The relative merits of fans and air conditioners varies depending on the method used to judge them. The perceived cooling effectiveness can vary depending on how close the fan is to you, making this an inaccurate standard. The cost of purchasing, energy usage and cost of operation, however, can result in harder numbers, allowing you to determine how many fans are equal to a window air conditioner.
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The average price of the top five room air conditioners reviewed by Consumer Search cost $242 as of August 2011. The price for the top five floor fans averaged $44. According to these figures, you could buy approximately five or six fans for the cost of a window air conditioner. Note that prices can range significantly between brands -- the number of fans you can buy for the price of an air conditioner can range from three to 11, even just choosing from among the top five models reviewed.
According to the Saving Electricity website, a medium-sized window air conditioner consumes approximately 900 watts of electricity hourly. A floor fan, on the other hand, generally only uses 100 watts per hour. Given these figures, it takes nine fans to equal the energy used by a single room air conditioner. Note that energy usage, like market price, can vary significantly: large window AC units can use as much as 1,440 watts per hour, while smaller models can get by with just 500.
The average electricity bill in the United States was 11.2 cents per kilowatt hour in February 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration. Cost of operation can vary as widely as any of the other figures, with electricity bills varying from 7 cents / kWh in North Dakota to 31 cents in Hawaii. But, because electric companies bill by kilowatt, the fan-to-AC operation cost will be the same as the energy usage ratio -- thus, nine floor fans cost as much to run as just one medium-sized window air conditioner.
The Bottom Line
Using fans to cool your home is much more cost-effective than running a window-mounted air conditioner, particularly when considering their range of operation. A window AC unit can usually only cool one or two rooms, but nine or even just five fans can cool your entire house. Running both in conjunction can also help you save money; according to the Department of Energy, running a fan can let you raise your thermostat by four degrees Fahrenheit with no noticeable cooling difference.