The No. 1 Fan

Which will keep you coolest?

Box fan

After this summer’s heat wave, even my air conditioner was crying out for relief. My roommate and I left it on all day so our two dogs wouldn’t die in a stuffy apartment. Plus, our electric bill skyrocketed—the power of one air conditioner can put you in the poorhouse (it can also make you fat). I resolved to find out if I could survive the rest of the summer without an air conditioner, using fans to cool the apartment instead.


I tested six new fans, plus one “control” fan—the Kool Operator Jr. that I’d had for years. (I almost felt bad pitting it against some of the fanciest fans in America.) My tests were manifold and designed to assess each fan under various conditions. Did it make the room cool enough for peaceful slumber? Did it create a pleasant white noise, or was it too loud? How powerful was it? Were there enough speed settings? Was it designed well? During the day, did it keep the apartment a livable temperature? In other words, were the dogs still alive when I got home from work? Finally, was it a good deal? I rated the fans on all of these qualities: coolness, noise, design, and value.

I slept two nights with each fan—if I could stand it. A couple simply didn’t keep the room cool enough for me to sleep in, and I was forced to supplement the “cooling” with other fans. I also tested them for at least one hour at three different times of day: early morning, early evening, and at night before bed. Ultimately, you want a fan that keeps you cool, so fans were ranked on a 20-point scale for coolness and a 10-point scale for design and noise. Value was calculated by adding the scores in the other categories, multiplying by 10, and dividing by the price.

Here are the results, from worst to best:

OxygenFresh Fan, $29.95
This is a desk fan, but I figured if I set it on my nightstand, it would blow directly on my face, offering a lovely, constant breeze as I slept. No dice. When set to high, this fan barely cooled my pinky. It also made a whirring noise reminiscent of a hand vacuum, which was distracting. On the plus side, there’s a timer that turns it off after an hour. And the Sharper Image, which sells this fan, claims it can reduce smog and increase oxygen in your environment. I don’t know how much smog is in my apartment (probably quite a bit—I seem to live on a major truck route), but I noticed no discernible difference after using it. (The EPA has done studies on the effectiveness of air purifiers and has concluded that most portable models don’t noticeably reduce pollutants in the air.) Given its dubious billing, and its poor cooling capacity, it’s a bad value despite its sale price of $29.95. At its regular price of $49.95, it’s a truly horrendous deal.

Design: 2
Noise: 4
Coolness: 4
Value: 3.3
Total: 13.3

Kool Operator Jr., $71.99
Let’s be blunt: This fan is ugly, made of plastic, and looks like it belongs in a kid’s bedroom. (In fact, I think it lived in my brother’s room for most of the ‘90s.) But with 8-inch blades, it’s compact, lightweight, not too noisy, and practical. Best of all, it’s surprisingly powerful—not quite enough to cool an entire room on the hottest day, but it will serve your purposes nicely if you’re going to be stationary for a spell (it doesn’t rotate, though it does tilt 90 degrees). However, I was shocked—shocked!—to discover that my trusty Kool Operator Jr. rang up at a kool $71.99 on Amazon. Then I remembered this fan’s long life—it’s a veritable heirloom. Talk about value.

Design: 4
Coolness: 14
Noise: 7
Value: 3.5
Total: 28.5

Twin Window Fan, $28.47
I’d always been dubious of a window fan’s effectiveness—I thought of them as a poor man’s air conditioner—and I was proven half-right. Window fans are supposed to sit in your window in place of a screen, blowing cool air into your room. But this fan rests on two feet (assembly required a Phillips head screwdriver) that create a gap between the fan and your window frame, letting in bugs. My unsatisfying solution: Rest the fan in front of your screen. That’s not the only feature that I found problematic. While the twin fans can push air into the room, or suck it out, the latter seemed to make the room warmer. Also, the temperature control didn’t seem to work. And even at the highest setting, this fan wasn’t particularly powerful. On the plus side, the window fan created a nice amount of white noise—a soothing background sound—and the $30 price tag makes it a solid value if you need something for a room that’s not too stuffy to begin with. But if you think this fan can replace an air conditioner, think again, and opt for something more powerful.

Design: 4
Coolness: 8
Noise: 10
Value: 7.7
Total: 29.7

This is a beautiful fan with an understated retro appeal. It’s obviously well-crafted—the parts are all metal and seem very sturdy—and I also appreciated its long cord. But this is not the fan to buy if you want to stay cool. At the slowest speed, I felt almost nothing. While the highest speed yields a gentle breeze, it’s not enough to cool a larger room on its own—and it makes more noise than you’d expect. At nearly $100, this was one of the more expensive fans I tried out. So, unless you’re a fan aficionado, or you’re yearning for a vintage-looking accessory for your living room, this expense is probably too big to justify.

Design: 10
Coolness: 10
Noise: 7
Value: 2.7
Total: 29.7

Box Fan, $17.98
The box fan will never win a beauty contest, though there’s something comforting in its bland utilitarianism. This white 20-inch model from Lowe’s looked like every other boring box fan I’ve seen: square-shaped, with big fan blades and a plastic grill. It’s also got a handy handle for easy carrying. Leaving it on throughout the day seemed to cool my apartment fairly well—the dogs didn’t complain—and when it was on, I usually didn’t need another fan to help it along, unless it was especially hot and humid. But damn, was this thing loud! I found it difficult to talk over, and I had to crank the TV up several decibels above normal. The only perk was that it masked all other urban cacophony—traffic, crying children, barking dogs. At $17.98, this fan is a great value if you’re looking for a workhorse fan that will keep things cool. Note: It’s probably best for families accustomed to speaking at loud volumes to one another.

Design: 3
Coolness: 18
Noise: 1
Value: 12.2
Total: 34.2

Allaire Classic Oscillating Stand Fan, 16-inch version, $199
This fan, available from Restoration Hardware, has a classic, streamlined design and features lots of extras: You can adjust the height as well as the fan’s angle, and it rotates. And though I love its look, I don’t appreciate the cryptic IKEA-like directions to assemble it. While this fan created the perfect amount of white noise at the lowest speed—that breezy sound perfect for falling asleep—the blades’ humming at the highest speed took some getting used to. Nonetheless, I was impressed with its cooling abilities—my pillow was refreshingly dry when I woke up. The price of the fan is steep, but given the great design and power, it’s worth the cost.

Design: 9
Coolness: 20
Noise: 9
Value: 1.9
Total: 39.9

Bionaire Metal Tower Fan, $79.95
This fan is a godsend. It cooled me down with its soothing, yet surprisingly powerful, breeze, which made a gentle whooshing sound (even at the highest of the three speed settings). I also love the fan’s design—tall and thin, with a small footprint, it fit snugly in my tiny bedroom. It’s not bad to look at, either, with a sleek chrome case and black grill. The fan’s features, including oscillation and the timer (you can set it in half-hour increments up to 7.5 hours, and there’s also a sleep function) worked flawlessly, as well. Perhaps the most interesting feature is the breeze feature, which is meant to mimic natural wind by randomly varying the speed at which the fan blows. The only negative was that assembly took a good 15 minutes or so—you have to screw in the base and leg with a Phillips head screwdriver, which was a little awkward and is easiest done with some assistance. But that’s a minor quibble. What’s most important is that it kept me cool without breaking the bank. The tower fan is the best bet if you’re willing to spend a little extra to get a high-quality, high-performance fan. Here’s to the tower fan making my summers footloose and A.C.-free from now on.

Design: 9
Coolness: 20
Noise: 10
Value: 4.9
Total: 43.9