Long a mainstay in stationary homes, ceiling fans can also be enjoyed in motor coaches.
By Ken Wilson L13812
Ceiling fans have been used in houses for many years. In warm weather, they do a great job of stirring up a breeze when air conditioning is not yet needed. In the winter, they help even out a room’s temperature by mixing the warm air next to the ceiling with the cool air near the floor.
Until recently, a ceiling fan in a motor coach was almost unheard of. But since they are able to do the same job as in a stationary home, motorhome ceiling fans are gaining popularity. Several coach manufacturers, including Blue Bird, Foretravel, and Fleetwood, now have ceiling fan options. The main drawback of this type of installation is the lack of headroom. Because of the limited clearance in many coaches, the only place that it is possible to install a fan safely is over the bed. Even in this location, you must be careful.
If you are concerned about the safety of the rotating fan blades, perhaps this project is not for you. However, if you will exercise a little reasonable care, you should be able to enjoy the benefits of a ceiling fan in the bedroom of your motorhome. Our coach has a queen-size bed and, with the flush-mount fan centered overhead, it is difficult for a 6-foot-2-inch person to reach the fan blades with his head unless he stands on the floor on his toes, braces his knees on the side of the bed, and leans forward in an abnormal, straining position. A few commonsense safety precautions are necessary: don’t let the grandkids play on the bed; be careful when you flap the sheets while making up the bed; don’t sit up in the morning and stretch your arms up over your head; don’t swing the flyswatter near the ceiling; and be sure to turn off the fan when you leave the bedroom.
Not all ceiling fans are suitable for use in a motorhome. There are two primary requirements for this type of installation: it must have a flush-mounted motor, and the blades must be short enough that they do not extend near the edges of the bed. We found a type of fan that met these requirements, and also was inexpensive and easy to install. This size fan is intended for use in very narrow areas such as hallways and has shorter, 30-inch blades. But in order to move more air, it is equipped with six blades rather than the standard four or five. This type of fan usually is available at home improvement warehouses and department stores. The one we found came from Wal-Mart a couple of years ago, sold for less than $25, and was called a Hometrends 30-inch Hugger Ceiling Fan.
Before you start the installation of your ceiling fan, make sure you read all of the fan’s instructions and carefully follow them. This is especially true of the wiring.
In order to provide power for the new ceiling fan, this project involves modifying your coach’s 110-volt AC wiring system. Adding the fan wiring is entirely safe, provided you have a little experience and follow the required “rules” or electrical codes during your installation. These codes are based on commonsense practices that have been developed during many years of experience. The codes are very important, because they provide for the protection of you and your property. Examples of the requirements that may apply to this project are the following:
- The fan must be suspended from a heavy-duty electrical box that is securely anchored in the ceiling.
- All wire splices must be made in electrical boxes and secured with wire nuts.
- All wires that are routed into and out of electrical boxes must be securely anchored with clamps.
- The electrical load and the rating of the circuit breaker dictate the size of the wire.
- Wires that are routed through a plenum (duct) must be of a type that has a metallic sheath for protection.
Many more code requirements exist, but the aforementioned codes are among those that must be considered for your fan installation. The experienced staff in the electrical department of your local hardware store or home improvement warehouse might be a source for general advice, but for specific code information, you should contact a qualified electrician.
Ceiling fans normally are mounted on an electrical box that is installed in the ceiling. In addition to serving as a solid mount, the box also provides the space for connections between the fan wiring and the coach wiring. Fans usually are mounted on the box in one of two ways. The more common approach is to suspend the fan on a length of tubing anchored to the box (this is very popular in rooms with high ceilings). The other way is to have a flush-mount fan with the motor housing mounted directly against the ceiling. This is the only way one can be used with most “less than normal” ceiling heights.
The ceiling height in a typical coach is definitely lower than normal, which dictates that a flush-mount fan be used. In some coach factory installations, the fan motor housing is recessed into the ceiling in order to provide more clearance. Often, this is done by building a shallow recess, usually 2 or 3 inches deep, into the ceiling. This method does provide a few extra inches of blade clearance, but it places the blades that much closer to the ceiling, where they are not as efficient. This type of installation is definitely not recommended for a do-it-yourself project, because it would be extremely complicated.
In order to better understand the installation of a ceiling fan in a motorhome, we should first review a typical installation in a stationary house. The following steps may vary somewhat, depending on the fan you select, but they will provide a general idea of the process.
The typical foundation in a house installation is a heavy-duty electrical box that is attached to the framing in the ceiling of the room. The fan assembly is then mounted on a metal bracket that is securely attached to this box. In addition to providing a base for the fan, this box also contains the wiring connections. The mounting bracket usually has a hook on which the fan motor is suspended temporarily while the wiring connections are made. Once the wiring is connected, the fan motor is removed from the hook and installed on the mounting bracket. The motor’s cover is then attached. Finally, the blades are mounted on the hub of the motor’s shaft. Unless the fan is equipped with a light fixture, the installation is complete. I will not bother describing the installation of a light fixture, because it will be impossible to use in our application.
In a motorhome, in order to install an electrical box in the ceiling, you must take a slightly different approach. In my coach, an American Tradition, a metal air-conditioning duct runs down the middle of the coach’s ceiling, from one end to the other. This duct is recessed into the ceiling and covered with a layer of plywood and ceiling material.
After some investigation, I decided that this duct would provide a secure base for the electrical box. There is an outlet in the duct just a few inches away from where I wanted to mount the fan. I was able to look through this opening with a flashlight and a mirror to determine that there were no surprises (wiring, framing, etc.) hiding in the immediate area. I then drilled pilot holes through the ceiling material, plywood, and the metal duct and carefully cut the required opening for the mounting box. Several types of electrical boxes can work, but the one I used was designed for remodeling or “old” work. It is inserted into the cutout in the ceiling from the finished side and held in place by ears or tabs that expand outward from the sides of the box as the screws are tightened. This results in a very secure mount for the box.
If your coach does not have a metal duct in the area where you want to mount the box, you need to locate the ceiling’s framing to serve as additional support. I would not count on the typical thin plywood ceiling being strong enough to provide a secure mount. Instead, the box should be positioned so that it can be attached to the framing in the ceiling. The first challenge is to locate the necessary framing. There are several ways to do this.
First, you might be able to use one of the electronic stud finders. Another possibility is to shine a flashlight’s beam across the surface of the ceiling and look for slight variations that might indicate the location of the individual frame members. Then there is the old standby method of drilling a very small hole and using a thin wire to probe for the framing, wiring, insulation, or other possible obstructions.
Once you have located an edge of the framing, carefully cut the hole for the box you will use. I would still use a box designed for remodeling work, because it is easier to mount. In addition to the mounting lugs, I would also use screws through the side of the box into the framing. Just make sure that you have a sturdy foundation for your fan installation, because you do not want to have it come down on a rough section of road, or on a very hot night when you have the fan turned to high speed!
Safety note: Before you do anything with the coach’s wiring, make sure that all of the power is turned off. The safest way is to disconnect your shore power cord. Don’t forget to turn off the inverter, if you have one.
Now, you must consider how you will supply power to the fan motor. If you decide on using the duct, you will have to consider what you will use for a source of power and how you will get the wires up to the duct. In my coach, the air-conditioning duct was also an excellent place to run the wire, but again, the electrical code has to be considered. If your wiring will run through the duct, it must have a metallic covering or conduit, but if it is routed through the ceiling, ordinary household wire (such as Romex brand insulating wire) will be suitable. Whichever type you use, make sure it also has a ground conductor, which may either be a bare copper wire or have green insulation. The splice between the original coach wiring and the wiring you add must be made in an electrical box. Usually the box in which a convenient duplex outlet is mounted will have space for this splice.
I installed a flexible metallic conduit from the fan’s mounting box through the duct. With this type of installation, you string individual wires through the conduit. The other end runs to another box mounted inside a cabinet over the headboard of the bed. There, I made the splice between the metallic cable and the Romex. The Romex was then routed down behind the headboard to a bedside cabinet where a duplex outlet was located. There, the new wire was spliced into the coach’s wiring.
If your coach does not have a ceiling air-conditioning duct, you probably will have to use surface wiring. You should still be able to take your power from a conveniently located outlet and use the cabinets, wardrobe, or headboard to keep your wiring out of sight on the way up to the ceiling. Then it should take a short length of surface wiring to reach the fan. If you decide to use surface wiring, many different types are available. A visit to your nearest home improvement warehouse or hardware store should offer several choices. The typical surface-mounted wiring system has mounting brackets that attach to the surface. The wiring is placed into the cover, which is then snapped over the brackets. Usually, matching accessory pieces, such as angles, corners, connectors, boxes, ends, etc. are also available.
With the mounting bracket installed and the wiring in place, it is time to install the fan motor. To support the weight of the motor temporarily while you hook up the wiring, use the hook on the mounting bracket. Again, let me repeat: the wire you use must have a ground conductor and the power must be turned off before you attempt any connections. The wiring connections are the same as for any other 110-volt appliance: white to white, black to black, and ground to the green grounding screw. Twist the wires together, and then screw on a wire nut to complete each splice. Since these connections will be subject to a great deal of vibration, I like to tape the wire nuts in place securely after they are twisted on. After the wiring is connected, remove the motor from its temporary spot on the hook and install it on the bracket using the hardware supplied. Next, slide the decorative cover over the fan motor and attach it according to the instructions.
The last step is to attach the blades. Each blade is connected to a mounting bracket using small machine screws. These brackets are then attached to the hub of the motor with more screws.
After you attach all the blades and brackets, you need to check for clearance before you turn on the power. Rotate the blades by hand to make sure there is nothing in the way, such as an open cabinet door or your head! If everything looks okay, turn on the power. Our fan, like most, has a pull chain switch to control the speed in a high, medium, low, off sequence. It also contains a slide switch to control the direction of rotation. In addition, there is another pull chain switch to operate the light. Since the light will not be used, it’s a good idea to remove the chain from the light switch.
Because we did not use the light fixture that came with our fan, this left an opening on the bottom of the fan that exposed the switches and wiring connections for the unused light fixture. This wiring has to be covered to eliminate potential safety hazards and to give the project a more finished look. I thought that a jar cap or storage container lid would make a good cover. There was nothing the right size in our kitchen, so I visited the supermarket with my tape measure. I found a can of jam with a plastic cover designed to snap over the top of the can after it is opened. It was the right size, and after a quick coat of spray paint and a few dabs of hot glue, I had a cover that really looked professional. Of course, if you use another brand of fan that does not have a light fixture, you will not have this problem.
I hope you will find this project as fulfilling as we have. It should give you much comfort and enjoyment for a minimum investment of time and money.