Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Sunday
Feb062011

Vampire Power: The Problem with Standby Electricity

Do you ever notice the faintly glowing lights on your television, cell phone chargers, or other electronic equipment, and wonder what they mean?  Have you ever thought about how much power it takes to keep your microwave clock running, your cable box at the ready, or your computer fully charged?  Perhaps, like me, you know these devices require some amount of energy even when they are off but have no idea how much.

The constant flow of power to inactive electronic appliances is called standby or vampire power.  Because these devices are technically off, you might think that it takes little energy to keep these appliances plugged in and on standby.  Estimates of household energy use indicate otherwise.  Appliances are often plugged in for the vast majority of the day, and the small amount of power these draw over multiple hours adds up. 

Around 10% to 13% of residential energy consumption is attributed to standby power.  In the U.S, standby accounts for a staggering $4 billion dollars in annual energy costs.  Other developed countries report similar findings.  

A 2004 U.S. Department of Energy report puts this in perspective: we use at least 64 million megawatt hours for vampire power—the equivalent of the output of 18 power stations.  Generating this much power adds about 27 million tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere annually, which is more than 3.7 million cars produce.  Globally, standby power use is responsible for approximately 1% of all CO2 emissions.

The numbers are surprising and the total costs tremendous.  Yet the solutions are simple and require little change.  Below are a few easy tips to reduce your standby power consumption, your environmental impact, and save money.

Note that while these simple changes are a step in the right direction, energy costs and environmental impact are much more pronounced for household activities like heating, cooling, lighting, and laundry, which we will tackle at another time.

Easy ways to reduce standby power use:

1.  Unplug unused devices

The easiest way to avoid standby consumption is to simply unplug those electronic appliances that are not powered on or do not need to stay in standby.  This includes televisions, DVD players, cell phone and laptop chargers (yes, even these draw power when plugged in), computers, electric toothbrushes, and many other devices we use on a daily basis.  Remember to keep chargers unplugged when not in use.

2.  Streamline your power sources

Most of us have quite a few electronic appliances.  Remembering to unplug each individual device is unrealistic and time consuming.  Instead, use one or more power strips to connect multiple devices.  This eliminates the need to unplug many different items—instead simply flip the switch to off. 

There are some things, like wireless routers, cable modems, or cordless telephones, which we might need to keep in standby to operate effectively.  For these items, I recommend purchasing a power strip that controls the flow of power to individual appliances.  These power strips, like the ones offered by ZuniDigital, have different outlets for different uses (master, controlled, and constant).  When this master device is off, all controlled devices are also powered off completely without going into standby mode.  However, the constant devices remain on regardless of whether the master device is on or off. 

I use this power strip to control my entertainment system.  The cable modem and WiFi are plugged into constant outlets, and therefore remain on, while the television is my master device.  When the T.V. is off, the DVD player, stereo, and cable box are also completely powered down.  A picture of my setup is below.  Other products accomplish similar goals or are adapted to specific uses (like computers).

3.  Upgrade your devices (and power strips)

Not all electronic equipment is made equal.  Older versions of appliances and power strips almost always draw more vampire power than newer models.  Take stock of your appliances and their power sources and prioritize what you might want to upgrade (or could eliminate altogether).  While energy efficiency might be a good excuse to purchase new electronics, bear in mind that there are still costs to the creation of these products.

Recent improvements in devices are due in part to a recognition by legislators and the government that energy efficiency is an important, easy step towards reducing our environmental impact and electricity costs.

For example, in 2001 the One Watt Initiative came into effect.  This directed federal agencies to purchase products that use no more than one watt in their standby power mode.  Britain banned televisions and video players that did not meet the one watt threshold and in 2007, California took this one step further, implementing regulations that require newly made appliances to run on .5 watts of standby power or less.

4.  Consider alternatives

There are some devices, like plug in flashlights, toothbrushes, razors or vacuum cleaners, that have power saving alternatives.  Instead of a plug-in flashlight, consider purchasing an LED flashlight that does not require a power source to operate.  Purchase a plug in vacuum rather than a cordless, or better yet, sweep surfaces that are not carpeted. 

Buy corded rather than plug-in battery operated devices.  Be creative.  Think about ways you could do without equipment that requires standby power or electricity at all.

5. Use reminders 

Of course, if you are like me, it is difficult to remember to power off appliances when they are not in use.  I have found that reminding myself to do this before I leave, either by leaving a post-it note by my door or setting an alarm on my phone, helps me to remember to turn off power strips and electronics before I leave.  Find your own easy reminder system and implement put it in place.  Soon, the few seconds it takes to power things off will become part of your daily routine.

5.  Educate yourself

The key with any lifestyle upgrade is to learn about your options and make informed decisions.  For information on your current appliances, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories is a great resource.  The site provides estimates of power use for devices in on, off, and standby power modes.

When contemplating new purchases, Energy Star’s rating system is a must.  Energy Star is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s program that rates appliances and provides information about standby or low-power energy use.  The program has saved roughly $14 billion a year for Americans’ utility bills and reduced power demand by 35,000 megawatts of peak power demand—the equivalent of the output of 70 new power plants.

----   -----   ----

Like most things technology based, energy efficiency is constantly evolving and improving.  Couple this with global recognition of its importance, and the result is a shift in the broader drivers of energy efficiency and standby power (manufacturing, regulation, and policy). 

We can also make simple money-saving, impact-reducing shifts in our daily lives.  True, these may not save as much energy as doing away with air-conditioning or clothing dryers, but these incremental changed matter.  It takes seconds to power equipment off, which collectively could save tons of carbon emissions. 

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