Thursday, May 22, 2008

How To Reduce Vampire Power

Vampires, Phantoms, and Bears, Oh My!

Okay, so there aren't any bears in this story. But there are vampires, phantoms, idlers, and warts. In this case, however, we're talking about vampire power, phantom loads, idling standby current, and wall warts. They all basically refer to the same thing: electronic devices with two sharp, pointy teeth that latch into your wall sockets and suck blood...err...electricity all day, all night, whether on or "off," whether charging batteries or not. These devices include TV's, VCR's, DVD players, answering machines, iPods, cell phones, stereos, laptops, desktops, anything with a remote, anything with a charger, anything with a clock display. They are everywhere. Lurking.

Top 10 ways for you to fight the vampires

  1. Unplug your devices. It's as simple as that. Pull TV/computer/stereo/etc power cords out of the outlet. If they're not in use or if they're totally unneccesary (are you really going to ever use that VCR player again?), unplug.
  2. Reduce your demand. Sure, electronic gizmos are fun. But do you really need 2 TVs for one room? If the answer is yes, then at least follow number 6's advice!
  3. Use the other off switch. Many devices also have an 'off' switch in the back. For example, most computers come with one 'soft' power switch on the front, which takes it from standby to on. Separately, there is usually a real 'on/off' switch located in the back on the power supply (near where the power cord goes in).
  4. Plug your devices and chargers into a power strip. And when you're not using those devices, turn off your power strip.
  5. Remove chargers from the wall when you're not charging. Your cell phone charger, iPod charger, laptop charger, etc. keeps drawing electricity even if your phone/Ipod/laptop/etc isn't charging. So if your phone says "Charge complete" (or worse, isn't even attached to your charger), pull out the charger.
  6. If you're in the market for new electronics, buy Energy Star qualified. Energy Star takes standby power into account and their qualified devices draw less than the average when in their "off" mode. Some of their best electronic items include cordless phones and audio equipment.
  7. Get a phone that tells you to unplug it. Nokia announced in May 2007 that it will be rolling out new phones with audible alerts (they say, "Battery is full, please unplug the charger.") This feature will first appear in models 1200, 1208 and 1650 (they will most likely start in Europe).
  8. For your various computer accessories, try a smart strip. These work really well when it's not feasible to be constantly unplugging your devices. Check out the Isole Plug Load Control. This power strip saves energy by monitoring occupancy. The Smart Strip Power Strip monitors power differences between computers and peripherals. This way, when you shut down your computer, the Smart Strip automatically shuts off the accessories. The Mini Power Minder also works by communicating between your computer and your accessory.
  9. To learn about the power consumption of your electronics, look into a Kill-A-Watt. This device will tell you about the efficiency of your electronics, whether turned on or "off." It can actually be kind of fun (and definitely enlightening) to run around your house and see how much juice each piece of equipment takes, in both and and standby mode. You'll likely be surprised. (If you want something a little more hardcore, try Watts Up?).
  10. If you're up for a whole house project, check out GreenSwitch, a wireless home energy control system that let's you cut off power to your various electronics quite easily. For other whole house devices, here's a wiki that might be right up your alley.

(Image from GOOD Magazine)

Basics of vampire power

Most people think that when you turn something off, it actually turns off. Most people assume that it stops drawing power. Unfortunately, that's not true in the case of most electric devices. Most of them just hover in standby mode, waiting for you to 'turn on' the power again.

A 1999 study in New Zealand conducted by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority indicated that 40% of microwave ovens used more electricity to power the clock and the keypad over the course of the year than actually heating food. Big screen TV's (and their respective cable boxes and satellites) up to 30 watts when off. A computer left turned on can potentially draw as much current as a refrigerator. And what about those chargers? Even when your cell phone (or other battery operated device) isn't charging, even if it's not even plugged in, it's still drawing power. It may even add as much as 10% to your energy bill.

This is bad news for your wallet and bad news for the environment. Studies conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimate that standby power consumption in the US accounts for 5% of all residential power consumption. That means Americans spend more than $3.5 billion annually on wasted power. It also means that our standby power is responsible for 27 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that globally standby power is responsible for 1% of carbon dioxide emissions (to contextualize that number, it is estimated that 2-3% of CO2 emissions are from air travel). And let's be honest. Those numbers are probably growing given the affinity many of us have for new gadgets and fancy appliances.

What's being done on the manufacturer and policy side?

  • Some manufacturers are making appliances and electronics more efficient (we applaud them): Energy Star takes standby power into consideration when evaluating products.
  • In 1997, the EU negotiated with consumer electronic manufacturers to reduce standby losses of TV's and VCR's; in 2000, the EU worked on an agreement to reduce standby losses of audio equipment; in 2003, an agreement was reworked for TV's and DVD players.
  • In 1999, the IEA launched the One Watt Initiative, an international action plan to reduce standby power in all appliances to one watt by 2010. The plan would reduce CO2 emissions by 50 million tons if OECD countries participated (that's the equivalent of taking 18 million cars off the road). In 2000, Australia endorsed the One Watt Initiative.
  • In 2001, President Bush signed Executive Order 13221 requiring the federal government to purchase electronics with one watt or lower of standby draw.
  • On January 1, 2006, a California Energy Commission regulation went into effect limiting standby power-consumption of consumer-electronic devices, including DVD players and stereos. Under this legislation, TV's and DVD player that consume more than three watts in standby mode are illegal, power adapters are limited to 0.75 watts (which will fall to 0.5 watts in January 2008), and as of 2007, stereos without permanent display clocks are limited to 2 watts, while those with clocks are limited to 4 watts.

Additonal Resources

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