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Air conditioners vs. fans: Which is right for your home?

How to choose the best cooling solution for you

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As summers are getting increasingly hotter, you might have found yourself scrambling for the best ways to keep yourself cool. For the over-heated consumer, this has rekindled an old debate: Which is the better cooling solution, fans or air conditioners?

As you might have guessed, the answer can vary from person to person, depending on several factors. To understand this—and to determine which cooling solution is best for you —we need to look at how each technology works.

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How cooling technologies work

While fans and air conditioners help you stay cool in very different ways, they’re both primarily leveraging the cooling power of evaporation.

Fans blow air over your skin, which promotes moisture evaporation. Evaporation is an endothermic process, meaning the moisture absorbs heat from its surroundings as it turns into vapor. Part of what makes fans so efficient is they aren’t cooling down the whole room, just you.

Air conditioners work by drawing in heat from the environment and moving it elsewhere.

Air conditioners utilize the same mechanism, but in a far more complex way. Inside your air conditioner is a coil of coolant that’s continuously undergoing evaporation and condensation. Air is pulled into the air conditioner and cooled by the evaporation process. The condensation process happens elsewhere in the unit, allowing the heat to be radiated outside your home.

The cost of cooling

While it’s common knowledge that cooling your home will increase your energy bill—but did you know air conditioners use 100 times more energy than fans?

It takes significantly more energy for an air conditioner to move heat around than it takes a fan to blow air onto your skin. As a result, parking yourself in front of a fan is significantly more energy efficient. Fans use around 1% of the electricity consumed by air conditioners. You could leave a fan running for a full 24 hours and still use less energy than 15 minutes of air conditioning.

So, at a glance, it seems like fans are the most responsible choice. While this might be the case—and fans should be the go-to cooling option for the environmentally-conscious—they aren’t ideal in every situation.

The limitations of fans

While they’re a significantly more energy-efficient way of helping you stay cool, fans aren’t always a perfect solution.

While fans are ideal in many circumstances, they’re inadequate when things really start to heat up. Blowing air around doesn’t reduce the temperature. And because of their electric motors, fans actually add heat to the environment. As a result, fans aren’t effective above 95°F: Blowing air at yourself that’s hotter than your ideal body temperature actually increases your body’s heat stress.

Additionally, while fans speed up the evaporation helping you feel cool, they also speed up your rate of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. This is why the CDC only recommends using fans at temperatures below 90°F. Increasing hot-air circulation and sweat evaporation can actually speed up heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion. Unless you're able to use the fan to pull in cooler air from outside, it's best to leave it off.

Fans don’t lower the overall humidity, either. And humidity can make you feel hotter. On humid days, sweat will evaporate off your skin more slowly, which further limits the effectiveness of a fan.

Fans are best when used at close range, so they don’t do much for you if you’re sitting more than a few feet away.

When air conditioning is a good option

Though they come with their own issues, air conditioners are simply the best cooling option for certain circumstances.

While air conditioners use lots of energy, they’re the most comfortable cooling option when temperatures start to rise. Since they reduce the ambient heat in your environment, they’re much better at cooling larger areas. And air conditioners also help to remove moisture from the air, reducing humidity and letting your body dissipate heat more efficiently. If it’s above 95°F, air conditioners are your best bet for cooling.

Which option is best for you?

While air conditioners and refrigerators use very similar technology, refrigerators won’t cool an area very efficiently—we’d recommend sticking to fans or air conditioners.

A direct comparison between fans and air conditioners is unfair since they're good at different things. Determining which one is better for you depends on current conditions.

Use a fan if:

  • It’s less than 95°F
  • It’s not very humid
  • You can position yourself close to the fan
  • You want to use less electricity

Use an air conditioner if:

  • It’s over 95°F
  • It’s humid
  • You’re looking to cool a large area
  • You can afford a higher electrical bill

Whatever you decide, we’ve got you covered. We’ve made a list of the most popular fans and air conditioners on Amazon, based on customer reviews and feedback. During a heatwave, you don’t have time to mess around with products that don’t get the job done, so shop smart and keep yourself cool.

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