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Psst. Confess. Are YOU Guilty?

December 13, 2010 - 6:30am


The average home in 1980 had only three electronic devices. That was 30 years ago. Since then, the electronics industry has grown into a major powerhouse industry. Do you have any idea of how many small devices you have plugged into sockets around the house? It seems that we all are adding more and more electronic gadgets to the house all the time. These all use power. Even if they are battery powered, you plug them in to charge them up.

A number of studies have examined the total usage of these devices. I've written here about how you can use meters to quantify their energy usage. Other studies have looked at consumer attitudes. A recent study conducted on Minnesota homes by the Energy Center of Wisconsin is perhaps the first study in the nation to examine usage data and consumer attitudes together. The study relies on extensive metering and interview data for 50 Minnesota owner-occupied households recruited from a 1,000-household telephone survey and a 260-household mailed appliance survey. Data were collected in four rounds between December 2008 and October 2009 to help ensure that the results were seasonally balanced.

The researchers estimated that devices that you plug into electrical outlets (excluding major appliances and lighting) consume about 15%–30% of a home's typical electricity usage. Home electronics (televisions, computers, and audio equipment, and their associated peripherals) account for about half of this usage. Portable appliances used to make your home more comfortable, such as portable heaters, dehumidifiers, and room air conditioners, make up about another 25%. Look around at your home's electrical outlets and you'll probably find the devices making up the remaining quarter.

Based on usage patterns discovered during the study, the researchers considered no- and low-cost ways for people to save energy with these small devices.

Adjust energy management computer settings. The single most important energy-saving opportunity they identified is computer power management. The study found that two-thirds of desktop computers in homes are either left on all the time or are idle for long periods every day. Also, 80% of desktops in the study did not have the sleep mode enabled for the computer (although most monitors were set to automatically go into sleep mode). Say, are you guilty of this?

Many homeowners were unaware that their computers were not configured optimally to conserve electricity use. Many were willing, however, to implement more aggressive power management. In nearly half of the cases where the researchers identified this as an energy saving opportunity, the homeowner immediately implemented it without any active encouragement on the part of the researchers.

Turn off devices not in use. Turning off devices when not in use is another energy-saving opportunity that was identified. The researchers found four culprits that accounted for half of these wasteful devices:

  1. Compact stereo systems drawing 20 watts or more of power continuously but that were seldom used
  2. Older cathode ray tube televisions drawing 10 watts or more of standby power
  3. Computer printers drawing 4 to 8 watts of standby power typically in use for only a few minutes each week
  4. TV peripherals, especially VCRs and VCR/DVD players that were rarely used.

Again, look around your house. Are you guilty of this? Think about using what the researchers of this study considered: timers as a low-cost way to turn off these devices on a regular basis, and "smart" power strips. "Smart" power strips turn off the peripheral equipment when the main TV, computer, or audio equipment is not in use.

Cable and satellite TV boxes were found to consume a full quarter of TV-related electricity use. Typically these are turned on all the time and there's no easy way to turn them off. Not surprisingly, people were found to be reluctant to turn them off or place them on timers, for fear of having to redo their settings or missing a program they wanted to record. I recently bought an ENERGY STAR® digital video recorder (DVR) that turns itself off when not in use and on again to record a program. So, did I solve my problem? Not completely. I still need to keep the modem on every now and then so that my TV program guide is updated on a regular basis. Come on, manufacturers. When can I buy an ENERGY STAR modem to work with my ENERGY STAR DVR?