Ceiling fan controls and control operation
This page is about Ceiling fan pullchains, remote controls, Remote kits, Capacitor-stepped wall controls, Solid State speed controls, Transformer-based controls, Computerized wall controls, Dimmer switches, and more.
Most ceiling fans sold in recent years have a built in 3-speed pullchain for
speed control. Some older fans have two speeds, or infinitely variable speed
controls built into the fan. However it is not uncommon to desire a means to
control the fan from somewhere other than the fan body-- usually a wall switch.
Here we will discuss a few options:
1. Remote controls. Many, many ceiling fans offer wireless remote controls very similar to that of a television or garage door opener. These controls are handheld and offer 3 or more fan speeds, light control and dimming, reverse of the fan motor, and occasionally other features. The downsides are that if the remote is lost or broken, the fan is unable to be controlled, also the majority of remote ceiling fans use inexpensive electronics and are unreliable and break down. See our remotes section for more information.
1a. Remote kits. Many ceiling fans which do not include remote controls can be adapted to be remote controlled with a kit. This kit consists of a handheld wireless control and a hard-wired receiver which installs in the ceiling fan canopy, wired between the fan and the power source. These kits do not offer the ability to reverse the motor from the remote (that still has to be done on the fan body) but you do achieve 3 or more fan speeds and light control with dimming. The fan pullchain should be left in the 'high' speed position. The advantage of these kits, over fans with remotes built in, is if the remote is lost or broken, or if something otherwise fails in the receiver, it can be bypassed or replaced easily and the fan can still be used. See our remotes section for more information.
2. Capacitor-stepped wall controls. Many manufacturers and retailers offer 3 or 4 speed wall controls that are hard-wired, that is they wire in place of a wall switch and directly regulate the current flow to the fan. The most common and universal wall controls use capacitors to set 3 (or 4) distinct speeds. These fan be used on any ceiling fan other than those with electronic controls (i.e. wireless remotes) already built in. If the fan has no light, you simply wire it in place of the wall switch controlling the fan. If the fan has a light, but the motor and light are controlled by separate wall switches, again, you simply wire it in place of the wall switch controlling the fan. If the fan and light are controlled by the same wall switch a third wire will need to be added to offer an independent power source for the motor and light. Most capacitor type controls can only operate one fan per control, so multiple fans require multiple controls. Capacitor controls are commonly identified by having 3 or 4 distinct speeds, instead of infinitely variable speed selection.
3. Solid State speed controls. Some manufacturers and retailers also offer controls that, as opposed to having distinct separate speeds, offer an infinitely variable selection of speeds. These are called Solid State speed controls. Most ceiling fans sold currently use 16 pole spinner motors which are incompatible with solid state speed controls. Only fans with 18 pole motors (and other compatible designs) can be used with solid state controls. These include American-made ceiling fans, those with American-style motor designs (18 pole stack motors such as the K55), and some higher quality industrial fans. Most fans will have an indication in the manual whether or not they can be used with solid state speed controls. The advantage of solid state controls is the infinite selection of speeds, also solid state controls are often made to higher current ratings so that more than one fan can be operated by the same control. The disadvantage is that they are noisier. They wire in the same fashion as capacitor-type controls, requiring a dedicated hot lead to the motor(s).
4. Transformer-based controls. Similar to capacitor stepped controls, transformer-based controls offer 4 or 5 distinct fan speeds. They are compatible with most or all ceiling fan motors, and are quiet, although some produce an almost inaudible humming sound. They are most commonly found on industrial-type fans. They have the same advantages as capacitor-type controls, plus some are built to operate higher amounts of current and therefore control more than one fan. The disadvantage is that they usually mount on the surface of the wall rather than inside an outlet box, and therefore are ugly. They wire in the same fashion as capacitor controls and solid state controls, requiring a dedicated hot lead to the motor(s).
5. Computerized wall controls. If you haven't noticed, other than remotes, all of the wall controls mentioned thus far, require separate wiring if you wish to control both the fan and light separately from the wall. Many homeowners install ceiling fans to replace light fixtures where there is only one switched hot lead, and do not wish to pay an electrician to add another. And so some fan companies offer a wall control which only requires one hot lead, yet offers separate switching of the light and fan. Casablanca was the first to introduce this design with the InteliTouch wall control. Many other companies offer something similar. Some work by sending brief electrical signals, along with the power supply, to the fan. Others operate with radio frequencies similar to the remote controls. In all cases the wall control wires in place of a standard light switch, and the fan hooks up just as the ceiling light did with only two wires. Each control can only be used with the specific fan, none other, and one control operates one fan only. Multiple fans require multiple controls. You can, however, hook multiple controls to one fan for three-way operation. Some companies offer kits, similar to the remote kits, in order to add this feature to a standard ceiling fan.
6. Dimmer switches. One common question is, "Can I hook a fan up to a dimmer switch?" The short answer is, no. Many ceiling fan speed controls look similar to dimmer switches, especially solid state speed controls, but hooking a fan motor to a dimmer switch will damage the fan and/or control. If the fan has light attached, and the lights are wired to a separate switch from the fan motor, then a dimmer switch may be installed to control the lights only. As always a dimmer switch should not be used with (compact) fluorescent bulbs.