How Do I Retrofit-Install a Ceiling Fan?

By Vernon Trollinger, April 24, 2017, Energy Efficiency, Home Improvement, Save Money

Welcome to the How Do I Do This? series from Bounce Energy. Each month, we’ll dive into what you need to know to shop-for, install, or repair those things in your home to keep your life affordable and convenient. Plus, you’ll (hopefully) learn some useful tips for other projects along the way.

Ceiling fans make great additions to your home. But safely retrofitting one requires using the right hardware and some care to do the job right.

How to Install a ceiling fan

Ceiling fans are a great way to keep cool in the summer and a good way to help circulate warm air in the winter. Installing a fan can be a bit challenging if you’re not familiar with wiring up a light fixture or having to hold onto a fan motor on top of a ladder. In this installment, we’re going to show you what you’ll need to put in a a ceiling fan as well as a few tips to make the job go a little smoother.

After turning off the power to the fan and circuit breaker panel, the first thing you need to make sure is that the wiring box you plan to hang your ceiling fan from is fan-rated. Fan-rated ceiling fan boxes are hung between ceiling joists by a metal bar. This bar is fastened on either side to one of the joists. Not only does this allow the fan box to handle the weight of the fan but also the torque when the fan is spinning.

Constant Support

A retro-fit fan-rated wiring box is a rod with feet that rest on the top side of your ceiling covering. Twisting the rod makes it expand. The ends of this rod have spikes that stick into the ceiling joists and hold up the fan safely.

You can retrofit a ceiling light fixture for a fan by installing a fan-rated wiring box. First, turn off the power at the circuit breaker panel. Next, disassemble the light fixture and undo the wiring connections and then remove the existing wiring box by removing the screws holding in place. Retrofit fan boxes come with an expandable cross piece with spikes on the ends. Twisting the crosspiece makes the crosspiece expand and dig its end spikes into the ceiling joists. This holds it firmly in place. With the old box removed, insert the retrofit box completely in the hole and rotate it with your hand until you can position it so that the box protrudes from the hole and the crosspiece is perpendicular to the joists. Don’t forget to work the wires into the wiring box before you get everything set in position. Twist the crosspiece with a wrench until the end spikes dig into the joists.

TIP—Getting and keeping the electric supply wires in the new wiring box might require some juggling as you’re pushing up into the hole and then lining it up into place. Before inserting the wiring box, tie and tape a piece of string to the end of the wires you’ll be connecting the fan to. As you bring the wiring up towards the ceiling, run the other end of the string through the wiring holes in the box and use it to pull the wires into the box. This can save you aggravation when working with older wiring in the hole and there’s only room for one hand.

Mounting Hardware

Most ceiling fans have a mounting bracket that screws directly onto to the new wiring box and some newer models have plastic foam pads to help reduce vibration and noise. Just hold the bracket in place and attach with screws that come with the wiring box.

Most of these mounting brackets are shaped to accommodate a plastic half-ball joint fitted to hold a fan mounting down rod which supports the fan motor. The half-ball joint rides the mounting bracket loose to allow a spinning fan to vibrate and wobble without making noise or letting all that motion twist the fan wiring box loose from the ceiling. The bracket and ball joint are covered over by a decorative metal cowling once the wiring connections are complete.

TIP—Depending on the quality of the metal hardware, the bracket can scratch and scrape the ball joint as it moves over time and make noise. One of the thing I like to do every few years is to remove the metal cowling cover and check the ball joint for wear. After cleaning out any dirt, I spray a little Armor All as lubricant onto the plastic ball joint. It’s nonflammable, plastic friendly, and will provide some lubrication without trapping dirt.

Hanging and Wiring the Motor

Hanging the fan cowl covering on the convenient hook lets you take your time to make sure your wiring connections are secure and safe.

Insert wires through the cowling and then through the mounting down rod. Then, insert the down rod into position at the top of the motor. The down rod will be held onto the motor either a metal bolt or stud. Once you have that assembled, look for a hook on the underside of the mounting bracket. The cowling cover has several screw holes in it and you can put the hook through one of these to hold the motor up while you make the wiring connections.

In standard home AC wiring, there are no positive and negative connections. AC power works when the electrical circuit has a return path. So, even when the polarity flips 120 times a second, the electrical current still needs to be complete to work. AC wiring has three wires — black white and bare or green. These are packaged in a single plastic sheath called “romex”.

  • The black wire is the “hot” ( or “load”) wire. This one carries the 110 volts of AC current.
  • The white wire is “neutral”. This provides the return path for the electric current to complete the circuit. The neutral wire is also connected to ground in your home’s electrical breaker or fuse box.

The bare wire is part of the ground system. Many houses connect their electric breaker boxes to either metal plumbing connected to the municipal water supply or a ten foot long copper rod driven into the earth to act as ground. In the event of a short circuit, current from a hot wire has a dedicated straight path to ground —protecting you from electrocution.

Meanwhile, basic ceiling fans usually come with four wires:

  • Black for hot or load
  • Blue (also hot) for the fan’s light fixture
  • White for neutral
  • Green for ground

The black and blue wires also let you connect the fan and lights to separate wall switches if that wiring is available.

TIP—If you have a red wire coming from the sheathing with the other wires in the wiring box, that’s also a hot wire. If you are replacing an existing ceiling light fixture this may be part of a three-way switch circuit. In this case, you’ll want to consult an electrician before proceeding.

For our purposes, we’re going to wire both the fan motor and fan lights to one switch. Insert the blue and the black wires into a wire connect and and twist until it’s snug. Give each wire a little tug to make certain they’re firmly in place. Do the same thing with the white neutral wires. The green wire is ground and that connects with the bare grounding wire in the romex sheath. When all the connections are complete, carefully push the wires up into the wiring box to keep them safe.

Now, carefully lift the cowl cover off the hook and slip the half-ball joint into the mounting bracket. If the bracket has a little metal tab, make sure it lines up with the groove in the half-ball joint. Check that the the whole motor assembly is free to move and rock in the bracket. Raise the cowling cover into place and insert fasten with screws.

Attaching Fan Blades

No more dropping screws! Magnetic-tipped screw drivers hold the fan mounting screws while you get them in place. Saves time and and your sanity.

Using a magnetic tipped screw driver makes this job go a lot easier. Insert one the blade mounting screws into the blade’s bracket. Then, keeping the screw in place with the magnetic screw driver, guide the bracket into position on the fan motor and insert the screw. Do not tighten this screw until you have inserted the second screw —this way, you can adjust how the blade fits in place. Repeat this process for each blade. Also remember that you may need to re-tighten blade mounting screws after 6-8 months.

TIP — After installing the first blade, install the one directly opposite. This keeps the fan steady as you attach the other fan blades.

Connecting Light Fixture

Older fans may have just a blue wire and white wire that you’ll need to connect to corresponding wires in the light fixtures. Newer ones, meanwhile, may have plastic modular connectors that plug right into a corresponding mate. Once this wiring is finished, secure the fixture into place with the fixture’s mounting screws. Because you may need to leave the light hanging by its wires if you drop one of these screws, never put on any glass light shades or light bulbs before the fixture is fastened into place.

Once everything is tight and in place, turn on the power and give your new ceiling fan a whirl!

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About 

A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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