Friday, October 13, 2006

Slay your energy vampires: Unplugging appliances saves money and cuts pollution

I love finding new ways to save energy, because it's one of those great areas where money and values work in tandem. This week I learned something I totally new to me (thanks to Ideal Bite)-- many household appliances are draining energy even when they're turned off!

According to the government's ENERGY STAR program, 40% of the electricity that home electronics use is consumed while the products are turned off. The impact of this on your energy bill will depend on your particular situation-- one Berkeley study suggests the savings would be 6 to 26% off your total bill.

The "phantom load," as it's sometimes called, is a result of many different household items (sometimes called "vampire devices," leading to perhaps the best-named law ever, California's Vampire Slayer Act of 2006). Some of the most problematic energy-drainers while "off":

  • Tivo
  • Cable boxes or satellite dish boxes
  • Sound systems
  • VCRs and DVD players
  • Computers
  • Computer printers
  • Cable modems/DSL
  • TVs
These items often use 10 to 50 watts each while off/in standby (6 to 30 kilowatt-hours a month, if they're off but not unplugged 20 hours a day). The Berkeley study, this graph, and this article have some information on typical wattage of specific items-- but if you really want to know how much yours use, you'll need to buy or borrow a meter like Kill-a-Watt, or try this manual method.

There are also the smaller items; for example, did you know that your cell phone charger is using energy even when your phone isn't attached? It's only a couple of watts, but it's a good idea to get into the habit of unplugging your charger from the wall when you unplug your phone from the charger. Kitchen appliances like microwaves, rice cookers, breadmakers, and coffee pots also typically use less than 5 watts-- but there's no reason to leave them plugged in when you don't have to. The little things add up.

And how much do they add up to? Around 50 to 100 watts in the average house, which is 30 to 60 kilowatt-hours a month (based on 20 standby hours a day). At prices of 5 to 15 cents per kWH in July 2006, that's somewhere between $1.50-$9 a month.

Okay, so doing this isn't going to make you rich (although most frugalites like to trim where we can!). So how about finding another motivation? Every kilowatt-hour is equivalent to 1.55 pounds of CO2 emissions (U.S. average). That means if you use 30-60 less kWh a month, 550-1,100 pounds less of CO2 go into the air every year. (For context, a gallon of gas puts about 20 pounds of CO2 in the air, so this is the pollution equivalent of using 25 to 50 gallons less gas!)

Now that I know about this, I've started right away to change my habits. One easy way to make sure you're not wasting energy is to plug many appliances into one power strip; then you can turn it on and off, which is a little easier than unplugging and replugging everything individually. Maybe half of my relevant appliances are already on power strips, which I've started turning off this week; this weekend, I'm going to think about the logistics to make sure all my vampire devices are either on power strips or are plugged in outlets in convenient locations (the TV's plugged in behind the bookcase at the moment, for example). For curiousity's sake, I'll try to see if there's an effect on my electric bill-- although since my heat is electric, it's going to be hard to be very scientific about it as heating costs go up.

I would absolutely love to hear from all of you guys on this. Do you have any more information on the watt usage of particular devices while they're turned off? Do you unplug things already? If so, have you seen the effect on your electric bills? Or do you think this is small stuff, not enough to be worth your effort?

(This post was inspired by an Ideal Bite tip; I found Ideal Bite via Millionaire Artist.)


jengod said...

I've starting working on this as well. I think I'm going to put my TiVo on a separate power strip so it can stay on while I turn off my TV-VCR, DVD player, computer, monitor, printer, label printer and desk lamp! I've also unplugged everything in my kitchen--my toaster probably isn't the main culprit, but can't hurt to make an effort!

Anonymous said...

Unless you have a VERY fancy toaster, unplugging it isn't going to make any difference. These "vampire" devices are more along the lines of computers, VCRs, etc, which have a reason to draw some power when "off" -- maintaining time, memory, etc.

You're not going to save any electricity with simple devices like a toaster or a box fan or a desk lamp. If the circuit is broken (as when the switch is in the OFF position), no electricity is consumed as the circuit is not complete.

Anonymous said...

My favorite find recently is the Smart Strip power strip. (You may have already discovered it.)

The strip works for combinations of electronics that work together, like a computer system, or an entertainment system. You choose one component as the Control, and it plugs in to the blue Control outlet. Then, other components that are useless if the control is off, get plugged into the white Automatically switched outlets. And finally, electronics that always need to be ready are plugged into the red Constant Hot outlets.

Here's how I've done it in my living room. My combo receiver/DVD/CD is the Control because without it on, I have no sound for the system so nothing else needs to be on if that one is off. Then, my TV, VCR, turntable, iPod holder are plugged into the Auto-Switch outlets. When I turn off the power button on the remote of my receiver/DVD/CD player, the power is cut to that and all the other components in the Auto-Switch outlets. And when I say cut, I mean like unplugging them from the wall.

Then, I plug my lamp, my cable amplifier (because the cable is split and also comes into my computer), and my headphone charger into the Always On outlets because I want them to be able to operate even if the rest of the system is off.

I have one of these for my computer system, too.

It just makes it really easy to turn off multiple components using the remote that came with them rather than always having to remember to flip the switch on the power strip.

Marty said...

I am using Bye-Bye Standby Energy Saving Kit.

works great!

Anonymous said...

I studied abroad in Mexico a couple years ago and I remember it used to make me so angry when I would come home and find that my host mom had unplugged my phone charger and computer and things... I could not understand why she was doing it!

I had never in my life thought that things were still using electricity when they were off!!

It's amazing that my host mom in a relatively less developed country had to give me a lesson in energy efficiency! We truly are the most wasteful people in this world.

Kate said...

I don't think it should matter if it's "worth it." It saves a small amount of energy, but if everyone made these small lifestyle changes, the cumulative effect would be enormous. My husband and I already leave our microwave, coffee maker, any unused lamps, and cell phone chargers unplugged. We also switched to one alarm clock that has a dual alarm setting, since that has to be plugged in all the time. We also decided to toss all those plug in air fresheners and stick to soy candles (they tend to be fragrant even when not lit, and we found a company that sells the soy pellets and wicks so you can keep reusing the glass candle holders). We also got rid of the beer fridge in our basement. Inefficient anyway since it's so old, and we didn't need the extra fridge space.

Josh Rachlis said...

Great posting! What could be easier than unplugging appliances or flipping off a power bar? Until we get smart and build clever energy-saving devices like in Europe (in hotels, the lights in your room go off when you leave the room... escalators only move when you're on them...) we need to do little things like this to save energy... and save money! So, good for all of you for pitching in. :)

Anonymous said...

I have done this too. The only thing that is not on a power strip is the internet devices. I put my TV, DVD player, and lamps on one strip and turn it off when I go to bed or leave. I no longer use a electric clock, wall phone charger, or plug in air fresheners to make an effort to save energy. My roommate has not caught on to saving energy but she does not mind having to plug in the microwave every time she wants to use it.

I have heard of a device that you can put on the porch lights that turns on when the sun goes down and off when it comes up. I am thinking about getting one of those. has anyone used them?

Anonymous said...

I have my computer and its associated "friends" (printer, lamp, speakers, etc.) plugged into one power strip and my TV/Radio, lamps etc. into another - when done with the system, turn off the strip - it Really Really does save $$. My electric bill has been slashed in half by this. I also tend to unplug the microwave, coffee maker and toaster so all that is running constantly is the fridge, water heater and, currently, one box fan. Cheap Cheap Cheap.