Efficiency Debate Swirls Around Ceiling Fans

Werner Stoffberg/
The debate over energy efficiency has spun out a curious sideshow: ceiling fans. Fancy ones, mainly – flower, fern, French Country Alsace, the kind that cool with style but consume more energy doing so. Currently, Department of Energy is trying to regulate these elaborate, decorative fans.

Sen. Lamar Alexander wants to change that.

A new bill from the Tennessee Republican would forever bar DOE from regulating the energy efficiency of ceiling fans. While attempts at blocking fan rules have been included in previous appropriations bills, Alexander is looking for a permanent fix. And he’s well positioned to do so: Alexander is a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water.

“Ceiling fans are already an affordable, energy-efficient option for families who are trying to cool their homes, and Sen. Alexander sees no reason for a new federal mandate that significantly increases the cost of ceiling fans,” said Brian Reisinger, a spokesman for Alexander.

The measure (S. 1048) is one of 22 bills the Senate Energy Committee is considering for inclusion under the efficiency section of upcoming comprehensive energy legislation. Most of the measures are noncontroversial, but this bill, which would restrict DOE, is sure to ruffle some feathers as negotiations move forward.

“We’ve already seen the federal government stretch their regulatory tentacles into our homes and determine what kind of light bulbs we have to use. Now they’re coming for our ceiling fans.” – Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) in 2013

With Republicans controlling both the committee and Congress, the ceiling fan measure stands a good chance of making its way into the broader energy bill, but not without an exchange of barbs first.

Here’s how that bout went down during the 113th Congress: “We’ve already seen the federal government stretch their regulatory tentacles into our homes and determine what kind of light bulbs we have to use,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said on the House floor. “Now they’re coming for our ceiling fans.”

And not just any celling fans, she said. The “reasonably priced, highly decorative fans,” would suffer the most, Blackburn said.

Blackburn and Alexander’s home state of Tennessee is also where leading ceiling fan manufacturer Hunter Fan Co. is headquartered.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), the top Democrat on energy and water appropriations subcommittee, shot back during the 2013 floor debate, calling the Blackburn amendment “anti-consumer.” She cited DOE estimates that new efficiency rules would save consumers $4.3 billion through 2030.

Kaptur’s family owns a ceiling fan business.

The House in 2013 adopted Blackburn’s amendment on a mostly party line vote of 227-198. Last week the House adopted the same amendment as part of an energy and water appropriations bill.

If the 2013 House showdown is any indicator, ceiling fans could spark vibrant debate as the Senate Energy Committee drafts its comprehensive energy reform.

In the Senate this year, the issue hasn’t yet risen to contention. Democratic senators like Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) – two efficiency hawks on the Energy Committee – said they weren’t prepared to comment.

The panel will likely vote on Alexander’s bill in the coming weeks.

The American Lighting Association, a trade group representing more than 3,000 members in the lighting, ceiling fan and controls industries, doesn’t seem overly concerned. The DOE regulation “wasn’t specifically as harmful as we had feared, but they’re only proposed rules,” Michael Weems, ALA’s vice president of government affairs, said in an interview.

He said it was too early for ALA to take a position on Alexander’s bill. He declined to comment on whether ALA supports the idea of banning efficiency regulations on ceiling fans. “We hope to see a rule that is palatable and does not have an impact on market,” he said.

Several fan manufacturers, including ALA members Westinghouse Lighting Corp., Fanimation Inc., and Memphis-based Hunter, submitted comments to DOE saying the proposed rules are unnecessary, counterproductive and would be costly.

“Additional regulations at this time will result in higher fan costs to consumers, leading to the increased use of HVAC systems and rising energy consumption,” Hunter wrote.

Big Ass Fan Co., however, “supports the DOE in its effort to establish technologically feasible and economically justifiable energy conservation regulations,” the Lexington, Kentucky-based company wrote in the comments it submitted to DOE.

The federal agency has had the authority to regulate the energy efficiency level of ceiling fans since 2005, when President George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress enacted the Energy Policy Act. While there are design standards and test procedures for fans, there are no energy conservation regulations in place, according to DOE’s website.

While efficiency standards have been blocked through the annual appropriations process, Congress has never passed an authorization measure that would prohibit regulating the efficiency of a certain product.

Morning Consult