel the breeze being sucked through by what functions as an exhaust fan several rooms away, the lightbulb comes on and they get the oddest looks on their faces.

Window fans pull the hot air out, and draw cool air in. What if the air outside isn’t cool? To an extent, the air is cooled by the movement of the fan’s draw. In addition, there are methods to enhance this cooling effect depending on where you place the fan.

Now, our old window fan was an unwieldy monster. I paid $20.00 for it at a thrift store ten years ago, and if we’ve saved $100 a month during hot weather (a conservative estimate), that’s a savings of $4000. Pretty good thrift store find, huh?

In our old house, we kept the fan in the window of a spare room on the second floor. We couldn’t have tolerated it in a room where we slept, or watched TV or tried to conduct civil conversation, because it was about as loud as a single propeller airplane. We wedged it in the bottom half of the window, and filled in around it with towels, creating a seal of sorts. It was all metal, measured 36” by 36”, and weighed about 40 pounds. When we cranked it up to its highest speed, it was very hard to push the door of the room it was in closed; that’s how powerful it was. At night, we almost always had to either get up and turn it off, or put blankets on the bed.

I used to think that you could only use window fans in double-hung windows, while most apartments have sliding windows. When we moved from our large old house to a more modern apartment with sliding windows, I made up my mind that I was going to find a window fan that would work in our apartment’s windows.

I started my search locally, checking at all the usual places; you know, discount stores, big box home improvement stores, you name it. The only window fans I could find were the $20 variety made by Holmes, containing two small fans, each about 8” in diameter. I was doubtful that such small fans were going to provide serious air movement.

I decided it was time to do a little research, started searching online. I found a wonderful article at the University of Missouri’s Extension Service website. (Just in case you don’t know this, extension service websites are packed with practical information.) The article gave particulars on air exchange rates and fan sizes.

Next, I began searching the web for a source of quality fans, eventually finding a 16” Air King fan that I could make fit in one half of the sliding window by turning it sideways, and sliding the window back to make it snug. The expandable wings don’t work properly when the fan is turned on its side, so we've had a piece of plexi-glass cut to fit in the opening, giving the fan enough of a seal to allow it to draw air properly. I have to admit that this lighter-weight model is not as powerful as the old one, but you can sit in the same room with it and have a conversation. We use it at night, and still find ourselves needing more covers in the wee small hours of the morning.

Our apartment is on the top floor, and has 18’cathedral ceilings with a loft. At one end of the loft is a window that looks out over our neighbor’s air-conditioning unit, in sharp contrast to the rest of our windows, which have beautiful wooded views. In addition to aesthetics, this window is the best in practical terms as well. Being on the second floor, air circulation is naturally enhanced when the windows downstairs are open. Since hot air rises, this is the most efficient placement for an exhaust fan.

By mid-morning on hot days, we close the windows again, and turn on the air, rather than draw warm air in from outside. In addition to saving money and conserving energy, fresh air is much healthier, and with the windows open we can hear the crickets chirping, and the leaves on the trees rustling.

RE Williams is where I finally found a high quality 16” Air King (owned by the same company as Lasko, the best known window fans) for about $100, including shipping. I was unable to find this model locally or online through any national retailer. They shipped the fan within a week, and their customer service was excellent.


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