White grille of the type used to cover exhaust fans vs. ventilation fans, with a man's hands prying the cover free.

Should you choose an exhaust or ventilation fan when you need fresh, clean air in an indoor space?

The vexed question of when to install exhaust fans vs. ventilation fans causes a lot of confusion, but allow us to shed some light on the topic.

Although they are both fans, each one serves a unique function. To achieve the air quality you want, you must select the right one for your needs.

An exhaust fan functions in a home or office by pulling pollutants from the indoor air, while a ventilation fan brings fresh air from the outside to enclosed indoor spaces. These are both intake fans, but one removes harmful particles from indoor air while the other adds oxygenated air.

Considering buying a fan to freshen the air in your home or office?

This article will explain the differences in the exhaust and ventilation fans so you can buy the one to help improve the quality of your indoor air the best.

Keep reading to find out more.

If you’re wondering about whether DC or AC fans are more eco-friendly, we’ve got the answer in our article covering the subject.

Are Exhaust Fans and Ventilation Fans the Same?

a renovated kitchen showing brown vinyl floors and white cabinets with LED lighting throughout, and and arrow pointing to the hood vent over the stove.
In our first netzero home renovation, we were able to hook up the old exhaust fan used with the microwave, so that you could vent the air outside the home. By code it’s usually a choice to recirculate or vent out, but it was there already.

The exhaust fan and ventilation fans are not the same. One pulls pollutants from the indoor air while the other introduces outside air to a room in an office or home.

These pros and cons will help you locate the best fan for your needs.

Exhaust Fans


  • Remove odors from indoor rooms quickly.
  • Eliminate excess moisture from an indoor room.
  • Pull smoke out of a room.
  • Make the air more breathable.
  • Improve indoor air quality.


  • These fans can sometimes get noisy.

Ventilation Fans


  • Protect the attic from growing mildew and mold.
  • Help to cool your home.
  • Remove fumes and smells from your home.
  • Circulate fresh air into the house from outside.


  • They can be noisy to operate.
  • These fans can form a leak in your home’s roof.

How an Exhaust Fan Works

An exhaust fan with the cover removed, exposing its inner workings with a pair of hands working on the clips that hold it in place.
The inner workings of an exhaust fan can appear complex, but the way it works it pretty straightforward.

Most exhaust fans are in the bathrooms and kitchens of a home.

An exhaust fan removes unwanted moisture and smells from a room.

When in the bathroom, an exhaust fan will take the excess moisture from the shower and funnel it outside.

In a kitchen, the fan will suck the cooking smells from the room and release them outdoors.

Types of Exhaust Fans

Several types of exhaust fans remove the odors and moisture from the indoor air to improve air quality. Here are the exhaust fan types and how they work:

  • Bathroom exhaust fans: These fans will be mounted in the bathroom or another room that needs better airflow. They vent through a pipe in the roof to expel the moisture outside.
  • Ceiling-mounted exhaust fans: These fans will be in upstairs hallways or other rooms that require odors funneled outside. An art room might need an exhaust fan to eliminate strong paint smells.
  • Kitchen exhaust fans: These fans are usually part of the vent hood. They’ll reduce the moisture and smells from cooking.
  • Inline exhaust fans: These fans will vent odors from any room in your home. There can be interior rooms that need extra ventilation, and the inline fan does that.
  • Wall-mount exhaust fans: These fans take the odors and moisture directly outside through a wall. They mount on the wall of a room positioned on an exterior wall. That way, the fans can send the humidity and smells directly outdoors.
  • Solar exhaust fans: These fans mount directly in the attic of your home. They funnel the hot attic air into the outdoors to help your air conditioning work better at cooling your home.

Reasons You Might Need an Exhaust Fan

If your home is not equipped with exhaust fans, you can install them yourself or have a professional installation.

There are several reasons you would need to add exhaust fans to specific rooms of your home, as discussed below:

  • The excess moisture can create a breeding ground for mold when there’s no exhaust fan in your home’s bathrooms. Mold growing in the walls of your house is hard to eradicate and will cause respiratory problems.
  • A family member has asthma or other serious respiratory complications. Removing the impurities from your indoor air will help your loved one breathe easier and possibly alleviate many of the allergy symptoms they experience.
  • An exhaust fan helps your home to smell better. When your guests arrive, the last thing you want is for your home and furniture to smell like last night’s dinner.

How a Ventilation Fan Works

A ceiling mounted ventilation fan with a square grille covering.
Ventilation fans can be mounted in walls, ceilings or in other appropriate locations.

A ventilation fan works to bring fresh air into your home.

This fan introduces oxygenated air into indoor rooms to make them less stuffy.

Here are some ventilation fan types:

  • Ventilation fans: These fans will mount directly into a wall that is part of an exterior portion of your house. They often have one speed and will only ventilate one room, the room where they’re located.
  • Portable ventilation fan: These fans have a hose that sucks the outside air into the room. You can move these fans from room to room for ventilation with fresh air. Remember that you’ll need access to a window in the room for the fans to work correctly.
  • High-powered fan vent blowers: They provide increased air circulation to any room. Many greenhouses use this fan type for air circulation.
  • Window fans: These fans are also helpful for ventilation. Many current window fans are reversible, meaning they can remove air from a room or reverse to bring outside air into a room. Most window fans are compact and fit easily into an open window. 
  • Inline duct ventilation fans: These fans offer fresh air for large rooms like living rooms. The variable speed controller and quiet fan noise keep the inline ventilation fan in the background while supplying fresh air to a room.
  • Register booster fans: They help circulate more fresh air into a room through the HVAC system. These fans replace an ordinary floor register for the HVAC system to improve airflow from the floor register to the room.

What To Consider When Choosing a Ventilation Fan

When selecting a ventilation fan, you should pay attention to the characteristics of the fan.

You want a ventilation fan that is appropriate to the room size and brings in the right amount of outside air to benefit the indoor atmosphere.

Look at the following considerations when choosing a ventilation fan:

  • Check the airflow to ensure the fan is powerful enough to serve the space.
  • Listen to the noise level, especially when the loud noise will detract from a quiet activity.
  • Assess the programming features, such as fan controls and humidity settings.
  • Ease of installation is essential when you are not handy.

Reasons You Might Need a Ventilation Fan

Anytime you need fresh air in your home, a ventilation fan will help.

From a new home with seals to keep indoor air from leaking out to a ceramics studio attached to your home, a ventilation fan will supply fresh air and help to make the space not feel claustrophobic.

Here are the reasons you might need a ventilation fan:

  • Most new homes have tight construction intended to prevent leaks. A ventilation fan will bring in the fresh air you need to keep the interior free from any odors that could be coming from the building materials.
  • The ventilation fan helps to push out the old air. When your ventilation fan operates, it pulls new air into the room and pushes out the old air.
  • Some homeowners use a whole home ventilation system instead of air conditioning to keep their homes cool. A whole-home attic fan keeps the interior cool and the air fresh in climates where air conditioning is unnecessary.

Final Thoughts on Exhaust Fans vs. Ventilation Fans

Keeping the indoor air fresh and clean smelling is a priority for many homeowners.

Another focus is keeping mold and mildew from growing in bathrooms and other rooms that experience high moisture levels.

Whatever indoor air you need, there is a fan to cater to them and keep your home smelling and feeling fresh.

For more tips on improving your home’s ventilation, you can check out our article here.

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