Ceiling fans and birth control have more in common than you might think, at least in Washington.
These two disparate items both have the ability to invoke the ire of many Republicans in the current House of Representatives. And while the issue of women’s reproductive health is a perennial topic, the ceiling fan is just now getting its moment in the spotlight.
The humble ceiling fan has become the center of a political fight in Washington, D.C., where Republicans in the House are blocking the U.S. Department of Energy from moving forward with updating ceiling fan standards -- standards that the industry initially asked for years ago.
“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,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), as reported by NPR. "Now they're coming after our ceiling fans. It is a sad state of affairs when even our ceiling fans aren't safe from this administration. Enough is enough.”
In general, energy efficiency is a nonpartisan affair (e.g., the Shaheen-Portman bill). But every now and then, there is a household appliance that evokes so much passion from a handful of House Republicans that it’s a wonder federal efficiency standards get passed at all.
The best-known example is the little light bulb. Despite the fact that it was President George W. Bush who unleashed his "regulatory tentacles" in 2007 and passed the energy-efficiency standards for the common light bulb, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) still fought the standards as they were being enacted in 2010.
Republicans argue that some of the energy efficiency standards are a boondoggle that will cost Americans millions of dollars. But that’s not necessarily true, said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.
The first round of standards, which went into effect in 2005, require more than one speed that can be controlled separately from the lights and an option to reverse the direction of the fan blades.
Despite the first round of standards, Americans keep paying for ceiling fans, and although many Americans faced financial hardship during the recession, there are no reports of the cost of an efficient ceiling fan putting anyone into the poorhouse. It’s not even clear what would be in the updated standard, because Republicans have stopped the rulemaking process in its tracks.
"Efficiency standards for a range of products from refrigerators to air conditioners are a great nonpartisan success story because they save consumers money, save energy and consumers still get great products,” said deLaski. “All of the national energy efficiency standards we have today were enacted with huge bipartisan majorities, including the ceiling fan standards, which Representative Blackburn voted for in 2005. It's ironic that she now wants to deny DOE the funds to determine whether better fan standards make sense."
The fight over ceiling fans may seem ridiculous, when there are so many more deserving issues that could be taken up by Congress, but the ceiling fan is not inconsequential as an energy hog in the house.
Sure, it doesn’t hold a candle to air conditioning and heating in terms of energy consumption, which is still the largest energy load in the home. But there are more than 225 million ceiling fans in the U.S., and it is the second largest miscellaneous residential energy load. Also, ceiling fan use is likely only to increase in coming decades as new homes have more fans and more homes are being built, especially in southern areas of the U.S.
Fan manufacturers like Fanimation and Hunter Fans, which are fighting any updates to current regulations, argue that fans are already energy-efficient because they reduce the use of air conditioning. But other fan companies see the opportunity for improved efficiency.
“Most ceiling fans use an incredibly inefficient motor. That technology hasn't changed in 100 years,” Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Fans, told NPR. “And so we looked at that and we said, 'We can do better than that.'” The American Lighting Association, which represents fan makers, has not taken a position on the proposed standards.
Increasing energy-efficiency standards across the board, from televisions and set-top boxes to ceiling fans and air conditioners, is important. But replacing older models that are already in homes with far more energy-efficient options is an important piece of the puzzle to truly realize the full potential of efficiency gains.
If this is the reaction to updating ceiling fan standards, Obama had better brace for a fight as he tries to double energy efficiency in the U.S., especially if most of those gains are to come through federal buildings and appliance standards.