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The Cost of Air Conditioning Vs. a Fan: Is it Time to Re-Think Our Addiction to AC?

Last updated by on 37 Comments

An American Love Affair with Air Conditioning (AC)

Summer is here. Time to rev up the air conditioning units. Or is it?

Americans are addicted to AC. We DEMAND it in our homes, our offices, our shopping malls, our cars.

According the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, about two-thirds of U.S. homes (65 percent) have central air-conditioning and another 21 percent have window units – new units are more likely to have central air-conditioning (89 percent). By contrast, only 17% of U.S. homes had central A/C in 1973 and 30% contained window units.

Admittedly, I’ve become a bit spoiled when it comes to air conditioning. I have a very hard time sleeping comfortably unless it’s about 72 degrees or less.

Ever since I was about 10 years old, I have lived with air conditioning. The one exception was in college when I was in the dorms for two miserably hot years.

But an article in the New York Times that got me thinking a bit about our wasteful ways, my wasteful ways – “Bringing in the Big Fans“.

The Cost of Air Conditioning Vs. Fans

According to the article:

  • a good window AC unit runs on 1.2 kilowatts and costs 14 cents an hour to run
  • a three-ton central air unit (a common cooling system), runs on about 3 kilowatts and costs about 36 cents an hour to run
  • a good ceiling fan? It draws only 30 watts to run, costing about 1 cent per three hours of use

One penny for every three hours?!

I knew that fans used less energy than AC units, but to use less than 1% of the energy? Hmmm….. maybe I need to re-think my love for air conditioning.

AC versus fan

Running the Cost Figures Over a Month

Putting these hourly costs into more practical terms made sense, so I decided to run the math. If you assume that your unit is running half of the day during summer months,

  • a window AC unit would cost $50.40 per month
  • a central AC unit would cost $129.60 per month
  • each ceiling fan would cost $1.20 per month

I could potentially be saving over $128 per month by putting up a ceiling fan in my bedroom and weening myself off of AC? Amazing!

Heck, even just installing a window unit in my room so that I can sleep well (the biggest reason I’m addicted to AC in the summer) would save me $78 per month, probably more if I only use it at night.

Additional Benefits to Getting Rid of AC

I love AC, don’t get me wrong. But lately I have been opening the windows more often and going without. I like the outdoor sounds and really like the fresh air.

And when you consider that 25% of all electricity consumed at home in the U.S. is to power AC units and that most of that electricity is coming from carbon-rich coal, maybe it’s time we re-thought our love for AC. It’s hard to justify AC if you call yourself an environmental steward.

Whether you switch to a ceiling fan, a window unit, a whole house fan, or some combination of, you may want to start thinking about your love of air conditioning. I will. Stay tuned.

Keeping Cool Discussion:

  • How do you keep yourself cool, especially at night?
  • Have you switched from AC to another method of staying cool? What did you do?

Related Posts:


About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


37 Comments »
  • BG says:

    We had passed the average number of 100 degrees days (12) for the year, before summer even began this year. If it weren’t for A/C I wouldn’t live in this part of the country. Then again it rarely gets below freezing in the winters…

    Having a ceiling fan in each “bedroom is a must, as it allows you to set the A/C higher with little noticeable difference.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      Your comment brought up an idea….. if you’re a northerner who can get by in northern winters without significant heat expenses or a southerner who can get by in southern summers without AC expenses, your heating/cooling bills are going to be virtually nil.

      • David Roy says:

        Just a question to ponder. What is the approximate cost of setting the AC system’s fan from auto to on? This would give air circulation throughout the entire residence, but should be cheaper than running the AC?

    • Jeremy B. says:

      That’s funny. I just read the article in my email (glad to see full articles back in there) and got on the blog to post a comment about this being my first summer in Austin. (today was day 17 in the triple digits)

      Back up in Michigan, I could and did go the entire summer without AC by opening windows to let the cool air in at night, and then before I left for work, I’d close the windows and curtains to block the sunlight from heating up the house while I was gone. Come home, turn on a fan and open the windows back up.

      Down here, its still 80 degrees until midnight and the windows in my apartment face west, so I would boil without AC. (June’s bill just came in at $75 for my small 1 bedroom apt that I only keep at 75)

  • d.f. says:

    I live in Augusta, GA where we have very long hot and humid summers with heat indexes regularly in the 100′s. We run our AC at 80 (sometimes 82 if humidity isn’t that bad) and always have a ceiling fan running on in whatever room we are in. If I get too hot a wet towel or cool glass of water usually does the trick.

    Having the huge shock of going from cold 70 degree AC to the very hot/humid conditions outside just makes things worse. I find whatever cooling method keeps me within about a 10 degree swing is noticeable enough and sufficient.

    • bentmal says:

      Too funny. I’m in Newnan, GA and I do exactly the same thing!! A cool rag around my neck and a glass of water keeps my pretty content. When outside, everybody always asks me how am I not sweating like crazy but it’s because my body temp stays close to the same instead of going from drastically cool to the total opposite and this also makes it to where I’m not miserable outside lie everyone else is!! It’s called being smart!

  • Emily R. says:

    My husband and I decided in May to make every effort to keep our A/C off (we live in NC). We were looking for a cost-saving measure to allow us to save additional money toward a future purchase. We installed a ceiling fan in our one remaining room without one and it’s been working pretty well so far. We both work in over-air-conditioned buildings throughout the day so it’s actually a relief to be without it for a time. In the evenings we often sit on our screened-in balcony or open windows, and at night we sleep with our bedroom fan on under just a sheet. My husband grew up without A/C (in southern CA) using just fans so he knew of their wonderful attributes from his childhood.

  • Jesse K. says:

    My parents came from Taiwan and somehow everyone there is just accustomed to the hotter and more humid climate. Even when you go into department stores, it’s probably not much cooler than 80. Because of this, I guess my body is just used to (and most comfortable) around 78-80. I would actually find it quite cold and need a comforter to sleep at 72.

    Since my work place runs around 72, I come home quite cold and can go for a couple hours with the temperature around 83-84 with fans on. I live by myself and in the dead of Texas summer (100+) my electric bill was only about $50 for a small apartment, no gas.

    I wonder if you can train your body to be comfortable at a higher temperature?

    • G.E. Miller says:

      I think so. Most Californians can’t take Northern winters and most northerners can’t take southern summers. Your body grows accustom to your climate, I think.

    • kelli says:

      i think your body can easily become accustomed to a climate after a few years of being in it. as a californian i have a hard time adjusting to cold weather (cold being 72), and my parents who relocated to alaska 5 years ago from california now find 80 way too hot and suffer in california summers where before they were tolerant of the heat.

  • Alex K says:

    Now I understand why my parents don’t like to turn on the air conditioning all the time! Thanks for the great info, I’ll definitely be using my fan more often.

    NPR has an interesting article about the costs of air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan war: http://www.npr.org/2011/06/25/137414737/among-the-costs-of-war-20b-in-air-conditioning

  • rob says:

    Here in Houston you just might suffer a miserable death if it were not for central A/C. That and everything you own would be rusted and ruined in one summer from the 99% humidity we get here every morning about 5am. I even have to keep my tools in the house unless I want them to be ruined. My bike is dying a slow, painful death because I have no room in the house for it. Poor guy.I grew up in Michigan though, and never had A/C and it was fine….box fan in the window was all you ever needed.

  • Ginger says:

    When my DH and I moved to Buffalo, NY from Ca we discovered we really did not need air conditioning. In fact, I find going inside on a nice day annoying because I need to bring layers. I think we should start making our houses/malls/movie theaters closer to the temperate outside instead of trying make it one temperature year round.

  • Natalie says:

    I live in Las Vegas, where air conditioning is considered essential for survival, but I’ve done some experiments. I definitely use my central ac during the months where it is over 100 (June-September), but I set it to 78 degrees. One day I was staying a my mother-in-law’s house when her ac broke. It was over 100 degrees outside but the internal temperature never rose above 86. I managed to get through the day by keeping a wet rag around my neck and a fan on me. I admit I was uncomfortable, but I could get by. If I lived in a place where it rarely rose above 100 degrees, I could probably do without. Where I live, it gets above 115. It would be uncomfortable for half the year and dangerous for a few weeks in the middle of summer. I keep my ac, but I set it as high as I can adjust to and still be comfortable (i.e. not dripping sweat).

    If you want to set your ac to a higher temp, this is what I do and I’m rarely uncomfortable. I start in March (when it starts to warm up here) with my ac set at 72, I then increase by just one degree at a time once I feel comfortable with the current temperature. This usually gets me to 78 by the beginning of June. I’ve found that a higher temp keeps me sweating all day, so I stop there. Keep in mind that I hate the heat and keep my thermostat set to 65 or less in the winter. I also keep the doors open for more than half the year.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      Good points. And I think what’s more is that we don’t need to cool 2,000 sq. feet when we could get by in cooling 100 or 200. In Vegas, I don’t think anyone would blame you for using AC. =) On the flip side, would anyone be living in Vegas these days without AC? It’s interesting that most major city and economic growth has come in the South in the last 25 years, and I have no doubt that is partly due to the proliferation of AC.

      • Natalie says:

        Modern society has allowed us to do a lot of things we probably shouldn’t. Las Vegas is a great example. We need climate control, ship in all our food, and we’re running out of water. My dream is to one day live in a small town in western Oregon, where I can grow a garden without having to supply all the soil and water.

        People did live in Las Vegas before modern conveniences, including Paiute, but it was a much smaller population.

  • Rachel says:

    I live in Oregon, where I’m fortunate enough that even in the hottest parts of the summer it usually cools down at night. I keep my A/C use down by putting a dual fan in each of the bedroom windows. Once it starts to cool down for the day I put the fans on so that one is blowing in cool air and the other is blowing out air. When it’s time to sleep I change them to both pulling in the cool air.

    In the morning as it starts to warm up, I pull out the fans and close the windows to keep in the cooler air. I also make sure to keep blinds and curtains closed on the side of the house that the sun is hitting during the day. I find that I do use A/C sometimes during the day, but never need it at night when using the fans.

  • fool says:

    I inherited a chinchilla and it cannot tolerate high humidity and temperatures over 75 really well (I have had him live with 78 and that doesn’t seem to bother him much).

    I wonder if I could make him a box that has temperature and humidity control because frankly at 75 degree setting I get cold at night (the thermometer says 72 when I wake up and 77 when I go to bed)…

  • Lindsay says:

    I think my favorite thing about the townhouse I’m renting is that it’s the middle of 5 units. That means the longest two sides are extremely well insulated! I’m in Indianapolis, so we get both high highs and low lows, both humid, but I’m usually fine turning on heat or AC for a max of 15 minutes when I get up and 15 when I get home. That keeps it tolerable the other parts of the day when I’m actually home! My electric bill is seldom over $20 for 865 sq ft.

  • Justin @ MoneyIsTheRoot says:

    Im all about being eco-friendly, but just because you can do a cost comparison between AC and fans, it doesn’t mean their desired effect is even in the same ball park. For the most part I will crack the windows, throw on a fan to circulate the air, but if it’s 100 degrees outside and humid, it’s not going to be any cooler in your house using that method. AC is almost a necessity for me, and I didnt grow up with it. My hayfever is pretty severe, and sometimes leaving the windows closed is the only relief I get.

  • Alyssa says:

    I know you live up north, GE, where it is possible to live without AC. Here in Austin, TX, we’ve already had consistent days over 100 (I’ve lost track of how many). It is not feasible to live without the AC. I do understand my great-grandparents did so, and I’m not sure how they did it. However, I imagine body odor wasn’t as much of a social issue back then. We keep our apartment at 78-79* and use fans while we’re home, and that’s as high as we can go with the temp. When you come in from 105* weather, that 20+ degree difference helps. We are lucky that our winters aren’t cold. I think we turned the heat on in our apartment 3 or 4 times last winter. And that was only when our apartment got below 60*.

    • I hear you Alyssa! I live in Houston, TX and it is very difficult to live without AC here. I’ve tried to have only the fans on in my home, but then I feel like I’m in a convection oven!

      We have to live with a nice mixture of fans and higher AC settings. There’s a second part to the story in Houston though. It is so humid here that we need the AC to dry out our homes. So many people forget that the AC serves more than one purpose. It not only cools your house, but it also lowers the humidity!

      I think some of these points were touched upon above…

      Anywho, keep up the great posts G.E. and I’ll see you on Twitter!

      @YPMoney

  • George P Burdell says:

    I live in Atlanta in a 3 story townhome (1900 sq ft) and keeping the thermostats at 75 was costing ~200 every month (kept top floor @ 80). I’m in an end unit so that doesn’t help from with insulation (more windows). I love my AC, but that was just too expensive. Last month I’ve bumped all the thermostats up to 80. I’ve gotten used to it now.

  • melissa says:

    I use a variety of different methods to cool my space during the summer months, when temps easily reach 100+. I use the ceiling fan most of the day, window air conditioner for about 3 hours prior to bedtime so it’s comfy to start sleeping, a fan at night set on a timer for about 2-3 hours, and during the day I use blackout curtains and keep blinds and windows closed. It’s dark inside, but stays cool and these measures also help protect my pets. I find that A/C isn’t needed with all these steps, but is a luxury I use when on vacations and such at hotels.

  • Hannah says:

    I don’t have an air conditioner, so it’s not hard to save money in the summer! I use a regular $25 fan from Home Depot. I move it around my house to whichever room I am currently in.

  • natasha says:

    Dose it cost more to run the.fan in an a/c unit over night in cool temps than the a/c unit its self..?

  • Kell Brigan says:

    Yes, the money, in this case, talks. I highly recommend weaning oneself off AC, especially anyone who tends to get colds or who likes outdoor sports, etc. There is a transition time. Once you get acclimated to the climate (ha), hot isn’t as hot as it first seems. Personally, I find I don’t get sick nearly as often and am able to hike outdoors without it being exhausting in the way it is if you’re not used to higher temperatures. I do run a box fan in my 900 sf townhouse, but that’s it for all but maybe 5 days a year, and I live in the Central Valley of California!

    Another, cheaper, option is a “swamp cooler.” I don’t like them because they seem to make the air “muggy,” but some folks love them.

  • Chris says:

    We use box fans. We put them in the windows in the morning to blow in cool air. Later in the day, when the temperature outside begins to get to high, we close the windows and switch to rotating fans in the living room. The two biggest problems are (1) our cats don’t sweat and therefore can’t stay nearly as cool as we do, and (2) our computers begin to overheat, lowering their performance, shortening the lifespan of their components and causing occasional shut-downs.
    To deal with the first problem, we shave all of the fur off the cats with a pair of ultra-quiet trimmers that we bought a few years ago. This doesn’t just keep them cooler, it’s also very good for their health because it keeps them from swallowing lots of shed fur which is damaging to their digestive system and even potentially lethal (they can get life-threatening blockages, some of which aren’t apparent and even go unseen in vet x-rays). We also regularly fill up a 1-liter bottle with warm water and pour it all over the cats. We have to use warm water because the cold water is too shocking for them and they absolutely hate it. They’d rather just cook in the heat than have cold/cool water poured on them.
    For the computers, we switched to water cooling and we make sure the water coolers’ fans remain free of dust. That has helped but the computers still get much hotter than they should.

  • Chris says:

    I think pretty much everyone prefers air conditioning. It’s an issue of the large amount of electricity they use.

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