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Living Well in the cITy

Standby Power - the cost of convenience

In the old days, turning something off was a mechanical process. You activated a switch which broke an electrical connection and no current flowed past the switch. There were exceptions but for the most part, when something was off, it was off.

Today most appliance and electrical devices around the home are far more intelligent than they were in the past. We've added clocks and timers, soft touch power switches and remote controls. In order for these features to work when the device is off, some part of the device has to remain powered on continuously. This small but constant consumption of power is known as standby power, also known as vampire power or a phantom load. In the case of a TV for example, even with the TV off, some part of the TV must remain powered on in order for it to receive a signal from the remote control telling it to turn on fully.

If you're keen on cutting every last wasted watt from your energy bill you might want to consider hunting down these power parasites in your home and dealing with them. Every watt counts. But how to you know how much power a device is consuming? In some cases you can find detailed specifications in product manuals but for most devices, it will be a mystery. A few manufactures have made devices you can use to measure power consumption. You plug your device into them and then plug them into the wall. They have a display to show you things like peak or average power consumption and a bunch of other related things. These meters are an absolute necessity for anyone looking an appliances true power consumption.

In the Living Room

I decided to monitor a bunch of gadgets and appliances around my home to see what was really going on. I started with all the entertainment stuff in my living room and this is what I measured:

TV1784Manufacturer claims 1W standby
Receiver402Measured doing nothing. No volume.
Game Console262
DVD Player100Yes, I measured 0. I'm sure it's something but not much
VCR1812Some activies caused power to increase as high as 20W
PVR2725Sleep mode is 22W but it's rarely in that mode

Doesn't seem like much but with everything powered off I'm drawing 45W. That's like keeping a light on 24/7.

45 W = 0.045 kWh
365 days/year * 24 hours/day = 6096 hours/year
6096 * 0.045 = 274.32 kW/year

What is the average price of electricity? Depends on time of day, location, your energy contract... but for discussion purposes lets say the average is 8 cents/kWh. That a good "standard" average. That means the cost per year of all this stuff just sitting there plugged in is $21.95.

You're probably still looking at it and saying so what. But consider this. My VCR has been plugged in and functional since the day I bought it in 1995. Rarely unplugged for more than a day. A few years ago we would use it every day to play old video for the kids. Even then the thing was only in use for 2 or 3 hours in a day. All that time the thing is just sitting there, draining a trickle of energy from the grid and money from my bank account. Nobody uses it so why have it plugged in? I Haven't seen the clock set to the right time in years anyways.

The PVR is the elephant in the room. It draws as much power on as it does off. Why is that? The PVR is nothing more than a compact computer system. Most likely running some variation of Linux. The hard drive in mine is pretty much always ready. And it has to be. The startup time is over 3 minutes for my box. Can you imagine sitting down to watch TV and having to wait 3 minutes for the system to "warm up"? Although 25 to 30W seems high I've found that my laptop draws a little more than that even with the lid closed and the screen off. So it's not a wastefully device in that sense. Our PVR see LOTS of use. Far more than the VCR so I'm not as put off by the standby energy use. Still, it would be nice to see one that uses less power.

Everything else under the TV I was happy with. The receiver isn't used anymore so like the VCR, I unplugged it. I also have everything connected to a switched powerbar in an accessible location so when we go away for extended periods I can turn it all off with the flick of a switch.

Something else I could do though is purchase a "smart" power strip. These are power strips that monitor the power consumption of one device and delivers power to other outlets on the strip depending on whether or not it thinks this master device is on or not. Something like this could completely power off the VCR and DVD player when the TV is off, or the printer and monitor when the computer is off. But keep in mind that to do this these power strips themselves consume a bit of residual power but nothing significant.

In the Kitchen

There isn't a whole lot in my home I could target for residual power investigation but I did check out a couple of devices in my kitchen.

Microwave ovens use lots of power when operating but they are only on for a short period of time relative to how long you might be using your oven for the same task for example. The early microwave ovens were more mechanical in nature. They had a mechanical timer that you turned and when the time ran out, a bell chimed and the magnetron was shut off. But today all function are soft touch and instant. I put something in my microwave and just press a quick-start button and it just starts and runs for a minute. And the button is nothing more than a membrane switch that signals the mircocontroller in the ovens control board to execute some program. In order to have that convenience, the electronics in the microwave are always powered on. Fully and always. My little 15 year old 0.5cu-ft microwave draw 4W in standby, 28W with the door open, just waiting for me to use it. And we don't use it often. But that's not really all that bad and my range has similar controls that likely draw as much power in standby.

By far the most surprising device was something I completely did not expect to be a problem at all. In our kitchen is a radio/CD/Cassette player. My wife has had it for years and it sits on a shelf, usually with the radio playing. When turned on it's drawing 17W which isn't bad but when turned off, it's still drawing 12W. I can't figure it out. It has a little clock on it but it's an LCD clock. The remote and soft touch controls need standby power shouldn't need that much. Perhaps the cassette mechanism or CD player is always on and ready. I'm not sure but considering its only used for radio play, I might consider replacing it with a lower power radio. In fact, I have a solar powered radio sitting in the window that could provide continuous daylight radio play (which is when we use it) at no additional cost ever again.