Not just for show, ceiling fans can save you money.

It was a sharp-looking little fan with a fat, gleaming white body and short, stubby cane blades. It was an A and G brand for $349 and it had personality. I asked the salesman at the lighting fixture company to turn it on and give it a whirl. “Oh, that fan isn’t made to move air,” he said. “It’s just to look pretty.” I guess I’m old fashioned. I still believe that a lawn mower has a moral obligation to cut grass and that an electric fan is duty bound to stir up a breeze.

Across town at a ceiling fan specialty shop there is another fan, a brand new brass-plated beauty, which also costs $349. But this one moves air – so well, in fact, that it can pay for itself in just a few years by reducing the load on your air conditioner.

Ceiling fans have been around for a while. Huge single-blade fans called punkahs were hung on ceilings in India centuries ago and pulled back and forth by rope from below to keep the sweat off the brow of the neighborhood maharajah. In this country, in the mid 1800s, a patent was granted on a ceiling fan powered by a rocking chair. In 1887, Philip Diehl was granted the first patent for an electrically operated fan. For the next 40 years, fans produced by Hunter, Emerson, GE, Century, and Westinghouse graced every hotel, tavern, grocery store, and ice cream parlor between Maine and Malibu. When air conditioning came into vogue, ceiling fans gained instant disfavor. Class operations like the Adolphus and the Baker couldn’t wait to get rid of those old albatrosses. There was no market for them, except maybe to use the heavy motors as boat anchors. But fans that were worthless 20 years ago are being rescued from junkyards and sold for $200 today – and that’s before they’re cleaned up and running.

The reigning king of the old time fans is Phil Frey of Oklahoma City, who bills himself as The Fan Man. Frey rebuilds antique fans for a living and brings his wares to Dallas three times a year for the International Antique Shows at Market Hall. (The next show is November 2-5.) “The first ceiling fan I ever saw was in a barbershop in the Chickasha Hotel,” Frey recalls. “It had a hum that was kind of relaxing. I didn’t know then that it was humming because it probably hadn’t been oiled in forty years.”

Restoring antique fans is not a coat-and-tie operation. “I’ve bought fans that had packrat nests, dirt daubers, nutgrass, birds’ nests, everything in them,” says Frey. “But it’s amazing how tough those old fans were. I’ve bought about 700 fans but have only had to rewind the motor on 30 or 35 of them. Most of them were so rusted or gummed that they wouldn’t even turn. But if you plug an old fan in and it will still hum, it can be restored.”

Frey strips the old fans down to the last nut and bolt, then polishes each part on a wirebrush wheel to bring back the shine. Then, after re-wiring the motor and replacing the bearings and switches, he adds a few class touches to make the fan more beautiful than it was the first time around. “Very few of the old fans were brassed and lighted,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of them were cast iron.” The brass, copper, bronze, or chrome plating and the four fluted glass lampshades that Frey adds to most of his fans are faithfully representative of the grandest fans of the day.

Frey believes in the quality of the old fans. “Some of them ran for 50 years, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t go another 50. They don’t wear out. There are no brushes or contact points, and the motor just loafs along because of the way the fan hangs. They have a tremendous lube system. There’s a big ball bearing in a cup of oil. Spiral grooves pick up the oil and lift it like an elevator onto the moving parts, then the oil drains down into the cup again. You just have to check the oil level about every five years.”

Frey says that the old motors are becoming scarce and outrageously priced. “A dealer at Canton had one the other day that he was asking $200 for, and it had a missing nose cone, which is almost impossible to replace because of its reverse threading system.” Even on good days, Frey now has to pay $125 to $175 for the old fans, which are usually nothing more than motors. After adding bright metal plating and wooden blades, Frey sells the renovated fans for $325 to $1,200. Going full blast, Frey can rebuild and sell about three fans a week. He offers a one-year unconditional warranty and says that, of the hundreds of fans he has sold, he has had only one warranty call.

If you have your heart set on an old-style fan but don’t want to pay $500 for one powered by a motor that was turning blades in William McKinley’s day, Hunter is the fan for you. Hunter, now a division of Robbins and Meyers in Memphis, Tennessee, has been producing virtually the same style of fan for 75 years. It is the only fan still built with an old-style motor. The body is cast iron and there have been just a few concessions to progress, such as the substitution of a plastic oil cup for the original iron. Phil Frey says the new Hunters should last as long as the old ones did. Hunter fans come with five-year warranties on parts and labor.

Emerson Electric used to make great fans, but it has abandoned the old-style brushless motor in favor of an economy model. Emersons are available all over town for $90 to $140, compared to $170 and up for the Hunters. Some of the new Emersons are exceedingly homely, and only a one-year warranty is offered. But at least the Emerson moves air, and for the economy-minded, it’s a lot better deal than a rubber band fan.

What is a rubber band fan? As I was talking with Phil Frey at the last Antique Show, we were interrupted by a woeful young couple who had been waiting three months to see The Fan Man. “We have a ceiling fan with a little rubber thing in it,” explained the wife. “It will run for a little while, then it will quit.” Frey recognized the symptoms immediately, and though he responded most diplomatically, the bottom line of his diagnosis read “boat anchor.” After the couple left, Frey told me about rubber band fans. “They have a tiny motor, like the ones that come with Erector sets, that turns a rubber belt attached to the blade shaft.” The little motor is hidden inside a huge motor housing copied after the old housings. “There’s no way they can do the job. It’s just a matter of time until they come unwound or burn out.”

The CasaBlanca Fan Company used to make a rubber band fan, but about a year ago they switched to a motor which Emerson makes for them. Strangely, the Emerson motor in the CasaBlanca fan has a five-year warranty, compared to the one-year Emerson warranties. If you buy a CasaBlanca, it is extremely important to make sure that you are getting one with an Emerson motor rather than a rubber band fan that has been biding its time in someone’s warehouse. Frank Edwards, owner of Fantasia, a Dallas shop devoted primarily to the sale of the new ceiling fans, says that the CasaBlanca is a good fan now. His favorite in the CasaBlanca line has a reversible engine, so that an updraft can be created for winter use. (On other makes, like Emerson, you can reverse the pitch of the blades for the same effect.) The updraft pulls warm room air up through the fan, bounces it off the ceiling, and spills it down the walls, as if it were water in a fountain.

Wintertime benefits are greatest in small, high-ceilinged rooms, such as those found in Aspen-style contemporaries. In high-ceilinged rooms, hot air rises and stratifies up above the people. A method is needed to keep the air circulating. Fans don’t do much to warm rooms with standard eight-foot ceilings, since stratification is not a significant problem. Furthermore, fans on low ceilings stir up a breeze which tends to cool the body, just as in the summer. Some fans will run slowly enough to avoid that problem yet still push down warm air, but it’s not good for the motor to run a fan for long periods at very slow speeds.

Though the wintertime benefits may be available primarily to those with smaller high-ceilinged rooms, the summertime advantages may be had by all. The secret is to make your body think that it’s cooler than it really is. Anyone who has ever felt a breeze in the Arlington Stadium bleachers or on the banks of Lake Ray Hubbard will atttest that a breeze makes a difference regardless of the temperature. That’s the trick. Set your thermostat at 78 rather than 72, then sneak over and switch on the ceiling fan. Your body will never know the difference, but your accountant will. Joan Dittmer of Dallas Power and Light says that you can run a 52-inch ceiling fan on high speed for ten hours a day for $1.68 a month. Texas Power and Light says that if the outside temperature is 95, every degree you set your thermostat below 78 increases your cooling cost about 12 percent. So if you can set your thermostat at 78 rather than 72, without your body knowing it, you’ve avoided a 72 percent penalty. It won’t take long for that cooling cost savings to pay for a ceiling fan – maybe two or three.

Jim Leonard, a financial consultant with E. F. Hutton, is a compulsive record keeper. He has comparative figures on the electrical consumption in his 4500-square-foot house in the Las Colinas area of Irving before and after he installed 10 ceiling fans. Before adding the fans, his power use during the cooling season (May through September) averaged 6065 kilowatt-hours per month. After the fans were added, Jim’s summer electrical consumption dropped to a monthly average of 3659, a 40 percent reduction.”We leave the thermostat at 78 now during the day,” he says. “Then at night we turn it up as high as it will go.”

Dallas architect Max Chapman is another ceiling fan freak. He has nine. “It’s 95 today and we’re not using our central air,” Chapman says proudly. “We have about 3000 square feet in the house and electrical equipment in our swimming pool and fountain, but our summer electric bill is just running about $100 a month. With central air it would be $200 to $250 easy. We have people in for parties, and at first they think it’s hot. Then they sit down for a while and they can’t believe how comfortable it is. We’re not trying to prove anything; we just like the fresh-air lifestyle.”

There are those in less informed circles who would say that it could only happen in Texas: The outoor ceiling fan is becoming popular here. Dallasites are putting ceiling fans on their patios and porches and around their swimming pools to scare away flying insects. People swear that flies and mosquitoes won’t come near a ceiling fan – perhaps the air currents throw them into a tailspin. Lewis Hulcy has three ceiling fans on the porch of his ranch house north of Dallas. “We run a few head of cattle,” he says, “and the fans keep the flies out where they belong.” Phil Frey says that the use of fans to scare away flies is not a modern innovation. “In the old days all the butcher shops had an outdoor ceiling fan right over the front door. That way they could leave the front door open to let in fresh air, but still keep the flies out.”

There are a couple more things you need to know before you buy a fan – who is going to install it, and who is going to fix it if it breaks. Frank Edwards of Fantasia says that he can teach 85 percent of his customers to install their own. If you are one of the unhandy 15 percent, Edwards can refer you to an electrician who can do the job for you, at a cost of $50 to $100, depending on the complexity of the undertaking. Unless you are sure of your mechanical acumen, the fee is well spent.

The best warranty is of little value if there is no one around to honor it. Fantasia handles the repairs of all the fans it sells locally. This is not true of many of the department stores and lighting fixture retailers. They will tell you to send it back to the factory. Can you imagine what it costs to mail a 60-pound fan?

Some of the old fans had wingspans as wide as 60 inches, but almost all of today’s models span either 36 or 52 inches. The smaller fan is fine for bedrooms, porches, and garden rooms, but most living areas require the larger. The 52-inch wooden-bladed Hunter with a single light globe is available locally for $250, and it’s a hard fan to beat. If you need help in the wintertime, look at the $349 brass-plated CasaBlanca with the high-speed reversible engine at Fantasia. But if you prefer one of the oldies, see Phil Frey at the International Antique Shows, Dallasite Bill Perryman (350-7235), or Paul Groody in Fort Worth (429-2329).


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