Home / Equipment

How to Choose the Right Exhaust Fan


Ventilating a building simply replaces stale or foul air with clean, fresh air. Although the ventilation process is required for many different applications, the airflow fundamentals never change: undesired air out, fresh air in. The key variables that do change depending on applications are the fan model and the air volume flow rate (CFM). Other considerations include the resistance to airflow (static pressure or SP) and sound produced by the fan (sones).

Sometimes you need an exhaust fan to perform a particular function, but it’s not clear which model to use or even what CFM is needed. If this is the case, you’ll need to do some fan specification work. Fan specification isn't an exact science, but it can be done confidently when the fan application is understood.

Based on the application, four parameters need to be determined: the fan model, the cubic feet per minute (CFM) of airflow, the static pressure of the system and the loudness limit of the environment.

1. Fan Model

Fans all perform the basic function of moving air from one space to another. But the great diversity of fan applications creates the need for manufacturers to develop many different models. Each model has benefits for certain applications, providing the most economical means of performing the air movement function. The trick for most users is sorting through all of the models available to find one that is suitable for their needs. Here are some things to think about:

  • Direct drive or belt drive? Direct drive fans are economical for low volume (2,000 CFM or less) and low static pressure (0.50 inches or less). They require little maintenance, and some direct drive motors can be used with a speed control to adjust the CFM. Belt drive fans are better suited for higher air volumes above 2,000 CFM or static pressures above 0.50 inches. Adjustable pulleys allow fan speed and CFM to be adjusted by about 25%. High-temperature fans for operation above 50º C (above 122º F) are almost always belt driven.
  • Axial or centrifugal? Propeller-like axial fans provide an economical method to move large air volumes (5,000+ CFM) at low static pressures (0.50 inches or less). Motors are typically mounted in the airstream, which limits applications to relatively clean air at maximum temperatures of 40º C (104º F). Centrifugal fans are more efficient at higher static pressures and are quieter than propeller fans. Many centrifugal fan models are designed with motors mounted out of the airstream to ventilate contaminated and high-temperature air.
  • Roof, wall or duct? Fan models are designed to be mounted in three common locations: on a roof, in a wall, or in a duct. Whatever the location, the basic fan components do not change. Only the fan housing changes to make installation as easy as possible. Determining the best location for a fan depends on the airflow pattern desired and the physical characteristics of the building. By surveying the building structure and visualizing how the air should flow, the place to locate the fan usually becomes evident.

2. Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM) of Airflow

Once the fan type is known, the volume of air exchanged must be determined. Your local building codes should contain information pertaining to the suggested air changes for proper ventilation. The ranges specified will adequately ventilate the corresponding areas in most cases. However, extreme conditions may require airflow outside of the specified range. To determine the actual number of changes needed within a range, consider the geographic location and average duty level of the area. For hot climates and heavier-than-normal usage, select a lower number in the range to change the air more quickly. For moderate climates with lighter usage, select a higher number in the range.

Calculate the volume of a room by multiplying its length, width and height. Then use the following formula to calculate the CFM needed to adequately ventilate an area:

CFM = Room Volume ÷ Min/Change

Here’s a chart showing some suggested air changes for a range of room types.

Suggested Air Changes for Proper Ventilation

Area Minutes to Change

Assembly Hall

3 to 10


2 to 4


3 to 10


2 to 3


2 to 4


12 to 18

Beauty Parlor

2 to 5

Boiler Room

1 to 3

Bowling Alley

3 to 7


3 to 5


4 to 10


4 to 6

Club Room

3 to 7


6 to 20


2 to 5

Dinning Hall

3 to 7

Dinning Room

4 to 8


5 to 8

Dry Cleaner

2 to 5

Engine room

1 to 3


2 to 7


1 to 5


2 to 10

Generator Room

2 to 5


3 to 8


1 to 5


2 to 5


2 to 4

Machine Shop

3 to 6

Meeting Room

3 to 10


3 to 8


2 to 8

Packing House

2 to 5

Plating Room

1 to 5

Printing Plant

3 to 8

Projection Rooom

1 to 2

Recreation Room

2 to 8


2 to 8


5 to 10


5 to 7


3 to 7

Transfer Room

1 to 5


3 to 10

3. Static Pressure

An accurate measurement of static pressure is critical to proper fan selection.

Fan static pressure is measured in inches of water gauge. One pound per square inch is equivalent to 27.7 inches SP.

Static pressure in fan systems is typically less than 2 inches SP, or 0.072 psi.

This drawing illustrates how static pressures are measured in ductwork with a manometer:

A pressure differential between the duct and the atmosphere will cause the water level in the manometer legs to rest at different levels. This difference is the static pressure measured in inches of water gauge. In the case of the exhaust fan in the drawing, the air is being drawn upward through the ductwork because the fan is producing a low-pressure region at the top of the duct. This is the same principle that enables beverages to be sipped through a straw. The amount of static pressure that the fan must overcome depends on the air velocity in the ductwork, the number of duct turns (and other resistive elements), and the duct length. For properly designed systems with sufficient make-up air, the guidelines below can be used for estimating static pressure.

Static Pressure Guidelines

  • Non-Ducted: 0.05 inches to 0.20 inches
  • Ducted: 0.2 inches to 0.40 inches per 100 feet of duct, assuming duct air velocity falls within 1,000 feet per minute to 1,800 feet per minute
  • Fittings: 0.08 inches per fitting (elbow, register, grill, damper, etc.)
  • Kitchen hood exhaust: 0.625 inches to 1.50 inches

Important: Static pressure requirements are significantly affected by the amount of makeup air supplied to an area. Insufficient makeup air will increase static pressure and reduce the amount of air that will be exhausted. Remember, for each cubic foot of air exhausted, one cubic foot of air must be supplied.

4. Loudness Limit

The sound generated by a fan must be considered. For the fan industry, a common unit for expressing sound pressure level is the sone. In practical terms, the loudness of one sone is equivalent to the sound of a quiet refrigerator heard from 5 feet away in an acoustically average room. Sones are a linear measurement of sound pressure levels. For example, a sound level of 10 sones is twice as loud as 5 sones. Refer to the chart below to determine the acceptable sone range for the application. As a general guideline, choose a fan that has a sone rating within the range specified.

Suggested Limits for Room Loudness

Sones dBA Room Type

1.3 to 4

32 to 48

Private homes (rural and suburban)

1.7 to 5

36 to 51

Conference rooms

2 to 6

38 to 54

Hotel rooms, libraries, movie theaters, executive offices

2.5 to 8

41 to 58

Schools and classrooms, hospital wards, operating rooms

3 to 9

44 to 60

Court rooms, museums, apartments, private homes (urban)

4 to 12

48 to 64

Restaurants, lobbies, general open offices, banks

5 to 15

51 to 67

Corridors and halls, cocktail lounges, washrooms and toilets

7 to 21

56 to 72

Hotel kitchens and laundries, supermarkets

12 to 36

64 to 80

Light machinery, assembly lines

15 to 50

67 to 84

Machine shops

25 to 60

67 to 84

Heavy machinery

More equipment knowhow for you


NEMA Motor Frame Chart

This comprehensive chart shows sizes for NEMA motor frames. Figure out what NEMA motor mount you need.


Active vs. Passive Hearing Protection: What’s the Difference?

Hearing protection devices (HPDs) fall into two main categories: active and passive. Use our guide to understand the key differences between active and passive protection and the important features to consider.


Increase Lighting Efficiency with LED Drivers and Fluorescent Ballasts

Get the basics on LED drivers and fluorescent ballasts and see how the right choices can measurably improve your lighting system's efficiency.

Our Latest KnowHow

How to Thrive Through Supplier Innovation

This article describes how companies that think more strategically about how to collaborate with suppliers can bring about positive changes.

Guide to Choosing an Air Curtain

Keeping indoor/outdoor entryways clean and comfortable is a challenge. An air curtain could help. Learn more about what air curtains can do, and what things to consider when choosing one.

Grainger E-Procurement Survey: Results and 4 Key Questions

These survey results give an important snapshot of the state of e-procurement for MRO in 2024.

Find the Right HVAC Equipment

Central Equipment

Central Equipment



Air Treatment

Air Treatment

HVAC Controls and Thermostats

HVAC Controls and Thermostats

HVAC & Refrigeration Replacement Parts

HVAC & Refrigeration Replacement Parts

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.