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Big Ass Fans: from cow barns to high-end design

We speak to Richard Oleson, senior design engineer for Big Ass Fans, to learn more about the tongue-in-cheek company's energy-efficient fans, found in dairy farms and chic lofts alike.

Never has a company been more aptly named.

Big Ass Fans is a Lexington, Kentucky-based manufacturer of -- you guessed it -- very large ceiling fans. But the company excels at more than just tongue-in-cheek marketing. Businesses ranging from dairy farms to skate parks have taken a liking to their fans, which are as large as 24 feet in diameter, because they help control indoor climates by reducing reliance on heating and air conditioning systems.

But the company’s installed base of 50,000 products worldwide also includes smaller, more traditionally-sized ceiling fans, intended for commercial or residential applications rather than industrial ones. One such fan, the Haiku, has earned the company design awards, including the 2012 red dot award for product design.

I spoke with Richard Oleson, the firm’s senior design engineer, about how Big Ass Fans has gained so much, uh, momentum.

SmartPlanet: What’s your background and what do you do, on a day-to-day basis?

Richard Oleson: I studied mechanical engineering and industrial design at the University of Illinois, way back in the 1970s. I spent quite a lot of time after that working in safety equipment and protective products for 25 years or so. I came to Big Ass Fans in 2006. On a day-to-day basis I do new product design. With a combination of engineering and industrial design background I tend to have a holistic approach. I tend to combine the styling and the structure into one thing, as opposed to someone doing engineering and someone else doing styling.

SP: Where did this idea of large fans come from?

RO: It predated my association with the company, of course, but my understanding is that one of the first applications for it was in dairy barns. Before, when the weather got hot, the cows would stop eating. And when the cows stop eating they stop making milk, so that becomes an economic problem for the farmer. So in each cow stall they put an individual fan – maybe a three-foot diameter fan – blowing on the cow, which cools the cow off, but it’s very loud and disruptive. So the cow would be cooler but would also become stressed, and the result of that is she’d stop eating again and you come back to the same situation.

Also, each of these fans have about a 1 horsepower motor on it. You put 50 of them in a barn, that’s 50 horsepower worth of electricity that you’re sucking up. So what they found is that if they took all of those out and put in, depending on the size of building, one or two of our 24-foot ceiling fans in their place, those would run on 1 to 2 horsepower each, and so your electricity usage has dropped precipitously, they circulate air around all the cows, and they don’t make noise.

The nature of the air movement is much more gentle, so it feels more like a light breeze than like someone aiming a gun at you. So the cows were not only cooler, they were more relaxed and since farms are very high tech and computerized these days, they were monitoring the output of each barn. They put Big Ass Fans in one barn, and they would monitor the results for a while, and they would see the milk production of that barn spike, while the others stayed where they were. It didn’t take too long before they realized this made a lot more sense.

[Editor’s note: The founders of Big Ass Fans were originally part of a combined company that had a manufacturing arm in California. It later split, and the California-based firm, Macro Air, is still in business. It competes directly with Big Ass Fans.]

SP: How do you get so much energy efficiency out of the fans? It seems like the bigger the blades, more weight and the more energy you’d need to move it.

RO: You’re thinking about it the right way, but it works in reverse. When you, say, double the length of the blades you’ve increased the surface area that those blades sweep by four times. So the amount of air the fan moves increases at a much faster rate than the amount of power it takes to turn it as the size gets larger. We make very efficient fans, all the way down to five feet across for residential use – but in general, all things being equal, the fans will become more efficient as the size goes up.

The limitation then becomes: Do you have space to put something that big? Do you have a large enough air volume that you can actually move the amount of air that the fan can move without sort of sucking a vacuum against the ceiling?And then there are the structural requirements to make sure you have enough support to hold the fan. The biggest fans weigh about 400 pounds.

SP: Some of the venues that install the large fans don’t have air conditioning or heat, but others do. Can the fans really reduce reliance on cooling and heating?

RO: For buildings without AC, they make it a lot more pleasant in summer because they keep the air moving. For heated buildings in the winter, particularly in a large industrial building with a flat roof, running them saves a lot of heating cost. It’s common in large buildings with poorly insulated roofs for the cost of buying the fans to be covered in the first winter of use.

There’s a certain amount of education we need to do with customers. Because heat rises, you might have a situation where it’s 68 degrees down where the people are but 100 degrees up at the ceiling, and so the average temperature is maybe in the 80s, and that’s the temperature that your heating system is trying to maintain. If you can lower the temperature up by the ceiling [by using a fan to force it down] you’ll lower the rate of heat loss, so there is some energy savings there. Then you’ll have warmer air down where the people are and you can set the thermostat at a lower rate, which is where you save another block of heating energy.

SP: For commercial and residential uses, Big Ass Fans also sells smaller fans -- one of which, the Haiku-- won a red dot award this year. Tell me about the design principals behind that fan and how you make it energy efficient.

RO: That fan was completely designed from the ground up. A typical approach that someone will take in developing a residential ceiling fan is to go to China (or wherever they are making them at the time) and buy a ceiling fan motor, which is a fairly standardized piece of equipment. It doesn’t cost very much. Then you design some covers to go around it and you design some flat piece of plywood or plastic in whatever shape you like and you bolt that all together.

But in developing the Haiku, the entire thing was built from scratch. It has a motor that was designed just for that fan, it’s many times more energy efficient than a conventional ceiling fan motor. So you’re saving a lot of energy in the motor itself. Then, quite a bit of research went into the shape of the blades, which we refer to as a thin sheet airfoil. It’s an airfoil shape but it's relatively broad and thin in sections compared to our big fan. That was both by calculation and by experiment and testing measurement. It resulted in the highest energy efficiency score of anything that Energy Start tested.

SP: What’s coming in the future from you guys? Seems like I’ve seen more and more from you lately, though maybe the company name really helps you stick out.

RO: The name certainly hasn’t hurt us. Some people think it’s really cool and some people think it’s really uncool. If we are putting a smile on more faces than we’re putting a frown on, then it comes out as a net positive.

We are working on more new designs in the commercial and residential areas and will continue to refine and develop our industrial fan design. We’re not looking to slow down.

Photos: Big Ass Fans

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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