Nearly every modern bathroom is equipped with an exhaust fan. While these devices are great at pulling moisture from the room and keeping mold growth at bay, they’re not without the occasional issue. Some of these potential problems can pose a hazard to your home and your health.
Bathroom fans can become dangerous when improperly maintained, used, or installed. Exhaust fans can become dangerous when dust and lint build up around the fan blade. They can also pose a risk when the fan motor overheats, or if the wiring is faulty.
This article will explain what bathroom ventilation fans are, explore the different types of bathroom exhaust fans, and discuss how these fans can become household dangers. Finally, we’ll address how you can keep your fan clean, safe, and fully functional.
What Are Bathroom Fans?
Bathroom fans, also known as bathroom exhaust or bathroom ventilation fans, are somewhat small devices that help to rid bathrooms of excess moisture, foul smells, and lingering gases like carbon monoxide and methane. They come in four essential varieties, including:
- Wall-mounted fans
- Window-mounted fans
- Ceiling-mounted fans
- Remote or inline fans
Understanding these different types of bathroom fans is crucial to understanding their potential dangers and how to avoid them. After all, each fan poses specific advantages or disadvantages based on its positioning and mechanical structure.
Depending on your preferred bathroom exhaust fan, you may need a ladder, an electrician, or a wad of paper towels to keep things running smoothly. Anticipating maintenance procedures can help keep you and your family safe, in addition to helping you make an informed purchasing decision.
When roof-top ventilation access isn’t possible, and windows aren’t a viable option, most homeowners turn to wall-mounted bathroom fans. These devices are typically fairly small. Like ceiling mount bathroom fans, wall mount fans consist of a few common parts. They include:
- A motor
- A spinning fan blade or multiple blades
- A ductwork adapter
- A fan grill or fan cover
- Electrical wiring and cables
Some wall-mounted bathroom fans may also have air filters, special motion or humidity sensors, or Bluetooth capability. These additional features are completely unnecessary to the fan’s essential purpose, which is to keep your home’s bathroom dry and hygienic.
However, installing a new bathroom fan can be a considerable investment, and it may be worthwhile to spend a little extra for features that help save energy, time, and space. For example, if you’re forgetful and you don’t often remember to turn the bathroom exhaust fan on before taking a shower, you may want to browse fans with built-in humidity sensors.
Still, if affordability is more important to you than extra features, and you have a medium or large-sized window in your bathroom, a window-mounted fan may be worth a second look.
While window-mounted bathroom fans tend to be slightly less powerful than their wall-mounted or ceiling-mounted counterparts, they can also be the most budget-friendly option. In addition, they often require very little installation or set-up and can be easily unplugged at any time.
Unlike more traditional bathroom fans, window fans need only fit into your window and have access to an electrical outlet in order to function. You don’t need to carve into your ceiling, install ductwork, or repair drywall to enjoy a new window-mounted bathroom fan.
But window-mounted fans should be safely unplugged during inclement weather to prevent electrical shocks or damage. In addition, strong winds can knock the unit over or cause rainwater to enter the bathroom via open fans.
Ceiling mount bathroom ventilation fans are the most common type besides wall-mounted models. The two types are often interchangeable, with ceiling-mounted and wall-mounted varieties showing virtually zero differences in design and capability. These fans install into the bathroom’s ceiling and often require professional installation.
Ceiling-mounted bathroom fans can be preferable because they’re difficult to block, unlike their wall-mounted rivals. While a poorly-placed picture, towel, or door could cause a wall-mounted fan to fail, there’s not much that could impede the airflow of a ceiling-mounted model.
The greatest drawback of this type of bathroom exhaust fan may be the installation cost, but it may also be the maintenance difficulty. Most people will need to purchase a stepladder to reach and clean a ceiling-mounted fan, and they will need to have a friend or loved one nearby in case of a fall or slip.
Remote bathroom fans are the most varied type available. They can be positioned nearly anywhere in the ductwork and controlled remotely.
They’re ideal for bathrooms or spaces without direct access to roofs or exterior walls. Inline bathroom fan installation requires attic access and installation can be more costly.
Dehumidifiers can also be a valid option for those hoping to save money on installation costs. However, bathroom dehumidifiers tend to collect moisture exceptionally quickly, resulting in more consistent maintenance. If you’re willing to make the trade between extra care and extra installation, a dehumidifier may be the better option.
If you wish to learn more about dehumidifiers in bathrooms you can read my previous article where I discuss this in greater detail.
Still, most bathrooms can benefit immensely from having a functional, high-capacity bathroom exhaust fan available. That’s because bathroom fans can prevent excessive mold growth and keep areas looking and smelling safe and clean.
What Are Bathroom Fans Used For?
Bathroom exhaust fans serve one main purpose, but they do also have a few secondary uses. For example, bathroom fans can be used to:
- Rid bathrooms of unpleasant smells
- Lower humidity levels
- Off-set carbon monoxide poisoning
While this may not seem like a huge variety of benefits, it’s important to remember how crucial moisture management is to maintain a clean and mold-free bathroom. Mold can’t survive without water, so keeping a bathroom dry is the first great step toward enjoying a safe and healthy bathroom.
Removing Foul Odors
Bathrooms are often places of pristine privacy where relaxation reigns. However, they can also be messy, stinky, odorous areas that seem to require constant cleaning. Depending on your household, the battle to maintain a great-smelling bathroom might be an occasional struggle or an all-out war.
Exhaust fans can help. While they’re primarily used to reduce moisture, they can also reduce the bad smell in a bathroom. That’s because ventilation fans pull air out of a room, allowing air from other parts of the home to rush in and fill the void. If your restroom has a methane-like stink, an exhaust fan can help lessen or remove those scents.
Aerosol-based fragrance sprays can provide temporary relief from unpleasant bathroom odors, but they can also be dangerous when breathed in. The risk of developing illnesses increases with long term usage, leading many consumers to seek healthier, less harmful alternatives such as essential oils.
Still, you may be able to lessen the risks associated with fragrant sprays, especially if you primarily use them in your home’s bathroom. Turning your exhaust fan on immediately after spraying and exiting the room can rid the room of airborne chemicals and unfavorable smells.
If you’re dealing with a musty, stale smell that doesn’t ever seem to go away, then you’ve probably got some type of mold or mildew in your bathroom. Ridding your home of these two potentially harmful substances requires a decent amount of cleaning, maintenance, and occasional repair.
Using a bathroom exhaust fan regularly (especially during and immediately after showering) can help prevent the growth of molds and mildews, resulting in a bathroom that smells, looks, and protects better all year long.
Reducing and eliminating moisture is the primary purpose of any bathroom exhaust fan. That’s because mold and mildew require moisture to flourish and grow. Mold is a significant health threat, especially to those with allergies, asthma, or compromised immune systems.
Most successful mold colonies start off as white or gray mildew. When this fungus is left untreated, it opens the door to more virulent strains of fungus, including toxic molds. Black mold is most often found in the wettest, most humid areas of a home, so checking your bathroom frequently is important.
Running a bathroom exhaust fan during warm showers and letting it run for at least 30 minutes after showering or bathing can significantly reduce the amount of moisture in an area, preventing major mold growth from occurring. Ventilation fans are often lauded as the best way to defend your home against harmful mold, which is why they’re common in most modern homes.
Still, bathroom fans aren’t only relegated to keeping moisture levels low and eliminating stinky smells. They can also help keep inhabitants safe from perilous invisible dangers like chemical fumes and odorless gases.
Keeping Homes Safe
A safe and healthy home is often a happy home. But proper home hygiene occasionally requires the use of harsh, abrasive chemicals such as bleach. These chemicals may help us to keep pests, mold, and bacteria at bay, but they can also be harmful when used or stored improperly. They can also produce strong smells that prove irritating to throats, eyes, noses, and lungs.
Proper ventilation is key to safe cleaning methods. While most homeowners may be aware of the dangers of mixing chemicals (like combining ammonia and bleach), some may not be aware that it is just as dangerous to breathe in the fumes on standard cleaning products. Fans help to limit the exposure residents have to these fumes, keeping them safe and healthy.
Carbon monoxide is another reason why most homes are equipped with bathroom ventilation fans. Carbon monoxide poisoning kills hundreds of Americans each year, with thousands requiring hospitalization after exposure to the colorless, invisible toxic gas. While carbon monoxide detectors can help warn residents of leaks, a dead battery or lack of power can render such devices useless.
In extreme circumstances where evacuation may be delayed or temporarily impossible, a bathroom exhaust fan can help keep tenants alive by sucking harmful gases up and out of a home. This does not mean that bathroom fans should be left running at all times.
While bathroom ventilation fans help lessen the number of harmful gases or chemicals in the air, they can also become a fire risk when improperly used or poorly maintained.
How Can Bathroom Fans Be Dangerous?
Bathroom fans can pose a few particular dangers, which is why it’s vital to always read and review manufacturer installation instructions, maintenance guidelines, and usage directions before installing one.
Still, if your unit did not come with explicit care instructions, there are a few things you can keep an eye on to limit dangers and ensure bathroom fan safety. The most common bathroom exhaust fan hazards include:
- An overheated motor
- An excess amount of ignitable lint inside the unit
- Poor wiring due to a flawed installation
Fortunately, these potential dangers are easily avoidable. Proper usage and installation, coupled with consistent maintenance, are the best ways to make bathroom ventilation fans safer.
If you’re fond of running your bathroom fan for hours at a time, now is the time to quit that habit. Not only does that type of usage needlessly consume electricity, but it can also cause the internal motor to overheat and combust, resulting in a fire.
However, if you have a bathroom fan that is always running, even if you don’t switch it on then read our article about why is my bathroom fan always running. In there we discuss why this might be completely OK.
Home fires resulting from overheated bathroom fans can cause several thousands of dollars in damages and put the lives of residents at risk. While many modern bathroom exhaust fans are designed to automatically shut off when they reach dangerously high temperatures, this feature doesn’t completely prevent bathroom fan fires.
The best way to avoid an overheated fan motor is to run your fan only when needed. It’s crucial to turn your ventilation fan on just before showering and to turn it off once bathroom windows and fixtures are free of water droplets. This can take between 20 and 60 minutes.
Opening your bathroom door after showering can help expedite this process, resulting in a shortened operating time for your fan.
It may also be a good idea to house your ceiling-mounted fan or wall-mounted fan inside of metal sheathing. This way, the heat from the fan won’t ignite dry, flammable wood or drywall. Still, proper usage is the most effective way of curtailing fan fires. Of course, regular lint cleaning is just as crucial.
Even if your fan shuts itself off after reaching temperatures above 200℉, it can still ignite if the fan blades or motor are covered in lint. Lint build-up is just as threatening as an overheated motor.
It may surprise you to find out that your bathroom exhaust fan can be home to sheets of dust, dirt, and lint. While bathroom fans may not attract as much fabric lint as clothes dryers, they can accumulate quite a lot of flammable material if left unchecked.
Bathroom fans whirl air upward and out of the room, and oftentimes, small particles of skin, dirt, or clothing end up in that invisible tornado. They can catch and accumulate around the fan blades, motor, or filter, leading to overheating. Once temperatures begin to rise, so does the risk of fire.
Fortunately, it only takes between a few seconds to a few minutes to clean a bathroom ventilation fan and reduce lint-related risks. Homeowners and residents can use ‘canned air’ products to spray high-pressure bursts of air into the unit, helping to dislodge dust and push it up the vent.
You could also choose to disconnect the fan blade grill or cover and wipe the fan blades clean. A damp cloth and mild soap are sure to help tricky smudges disappear, though those with ceiling-mounted fans may need to use a stepladder to safely get the job done.
A vacuum cleaner with an upholstery attachment can also help to remove excess soil from a bathroom fan. Just be sure to check that your fan is turned off before beginning any type of cleaning. Doing so will not only help you clean the parts more efficiently, but it will also prevent unnecessary accidents caused by rapidly spinning fan blades.
Of course, if your fan is improperly wired, you should contact a professional technician or electrician before attempting to perform regular bathroom fan maintenance. Doing so will ensure that you get to enjoy a high-functioning fan, and it could potentially save your life. After all, bad wiring accounts for hundreds of deaths and thousands of fires each year.
Electricity is nothing to play with. When household appliances and electronics have poor wiring, they can emit electric shocks strong enough to kill. Even low-voltage shocks can prove lethal, which is why proper wiring is critical to any bathroom exhaust fan.
People who survived the transition from gas lighting to electrical lighting understand just how important wiring can be, and many consumers experienced unexpected shocks and burns during the birth of the Age of Electricity.
The reason why electric shocks can pose a significant risk to human lives is thanks to the nature of the nervous system. Our nerves send signals to the brain and receive signals in return. They do this by transmitting tiny electrical impulses, kind of like digital post office carriers.
These electrifying messages contain information that tells the heart to beat, the eyes to blink, and the body to breathe. When this information becomes confused, especially due to external electrical signals, it can cause the entire system to shut down, resulting in death.
Finding a decent electrician to check your bathroom fan’s wiring and electrical input and output isn’t nearly as complicated as it may seem. Asking friends, family members, and coworkers for recommendations is a great place to start. Of course, if you’re familiar with electrical wiring, you can handle all three potential bathroom fan issues without much assistance.
Making Your Bathroom Fans Safe
The dangers listed above are all completely avoidable. Making your bathroom safe starts with understanding the dangers and choosing to execute a plan to prevent them. There are three C’s of bathroom exhaust fan safety. They are:
- Consistent cleaning
- Conscious usage
- Calling for help
For example, cleaning lint from your fan every 3 months can prevent fires from starting, and remembering to turn your bathroom fan off after bathing can reduce the strain on the motor and keep internal temperatures low. And when all else fails, you can always contact a professional service to help check the wiring in your home and keep tenants safe.
Though an effective bathroom fan can help keep bathrooms mold-free and smelling great, they’re not immune to dirt, dust, and lint. Consequently, they need to be cleaned at least once a year to reduce the chance of a fire starting inside the unit.
The spinning fan blades don’t produce enough heat to ignite clothing lint that accumulates inside the unit, but the fan motor does. Most modern bathroom exhaust fans contain a high-temperature automatic safety shut-off feature, but it typically only activates at around 260℉.
The ignition point for dry lint (or pure cotton) is about 205℉ (96°C), meaning that a bathroom ventilation fan that is full of lint can catch fire before safety mechanisms are triggered to engage. This potential danger can be avoided by practicing consistent cleaning.
Doing so not only improves your fan’s ability to function, but it can also significantly reduce the risk of lint-caused fan fires.
Wall-mounted and window-mounted units are the easiest to clean, and you may only need a few squeezes of high-pressure air to dislodge lint and dust. Ceiling-mounted units tend to harbor more lint due to the difficulty in cleaning them. Fans mounted directly over toilets or counters can be maddeningly out of reach.
Still, a simple stepladder can help you to reach these taller, ceiling-mounted bathroom fans. Having another adult present while removing the fan grill and cleaning the internal chamber and fan blades is crucial.
Once you’re sure that your bathroom exhaust fan is clean and free of the excess of lint, it’s time to consider fan usage. In particular, avoiding fan overuse and overheating.
If you have a bathroom ventilation fan, you should use it while bathing, showering, or when running water from a tap for more than a few seconds. After all, it was built to help reduce moisture, and it can’t do its job if it’s turned off. Still, it is possible to overuse your home’s bathroom fan.
Considerate and conscious usage is critical to extending the life of your fan and to preventing fan fires. The motor in a bathroom fan is quite small and simple. It typically secures to a power source via a plugged cable and moves the blades of the fan via a straightforward, rotating metal pin. As such, there’s not a lot of room for ventilation and cooling.
When you combine this information with the fact that most bathroom fans are housed in minuscule pockets inside of ceilings or walls, it becomes obvious as to why fan motors get hot, especially when they’re active for extended periods of time.
Bathroom fan motors can reach temperatures high enough to melt their own plastic components, negating any automatic shut-off design advantages. To prevent an overheated motor from wreaking havoc in your home, you only need to turn your bathroom fan off after showering.
Call for Professional Assistance
If your fan starts up unexpectedly or not at all, it may be time to contact a professional service technician or electrician for assistance. DIY enthusiasts may feel confident enough to tackle bathroom exhaust fan wiring and installation, but confidence doesn’t always translate to competency.
Electrical matters are always serious and often require professional help. During the emergence of electricity in the latter half of the 19th century, many homes suffered from DIY wiring. Modern owners looking to renovate and remodel these Victorian houses often struggle with dangerous wiring systems installed by the home’s previous owners.
Do not let yourself fall victim to poor wiring and faulty electrical cables. While hiring an electrician may add to the overall project expense, it can also save your life. Live current can quickly and easily kill, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Bathroom exhaust fans can help reduce moisture and unpleasant odors. They can also keep residents safe from potentially harmful vapors or gases. Because mold and mildew are common bathroom-related problems, it’s recommended that every bathroom has at least one ventilation fan.
However, these fans can experience issues that prove dangerous, especially after extended use. An overheated motor, too much lint, and even poor wiring can all contribute to an unsafe exhaust fan. Fortunately, reducing bathroom fan hazards is reasonably simple and easy to do.
Consistent cleaning, conscious usage, and professional installation and upkeep can ensure that your bathroom ventilation fan functions properly and is not a safety risk.