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Ceiling Fans

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1992 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

Ceiling fans have had a resurgence in homes, restaurants, and businesses in certain parts of the country.  A surprise is the installation of them in churches where they have rapidly spread in just a few years like so many mini-helicopters, whirring and blowing air in countless sanctuaries.  Research about the total effect of ceiling fans is scanty, and they have created a host of new problems while solving others. 

The prime claim for their installation in a church is that they save money on air-conditioning and/or heating costs.  There is no proof that this is universally true, and in many cases the opposite would be the effect-total cost to the church might be higher with fans than without.  How sad that a device which was expected to lower costs actually increased them. 

The basic assumption was that since heat rises (actually cold air falls forcing warm air up), there would be a reservoir of warm air in the ceiling areas of the church, and fans would bring this warm air down to the floor where people stand and sit.  Warmth near the floor would prompt the church thermostat to call for furnace heat less often and therefore save fuel.  The complete story is far more complex and unpredictable.  A simple test was conducted in my own church which has a 38' high ceiling.  In the deep of winter in February with the temperature at 20 below (Minnesota) and the furnace either on or off, there was only a 1°F difference from floor to ceiling-no useful or recoverable heat at the ceiling.  The reason was that the natural convection in the room was doing exactly what a fan would do, and doing it free without noise or visual distraction.  In our situation the installation of fans would have cost many hundreds of dollars.  A little research saved a lot of money. 

There are problems with fans far beyond what most churches expect.  In one church, a fan over the altar so activated the burning of the candles that it had to be disconnected.  In another, the fans were installed below the level of the lighting.  This created a distracting flutter pattern on the walls and furniture as well as a flickering on the printed page which made it hard for parishioners to read.  In another church, a fan was installed above the pipe organ, and it was impossible to keep the instrument in tune when the fans were running and blowing air on the pipes.  The choir also had a built in tremolo effect to their singing, and felt an annoying draft from the moving air. 

Apart from the above problems, I feel a deep sense of disappointment at the visual aspects of a ceiling full of whirligigs.  Imagine the Sistine Chapel with them poking through Michelangelo's frescos, or Chartres Cathedral with them cluttering up the vaulting.  Most churches have less elaborate but no less important functions in the space and sight lines of the ceiling which the architect has designed to give a sense of height and inspiration. 

Some churches use ceiling fans in summer, and this is a complex issue.  Unlike a winter situation where natural convection might prevent stratification, a summer's heat can build up in the ceiling of a church and create large temperature differences from floor to ceiling.  In a church without air-conditioning, the fans may provide a breeze to relieve the heat and humidity, but they are also bringing the hot ceiling air down to the cooler congregational level.  In the past, air flow was better accomplished by having a large exhaust fan at the ceiling which forced out the hot air, and pulled in fresher air at ground level. 

In an air-conditioned church, the operation of ceiling fans would increase energy costs by destroying the stratification of cold lower air and warm upper air, forcing the air-conditioning system to cool the entire interior volume rather than just the air below the cold air vents.  In air-conditioning, a very significant amount of heat can accumulate above the cold air inlets, and upper temperatures may be more than 40°F above those at floor level.  If an organ is installed so that some pipes are in a hot upper area while others are lower and cooler, then ceiling fans may be very beneficial in reducing these temperature extremes, thus helping organ tuning.  Only properly installed fans can help in such situations without creating other difficulties. 

In discussing this problem with other organbuilders.  I received the following comments: "If fans blow air on pipes it is catastrophic" (Holtkamp).  "They are a mixed blessing.  If the pipes are exposed, fans, like any moving air, can play havoc with the tuning; however if they contribute to eliminating pockets of hot air near the top of a stacked organ.  they can be beneficial" (Schantz).  "We've found that fans tend to get the church to a stable temperature sooner.  An exposed organ might be a problem because of drafts and changing temperature" (Gress-Miles).  "Aesthetically.  there is much to be said against fans, but on the practical side, we have installed a great many organs where the fans make the difference between stable tuning and constant variations in pitch.  You do not need squadrons of fans, just a few to get the air mass rolling.  They should not be too close to the organ" (Zimmer).  "The consensus of our servicemen, installers, and technicians seems to be that ceiling fans can have value during the heating season, but are of no value with air-conditioning" (Wicks).  "Ceiling fans seem to help a lot, but the slowest fan speed seems sufficient.  Higher speeds should never be used in winter" (Andover).  "If ceiling fans are installed, great care must be taken in placement, and they should always have a speed control.  They should be mounted so that they can be maintained.  Regardless of claims to the contrary, ceiling fans will develop squeaks, clicks, and chirps.  If difficult to reach, they will not be fixed, and no matter how noisy, someone will turn them on" (A.R.  Schopp's Sons). 

The Interfaith Coalition on Energy (ICE) is a non-profit agency to assist churches in all aspects of energy conservation and saving money.  Its newsletter covers such topics as furnace efficiency, insulation, fuel costs, electricity, as well as ceiling fans and many energy saving issues.  Their publication, "Ceiling Fans-Blowing Your Money?", states the following: "In 1982 ICE asked the manufacturers of ceiling fans to supply us with metered data showing that fans actually save money.  No manufacturer has ever supplied us with such data.  ICE thinks that ceiling fans have a very low priority, relative to other energy conservation measures, and they may not save any energy at all.  In fact, the use of ceiling fans during the heating season may increase the consumption of both heating energy and electricity." This four-page document and the newsletter are available at no cost from: ICE, P.O.  Box 26577.  Philadelphia.  PA 19141. 

The well known church architect Edward Sövik writes: "Before an installation [of fans] is considered.  a record of stratification should be made by taking temperature readings at nave level, balcony level, and ceiling or vault level.  I have always discouraged [ceiling fans]."

In conclusion, the topic of ceiling fans is far from settled, and each church will have a different situation in which fans might be helpful, counterproductive and costly, disruptive, money-saving, ugly, annoying, or pleasant.  They should be installed only where all the factors of cost, long term cost, comfort, architectural and visual impact, musical interference, pipe organ tuning, and choir/organ sound are well understood and discussed.  Simply installing them because everyone else is doing so may be a costly mistake.



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