An AC thermostat for a home normally has two fan settings: ON and AUTO. The third, of course, is OFF. The confusion lies in which setting should be used. What is the difference between the two? Does it even matter?
Recommended Thermostat Setting
Under most circumstances, we highly recommend your AC thermostat be set to AUTO. Not doing so could significantly increase indoor humidity, possibly to the point where it causes serious mold and air quality problems. This is especially the case in a hot/humid climate, such as Florida, or anywhere when the weather outside is hot and humid.
Before explaining the key difference between ON and AUTO for your thermostat, it’s important to know how your AC system works.
Note: This explanation describes a simple AC system for a home. It may not fully apply to a more sophisticated setup, which may use various modifications to the basics described here to accomplish specific goals. Before modifying how you operate your system, especially a more complex one, discuss it with your licensed AC consultant or contractor.
How Your Home AC Works
Your air conditioner generally works this way:
- The outside component of the system, the condenser, compresses the cool refrigerant coming from the air handler, the inside component of the system, converting it from a gas to a liquid. The hot liquid refrigerant goes through the outside coils and releases heat to the outside.
- The now warm liquid refrigerant is pumped back into the house and into the coils of the air handler. As it enters the low-pressure environment of the coils, the evaporator, it expands back to a gas, its temperature drops and it chills the coils.
- Air is blown by the AC blower through the cold coils and their fins, cooling the air and transferring heat to the refrigerant. If the air temperature drops below the dew point temperature (actual, not relative, humidity) of the air, humidity condenses out of the air onto the coils. This moisture then drains into the condensate pan and eventually to a drain or outside.
- The refrigerant is now a cool gas again and is pumped back to the condenser where the process repeats.
Thermostat ON Setting
When thermostat is set to ON, the fan runs continuously, with the benefit of providing constant circulation of the air inside. However, at the same time, the fan continues to blow air through the coils after the condenser shuts off and the coils are no longer cold. Thereby, it stops removing moisture from the air, but there is still some condensed water on the coils and sometimes in the condensate drain pan. If the fan continues to run, some, perhaps most, of this moisture will evaporate back into the air and be blown back into the home, raising its humidity. You would also see an increase in your energy bill as well.
Thermostat AUTO Setting
Now, when setting the thermostat to AUTO, the fan shuts off when the condenser shuts off. Condensed moisture on the coils tends to drain into the pan and outside. Most of this moisture will have drained away by the time the fan comes on again, which means it’s not going back into the air of the building. Humidity stays lower.
Over time, the relatively small amount of additional moisture evaporated back into the air each time the condenser cycles off with the Fan in AUTO mode can cause humidity to go higher. How much higher depends on many peculiarities of the system design, and this explanation is of course quite simplified. But the basic idea is entirely valid: Operating an air conditioning system in the Fan ON mode may significantly increase indoor humidity. If humidity goes high enough, it can greatly impact the indoor environment by allowing mold growth and other negative processes to occur.
Higher humidity (also known as latent heat) will increase the amount of energy needed to cool the area to a given temperature, as well as making the environment less comfortable at that temperature.
So, in hot/humid weather, operating the thermostat of your AC system in AUTO rather than ON mode will provide the following benefits:
- Reduce interior humidity.
- Make the indoor environment more comfortable for the occupants.
- Save energy and therefore money.
That’s a win-win-win!