Ceiling fan

Solved: The Mystery of Ceiling Fan Direction

As a toddler, I must have driven my parents crazy. And I am still doing it, but now to my husband. I can’t help it. I want to know the “Why?!” about everything. Take ceiling fan direction for example. Most ceiling fans have a switch with two options. “Forward” spins one way, “Reverse” the other. But why? What for? What difference does it make?

white Ceiling fan rotating against white ceiling

Years ago, a reader sent in her handy tip, passed along from her husband, a heating and air conditioning specialist: In the winter, make your ceiling fans spin counterclockwise. Or was that clockwise? To be honest, it totally slipped my mind as soon as I shared it with my readers.

A woman posing for a picture

But I do remember the barrage of responses I received. Some thanked me for printing the correct answer to the burning question, while others told me I was wrong and it should spin in the opposite direction. But why?! Who makes up these rules? Does anyone know for certain?

Today, I have the answers.

The science

To make this easy, first, we need to understand the principle behind moving air. You may be familiar with the terms “wind chill” and “heat index.” These terms indicate what the temperature feels like, not what it is in reality on the thermometer.

Ceiling fans cannot reduce the temperature inside your home in the summer, but they can certainly make you feel as if that is the case. Ditto for making you feel warmer in the winter. A ceiling fan that is set properly can make you feel as if the temperature is either cooler or warmer.

Knowing how to use fans in summer to send a rush of air downward, cooling your skin and making it seem up to eight degrees cooler than it is, lowers the chill factor.

Knowing how to use fans to circulate the hot air in winter is equally important because you will be able to increase your body’s heat index or how warm you feel, while creating less actual heat and keeping the heating bills down.

Forward or reverse?!

The direction your ceiling fan should spin in the summer and in the winter depends on the type of fan you have and at which angle the fan blades have been set by the manufacturer (or you, if you have altered them). Even so, this is not difficult. In fact, once you know a simple trick and way to test how your ceiling fan is designed, ceiling fan direction will cease being a mystery.

First, look to see if there is a switch marked “Forward” and “Reverse.” If so, and you are sure the blades are angled properly, you want the fan to spin Forward during the summer and Reverse in the winter.

Set on Forward, the fan blows air downward onto the occupants of the room making them feel cooler by increasing the evaporative cooling on our skin. Most people know sweating is a process your body uses to cool down. Your body is always trying to maintain an even body temperature. Sweating reduces body heat through evaporative cooling.

During the winter you do not want the fan to blow directly on you, which would increase your wind chill factor and make you feel even cooler than what the thermostat is set to. You want to set the fan to “Reverse” so that it blows air upward to the ceiling, forcing the hot air trapped up there to come down to warm the occupants of the room. And you want to set it on a slow speed to make sure you are not creating a draft.

But which way?

Now, is that clockwise or counterclockwise? There is no definitive answer because it depends on your specific fan, where it was manufactured, and the way the blades are set. There are no universal laws regulating ceiling fan manufacturers.

The solution

Are you all mixed up now? Not to worry. Here’s a super easy way to remember which way to set a ceiling fan for the season.

Step 1

Set the fan to High so it is spinning at its top speed and stand under it. Do you feel the air blowing down on you? Then that is your “Forward” direction and the setting you want for summer. Make a note. Set it on High speed for the greatest cooling impact.

Step 2

Now switch the fan to go the other direction. If you do not feel air blowing down on you, that means it’s blowing upward. That is your “Reverse” direction. This is the direction you want for winter. To use the ceiling fan in Reverse, set it on Slow speed to make sure you are pulling the warm air down from the ceiling and into the room, but not creating a draft.

In closing …

Ceiling fans are good at following orders. But you must give them good instructions:

  • the correct ceiling fan direction
  • the right speed
  • turn it on when you’re in the room and adjust the thermostat accordingly
  • turn the fan off when you leave

Be diligent to make sure your ceiling fan is working for you, and you could save 15% to 40% on your summer air conditioning costs and reduce next winter’s heating bills, too.

First published in the pages of Everyday Cheapskate 7-8-19; Updated 9-16-20

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  1. Nancy Spencer says:

    In NH daylight savings tells me to set the clocks ahead 1 hour in the Spring, so “Spring” forward; therefore, set the fan “forward.” In the Fall daylight savings says to set clocks back 1 hour so “Fall back”; therefore, set fans backwards (reverse).

  2. LindaL says:

    Thank you for this clear explanation. I could write a book about the dynamics of ceiling fans in a couple’s bedroom.
    Sleeping patterns and habits have so dramatically changed and contrasted over the years in my house that we are building a retirement home for ourselves with 2 primary bedrooms (formerly called “master bedrooms”) so we can each rest comfortably. My husband wants everything 20 degrees warmer than me. Need I say more?!

  3. Zennat Sana says:

    Thanks, Mary. I’ve witnessed quite a few arguments about this, and I think in the future I’ll refer folks to this article to save time.

  4. Mark Zuke says:

    Now I have read 2 different directions on this story but once I was at a restaurant with over 30 fans and the air was on and the waitress as we’re sweating I told them the fans were blowing the warm air bag down on you from the ceiling and once they reversed them it made a difference if I used the fan in my bedroom with the air flowing towards the ceiling my Room feels much much colder halfway through the night I use the fan counter clockwise to move the heat down towards me

    • Mark Zuke says:

      My girlfriend used to nanny in an old house, and the owners complained the addition to the kitchen was always colder that’s when I said use the fan to blow the heat downward in it equalized with the rest of the house they were very happy it worked out

  5. Anne says:

    I have high ceilings in my (third floor) apartment. In the warm months, I use my ceiling fans to help pull the hot air up to the celing and away from me. I don’t usually use the fans in the winter, but if I did, if so the opposite and push the hot air down towards me. (My heating vents are in or near the celing.)

  6. Luisa says:

    Thanks, Mary. I’ve witnessed quite a few arguments about this, and I think in the future I’ll refer folks to this article to save time. 🙂

  7. John F. Bramfeld says:

    Keep it off in the winter. No matter what season it is, moving air across the skin creates a cooling effect.

    • ColdBeer says:

      With that logic, one should never turn on their forced air heat in the winter. Air moving at less than 3 mph has no effect on the skin. Also, in the winter, there is little, if any, evaporative cooling taking place since the air and skin are drier which negates any “effect”. True, more air coming into contact with skin will speed up heat exchange but that is assuming the moving air is the same temperature as the stagnant air.

      • John F. Bramfeld says:

        You are a special case. I should have made it clear that I was talking about standard heating systems, particularly forced air. With regard to forced air causing evaporative cooling, it certainly does. In fact, it’s pretty famous for its drying qualities. However, the air is a good 20 degrees or more hotter than the room. By the way, forced air entering a room, even from the ceiling area, effectively mixes the air while it’s on. Modern furnaces tend to be on a lot in the name of efficiency.

        Most people should save their electricity and leave the fan off during the winter.

    • Bookworm says:

      On low and blowing up, there isn’t any breeze across my skin down below. With my 10-ft ceiling, I need to get all that hot air down to me.

      • John F. Bramfeld says:

        Good luck getting air down without a breeze. And where do all these houses come from with significantly warmer air on the ceiling. Put a thermometer up there and let us know what the difference is.

      • ColdBeer says:

        I have a difference of 10 degrees or more at times with just over 8 foot ceilings. I’m in a colder climate with baseboard heat and we also have a wood burning stove. Without any circulation, the cold air sits at the bottom and the warm air up top. Just getting on a 2 foot ladder, one can instantly feel the difference. A good HVAC plan will introduce heat into the room at floor level and cooler air at the ceiling to let the air “settle” to its respective area (hot up, cold down) to naturally create the airflow which causes a more normalized temp in the room. Most houses are nowhere near efficient at this which makes a fan a must have for many all year round. If there is too much draft from the fan in the winter, it either is not sized or installed (distance from ceiling relative to floor) correctly.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      That doesn’t happen if the fan is set correctly, John. If you can fell the air moving, the fan is moving too fast. Must be slow and moving up to the ceiling, not on the occupants in the room. The warm air being pushed down into the room won’t create any feeling of air across the skin.

      • John F. Bramfeld says:

        I agree that the fan should be set as low as possible. However, when you say the air is blowing up, that really means only that the air is blowing up at the center above the fan. Away from the fan the air is blowing down to make up the air the fan is sucking up at the center. The fact is that moving air cools the skin. Absent a very tall ceiling there is very little advantage to having the fan on at all during the heating season. Instant read thermometers are less than $50. Check the difference in temperature between the 8 feet and 3 feet sometime. That degree or two is more than offset by the breeze created by the fan.

  8. Connie Saunders says:

    Thank you Mary! For years I have been uncertain about this question. What I saw as counter-clockwise my husband saw as clockwise so there have been a few disagreements!

  9. Don says:

    FYI — Fans don’t cool air. They cool people. If no one is in the room, turn the fan off. The fan won’t cool the room unless it’s drawing in cooler air from somewhere else. Even after telling family members this, they refuse to believe it, and I’m always finding fans on in empty rooms. Sigh.

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