Outdoor Fan Motor
and Energy Use
A little sleuthing can help you compare outdoor fans to ensure you get enough cooling capacity for your space.
Which Specification Matter Most?
It can be hard to compare outdoor fans and decide which is the best for your needs because fan manufacturers and sellers aren’t consistent with the information they give you. You might find some specifications on one fan and completely different specs on another.
Some manufacturers will give you “CFM” or “CMM,” which is a measure of the fan’s air flow. If you know this number you can get a general idea of whether it will meet your cooling needs.
Generally, you’ll want about 3-4 times the cubic footage / cubic meters of the space in air flow. We go into that more on our fan air flow page.
Some manufacturers tell you about the fan’s motor and energy use. While this won’t tell you anything about air flow, it will give you an idea of the fan’s power and cooling potential. A fan’s energy use may be described by Amps/Volts/Watts, BTUs or Horsepower. We touch on each of those below.
Outdoor Fan Motors
There are many kinds of motors used for outdoor fans. There is no industry standard for naming motors, so designations vary widely between manufacturers. Each may have their own descriptions that relate only to their own fans, which won’t be helpful for any kind of comparison. They may describe them simply by electricity source (alternating current or direct current), voltage needed, amps and wattage used, or by horsepower or BTUs.
Some manufacturers will refer to their motors by size: “188×25” or “200mmx20mm”. These numbers usually refers to the physical size of the motor’s frame. Generally larger motors are more powerful. But some smaller motors can be more powerful than larger motors, depending on design differences between the motors. CFM, wattage and efficiency can confirm the power of any sized motor.
1- or 3-Phase Fan Motors
Almost all small outdoor fans and other common household appliances are powered by single phase motors. But as a fan gets more powerful it will more likely be powered by a 3-phase motor. In fact, most motors larger than 10 HP / 750 W / 25,000 BTU use a 3-phase system.
3-phase systems can power these larger motors more economically than a similar single-phase system. 3-phase motors also vibrate less and last longer than similar single-phase motors. Make sure these larger motors can work with your electrical supply. Some 3-phase fans can operate on more than one voltage supply, making them versatile as well as powerful.
Outdoor Fan Efficiency Rating
A fan’s efficiency rating tells you how much power a motor puts out compared to how much electricity it uses.
To be most efficient, standard electric motors work below their “capacity” (highest ability) — usually about 75%. This allows for up to 25% of the electricity to be lost to heat and friction (“waste-heat”) naturally created by electric motors. A motor’s efficiency tends to decrease dramatically below about 50%, so look for ratings above 50%.
Outdoor fans with higher efficiency ratings may be more expensive to purchase, but may be less expensive in the long run. Higher ratings mean less energy is lost to waste-heat. That means they use less electricity for the same results as lower rated motors. More efficient fans typically last longer.
For example a 1 HP / 2,544 BTU / 746-watt fan with a 50% efficiency rating at 230 VAC will draw about 6.4 amps compared to about 4 amps for a motor with a 70% rating. Some extremely efficient outdoor fan motors may be rated as high as 98%!
You can determine an outdoor fan’s efficiency if you know its CFM rating and its wattage. Simply divide the CFM rating by its wattage. If a fan uses 85 watts to move 6,800 CFM, its energy efficiency is 80%.
The efficiency rating may be different for different fan speeds. Keep in mind the range of efficiency varies with individual motors. The efficiency of larger motors tends to extend over a broader range than smaller motors.
Fan Motor Enclosures
Another way motors are described is by their enclosure. A motor’s enclosure contains the working parts of the motor. The kind of enclosure is a big factor in whether the fan is rated safe for dry, damp, or wet environments. You can learn more about safety ratings on our Electrical Safety Outdoors page.
The most commonly used styles of enclosure are:
- TENV (totally enclosed, non-vented): good for use in damp, not wet areas and indoor / outdoor use.
- WDN (wash down): use where the motor may often get wet; an excellent enclosure for any kind of outdoor use.
- XPRF (explosion-proof): safe for use even in hazardous locations; they are a fine choice for any kind of outdoor use, but are the most expensive.
- ODP (open, drip proof) and TEFC (totally enclosed, fan-cooled) enclosures: for indoor use only.
Energy Star Rating
Outdoor fans with an Energy Star rating have been reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. If they have received this rating you are assured they meet certain standards of energy efficiency with an eye towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These fans are generally more efficient than other fans with similar ratings. More tests have been performed on them, and manufacturers are proud to display this information.
You will see CFM/CMS listed for each speed on all Energy Star qualified outdoor fans. All these fans also state the motor’s efficiency ratings and watts per CFM/CMM so you can compare them with fans that aren’t measured for CFM/CMM.
Outdoor Fan Power and Energy Use
The power of an outdoor fan may be described by Amps/Volts/Watts, “BTUs” or “Horsepower”
A Common Measure of an Outdoor Fan’s Power: Watts / Amps / Volts
At the simplest level you can estimate an outdoor fan’s power by how many watts it uses. Just like a light bulb – a 60-watt bulb uses less electricity and puts out less light than a 100-watt bulb. Try to imagine those 60 watts powering a fan. A 60-watt fan would use the same amount of electricity as a 60 watt bulb and be about as powerful. That’s less electricity and power than a 100-watt fan and much less than a 560-watt fan.
If a supplier only gives you volts and amps, you can multiply the two together to get watts:
Amps × Volts ≡ Watts
These are among the most helpful and universal measurements of an outdoor fan’s power, and are supplied by almost all manufacturers. These ratings will also help you determine an outdoor fan’s electrical efficiency, and will help you estimate electricity costs to run it. If a manufacturer only gives you BTU or horsepower, don’t despair because you can figure out what that means in terms of watts. That way you’ll have an equal basis for comparing all outdoor fans.
A fan needs a certain amount of electricity to do its job. It draws that amount from the voltage supply of a power line, but the actual amount taken is called Amperes or “Amps”. Bigger, stronger fans need more – up to and over 10 amps. Smaller fans may need less than 1 amp. They both draw electricity from the same voltage supply (e.g., 110v or 220 v), but they each draw a different amount of electricity from that supply. Fans that draw more than 20 amps won’t work with standard household-type outlets.
Volts are the measurement of electricity’s “potential”, or “pressure” that a power company supplies based on the kind of wiring to an outlet.
220V and 230V may be the most commonly used worldwide. The United States and much of Latin America uses either 110V or 220V, depending on the power of the fan and where it will be used. Most electrical power systems have slight variations in voltage due to demand or other factors. Generally, the difference of 10V or so makes no difference. But large variations in current can damage electrical equipment.
In your outdoor fan’s description or a label on the fan itself will be a statement such as 220VAC / 50Hz. This means the fan will run on 220 volts of alternating current and use 50 hertz of frequency. We talk more about frequency below.
BTUs (British Thermal Units) are a common way to measure the cooling capacity of indoor air conditioners. Some fan manufacturers describe their outdoor fans in terms of BTUs even though fans use a very different technology than air conditioners. Remember fans only move the air; air conditioners also cool it. A more helpful and more available way to measure a fan’s power is to look at its other ratings (watts, efficiency and CFM).
But make the most of whatever information you can get about a fan. If a fan manufacturer gives you a BTU rating for an outdoor fan, it can still give you a general idea of the fan’s capabilities. Simply convert BTUs to watts so you can compare all the fans you’re thinking about buying. Here’s how:
3.41 BTUs is about 1 watt; 1000 BTUs is about 293 watts
HP (Horsepower) refers to the power of a motor. HP doesn’t take into account the natural inefficiency of electric motors. HP doesn’t take into account the voltage supply, either. An electric fan operating at, say 115 VAC (Volts of Alternating Current) will have a different horsepower than the very same fan operating at 220 VAC.
A general rule is that 1 HP uses 10 amps on 110 volts; 1 HP uses 5 amps on 220 volts. Sure, they’re both using the same amount of watts — 1100 (remember amps × volts ≡ watts). But drawing more amps takes a bit more effort from the motor. If you have a fan with dual voltages, it will be a little easier on the motor to run it with the higher voltage, if possible.
Even at that, not all horsepower ratings are measured the same. Some are rated under load (average amount of work long-term, “marathon”), some are rated at peak capacity (the most work they can do for a short time, “sprint”). Two two-horsepower motors may not be equal in actual power.
Still, our goal is to make the most of whatever information we can get about a fan. Horsepower can give you a general idea of the motor’s capability. And if this is information you need to compare with other outdoor fans which don’t have horsepower ratings, just remember:
1 HP = about 750 watts (746 to be exact);
1 HP = about 2,500 BTU (2,544 to be exact)
Electricity Basics and Outdoor Fans
Current (Currency), Frequency, and Voltage
Many small outdoor fans draw on lower voltages in the 100s range. Larger and more powerful fans need higher voltages in the 200s range to work correctly. Some fans – called “dual voltage” fans – can work on more than one voltage, usually with a switch to flip back and forth. These fans typically run better on higher voltages, especially if they need a long cord to reach the power supply.
Of course any outdoor fan you buy should be able to work with your available power supply. Be sure to check a fan’s current, frequency, and voltage ratings. These will tell you before you purchase whether or not the fan is compatible with your power supply. We touched on voltage ratings, above.
You can learn more about these electrical terms and basic electrical concepts on our electricity basics page.
Two kinds of CURRENT are used to provide electricity for your fan: AC or DC current:
- AC current (Alternating Current) is the kind supplied by your local electric company. Fans that run on this AC current are the kind we’re dealing with in this article.
- Fans that work on DC current (Direct Current), which usually comes from a battery, are discussed on the page we are developing for battery-powered outdoor cooling.
HERTZ are the measurement of the electricity’s FREQUENCY. Even if voltages are similar, a 60 hertz fan may not work with a 50 hertz frequency and vice versa. The frequency most used worldwide is 50 hertz. 60 hertz is used in about 20% of the countries including most of North, Central and South America.
What Makes a Great Outdoor Fan?
Learn all about Outdoor Fans in our other In-Depth articles on what to look for in a great fan:
1. the fan, itself: The motor, energy use (this page) and air flow determine how much cooling you can expect from a fan. The fan blades determine the size of the fan and can really maximize that air flow.
2. A fan’s features are especially important for outdoor fans since they must be safer and more durable than indoor fans. Look for features such as:
- safety features and ratings
- functional features, relating to how the fan is made
- operating features for ease of use
- initial and ongoing costs
3. How the fan is setup is critical for effective cooling. Your set-up may involve some trial and error to determine the settings and placement that work best for you. Any fan can provide more cooling, use less energy and be safest when it’s set up well.
Other Outdoor Cooling Methods
Take a look at our comparison page to learn which cooling methods may be best for you.
Outdoor fans work well on their own and combine well with misting systems for added cooling effect. Misting fans are a clear example of how misting systems work with another cooling method to maximize cooling.
Swamp coolers (desert coolers) use a similar technology as misting systems, but in a contained unit.
Outdoor shades are a nearly universal solution that can add to the cooling effect of all cooling solutions.
Portable air conditioners can be the best outdoor cooling solution for special circumstances.