Ceiling Fan Speed Controls

By Todd Fratzel on Electrical

picture of ceiling fanToday I learned something new about how to control the speed of ceiling fans. We have a ceiling fan in our bedroom that we use pretty regularly during the summer. It has three pre-set speeds, slow, medium and fast. Here’s the problem: the slow and medium speeds are so slow that they really don’t do much to cool us off. I like the fast speed but it drives my wife nuts. She says all it does is blow the hair into her face all night long. So I thought I’d just install a dimmer switch and that way I could “fine tune” the high speed to an agreeable setting.

Guess what? A standard dimmer switch will not properly operate a fan motor. In fact, it’s most likely going to damage the fan motor and it could even potentially cause a fire. I’ll admit I even went out and bought a dimmer switch and I sat down to just “make sure” I was doing the right thing when I figured this out.

Standard dimmer switches are designed for the wattage of lights. Fan controls are designed for the amperage of the fan motor. So if you want to control the speed of a ceiling fan make sure you buy a fan speed control that specifically says it works for fans. Fan controls come in quite a few styles. The most common type has been around for quite some time and that is the rotary or dial type. The next most common fan control I found was the toggle that has three pre-set speeds (slow, medium and fast). You can also get a fan control that has a slider control along with a toggle switch.

picture of dimmer switchThe type that I want to install is a toggle switch with a small slider switch next to it. I have a feeling I’ll have to order one of these but I’ll check with my electrician tomorrow to find out the scoop. The bottom line is you can’t use a standard dimmer switch to control a ceiling fan. You have to get a fan speed control switch that is specifically designed to operate fan motors.

About the author

Todd Fratzel

I'm full time builder for a large construction company in New Hampshire. I run their design-build division that specializes in custom homes, commercial design-build projects and sub-divisions. I'm also a licensed civil and structural engineer with extensive experience in civil and structural design and home construction. My hope is that I can share my experience in the home construction, home improvement and home renovation profession with other builders and home owners. I'm also the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Tool Box Buzz. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, suggestions or you'd like to inquire about advertising on this site.

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11 Comments

  1. fred@opc says:

    Good tip. I’ve always had an “intuition” about this – that it wouldn’t work, but was never sure about it. Now I won’t bother trying one day (and potentially burn down the house!!).

  2. Sean says:

    so, my electrician is in the middle of trimming out my house and I realized he installed one of these EXACT dimmer/toggle switches to my ceiling fan. the dimmer actually controls the speed of the fan but, as you said, I’m worried that it might start a fire or is not quite possibly safe for the fan motor. I’m going to ask him on Monday if we can actually use this switch for the fan.

    what did you find out?

  3. Todd says:

    @ Sean,

    There are fan controls that look like a dimmer…so he most likely installed the correct item. Just check with him for piece of mind.

  4. Chris says:

    Todd, I was really pleased to come across a blog like this one. Information galore! I work with a Leviton distributor and we’ve had this question on dimmer/ceiling-fan compatibility come up before. Just have to tell you that you’ve got great tips and insights.

  5. Ronny says:

    Many thanks,

    I had my doubts, but decided to try a regular dimmer anyway.
    I bought all the stuff, and just before installing I read this.
    So I will change my plans and thanks to you I might have avoided burning my house down.

  6. charles sammis says:

    I just purchased a new ceiling fan,a riviera amt brass 52″, from dans fans. I had it installed by a licensed electriction. It’s fine. The slow speed is to fast for nighttime sleeping. I have no way to install a “dimmer ” switch. How can I slow the fan down?

    • Todd says:

      Charles – The only way I’m aware of is to have a fan control installed on the power source. Your electrician should be able to do that for you.

      • charles sammis says:

        Thanks for the info. Who ever put fan up in the past some how caught a live wire through the ceiling and uaed that. I don’t where the wire goes to. Charlie

    • BeenthereDonethat says:

      This is exactly the problem I have. Any help would be appreciated. I’ve looked at countless fan control switches but have no idea if they will do what I want done.

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