Summertime control of temperature in Canadian homes: How Canadians keep their cool

Elzbieta Sawicz, Environment Accounts and Statistics Division

This study looks at the characteristics and usage of air conditioning systems and other methods of space cooling by Canadian households. Energy prices are on the rise, so turning up the thermostat by a few degrees or shutting cooling systems off entirely when the house is unoccupied are increasingly attractive ways of saving money. The study describes the behaviours of Canadians when it comes to cooling their homes.

What you should know about this study

This study is based on data from the 2009 Households and the Environment Survey (HES), conducted as part of the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators project.

Several methods of reducing a home's air temperature, or otherwise creating a cooling effect, are employed by Canadian households. Those measured by the HES include the use of air conditioning systems, fans and closing blinds and drapes. Households were allowed to report the use of more than one method.

Respondents who reported having an air conditioner were asked at what temperature, during the summer, they kept their dwelling. They were asked to report on three categories: when they were at home and awake, when they were at home and asleep and when they were not at home. For the purposes of this report, responses were grouped into five temperature ranges: 19ºC or lower; 20 to 21ºC; 22 to 23ºC; 24ºC or higher; or the air conditioner turned off.

Cooling metholds used by Canadian households

Air conditioning systems

In 2009, half of Canadian homes (50%) reported having some type of air conditioning system. Manitoba had the highest proportion of households with an air conditioner (80%), followed by Ontario (74%) and Saskatchewan (61%). In contrast, the lowest proportions of households with air conditioning systems were reported in Atlantic Canada (19%) and British Columbia (23%) (Chart 1).

There were two types of air conditioning systems used in Canadian households in 2009: central air conditioning (central AC) and standalone air conditioning (standalone AC). Central AC systems circulate and cool air within an entire dwelling. Standalone AC units are usually fitted in a window or in the wall of the room, or constitute a portable, free-standing unit that does not require permanent installation. This type of system is generally used for cooling single rooms.

Central AC

Over two-thirds of Canadian households that used air conditioning to cool their homes were equipped with central AC (68%) in 2009. The highest concentration was in Ontario, where over four out of every five air conditioned homes (81%) had central AC (Chart 2). This system was also popular in the Prairie provinces, where it was reported by almost three quarters of air conditioned households in Alberta (74%) and 70% in Saskatchewan. In Atlantic Canada only 25% of such households reported having a central AC system.

Standalone AC

Nationally, almost one-third of air conditioned households used a standalone AC unit (32%) in 2009 (Chart 2). Atlantic Canada, which had the lowest rate of households with central AC, had the highest percentage of households with a standalone AC (75%). Over half of households that had air conditioning in Quebec (56%) and British Columbia (51%) also used this type of system.

Fans

Using fans, such as ceiling fans or other types of mechanical fans, can be a less expensive alternative to air conditioning as they typically consume less electricity. Fans do not reduce the temperature in the room, but by increasing air circulation, they can achieve a cooling effect. In 2009, almost two-thirds of all Canadian households (66%) used fans to help stay cool during summer. Alberta had the highest rate of fan use in the country (73%) followed closely by Atlantic Canada (72%) and British Columbia (72%). This compares to 57% of households in Manitoba, the province the least likely to use fans (Chart 3).

Closing blinds and drapes

Another method of keeping a dwelling cool is by closing blinds and drapes to reduce solar heating during the hottest part of the day. More than four out of every five households (83%) in Canada reported using this simple method. Saskatchewan (93%), Manitoba (89%) and Alberta (88%) led the country in keeping blinds and drapes closed (Chart 3).

Controlling the temperature

Away from home

In 2009, more than two-thirds of Canadian households that had an air conditioner and a thermostat adjusted the temperature in their dwellings while away from home by either shutting off their air conditioner (55%) or setting the temperature at 24ºC or higher (13%). However, almost one-quarter of households (24%) reported keeping their homes at lower temperatures (at 23ºC or lower) when no one was at home (Table 2).

Atlantic Canada and Quebec had the highest proportion of households (63%) that shut their air conditioner off when away from home. This compares to 46% of households in British Columbia, and 52% in Ontario. However, Ontario households were the most likely to set the temperature at 24ºC or higher when the home was unoccupied during the day (17%).

At home and awake

When asked about temperature settings when at home and awake, 10% of Canadian households reported they turned off their air conditioner, while 22% set their home temperature at 24ºC or higher. Forty-four percent chose to keep the temperature between 20ºC and 23ºC, and 9% preferred to keep their dwelling at 19ºC or lower when at home and awake (Table 2).

When asleep

The behaviours of Canadian households also varied when setting the temperature in their homes while household members were sleeping. Twenty-nine percent of households with an air conditioner reported that they turned it off when sleeping. Households in Atlantic Canada were the most likely to do so (41%) (Table 2).

Sixteen percent of households that reported having an air conditioning system set the temperature at 24ºC or higher with households in Ontario most likely to do this (21%).

One-third of Canadian households (33%) preferred to sleep with the temperature set between 20ºC and 23°C while 9% chose cooler temperatures and kept their home at 19ºC or lower.

Behaviours by selected household characteristics

Income

Households with an annual income of less than $20,000 were the most likely of all income groups to keep their air conditioner shut off when they were at home and awake. Seventy percent of households at this income level also reported their air conditioner turned off when they were away from home (Table 3). This was the highest percentage among all income categories and well above the national rate of 55%.

Households in the highest income category ($150,000 or more) were the least likely to shut off the air conditioner when at home and awake, and when they were asleep. However, they were the most likely to set the temperature at 24ºC or higher when asleep.

Dwelling tenure

When setting the thermostats in their homes renters were more likely to turn the air conditioner off when the household was asleep (35%) compared to those who owned their dwelling (28%) (Table 3). Renters were also more likely to shut off their AC when away from home (65%) than owners (53%). However, households living in owned dwellings were more likely than those living in rental dwellings to keep their homes at 24ºC or higher.

Operating tips for using air conditioners

Several government agencies have issued operating tips for air conditioners to minimize energy use. The following are tips from two organizations.

The Ontario Ministry of Energy (OME) provides Energy Saving Tips that recommend cooling your home to 24ºC or 25ºC. 1  The OME advises that each degree below 26 will noticeably increase electricity use and the AC system should be shut off when the home is unoccupied. The OME states that "Contrary to popular belief, this method uses less electricity than having the AC constantly maintain a cool temperature!"

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE), in order to reduce operating costs and save energy, the thermostat should be set between 25ºC and 27ºC when a house is occupied; and about 28ºC while it is empty for more than four hours. 2  If the house is going to be unoccupied for more than 24 hours, the central AC system should be shut off.

The OEE recommends the same temperature settings for a room air conditioner as for a central air conditioner. 3  However, it also advises that it is much more effective to start the room air conditioner earlier in the day and cool the room gradually, instead of letting the heat build up all day and then turning the air conditioner to its maximum setting in order to cool the room quickly.