Put a stake in it

Cut up to 10 percent of your electric bill simply by turning off "vampire" appliances that run all night.

Topics: Environment, Energy, Global Warming, The Good Life, Science,

Put a stake in it

There are insomniacs in our homes that work late at night and run up the electricity bill. They are not the classically overworked American who pops melatonin or Tylenol PM. They are microwave ovens, computers and TVs. They are half of our appliances, electronic equipment and associated chargers that suck down power even when they’re turned off, in sleep or standby mode. A typical house hosts around 50 such insomniacs, and though individual devices use minuscule amounts of electricity, in the aggregate they’re an astonishing and pricey burden.

This “vampire energy loss” represents between 5 and 8 percent of a single family home’s total electricity use per year, according to the Department of Energy. On average, that’s the equivalent of one month’s electricity bill. Taken across the United States, this adds up to at least 68 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually; that’s the equivalent output of 37 typical electricity-generating power plants, costing consumers more than $7 billion. This wasted energy sends more than 97 billion pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; on a global scale, standby energy accounts for 1 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to Alan Meier of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, based in California.

“When a consumer thinks the device is off, it should be using as little power as possible,” says Meier. “But in their haste to get products onto the market, manufacturers don’t make those modest design improvements, and we, the consumers, pay the price in unnecessarily high standby power use.”

Luckily, there are a number of new gadgets that make it easy to thwart vampire energy loads. For places with clusters of cords like a home office or entertainment center, use a Smart Strip. By monitoring power consumption, the strip detects when computers or stereos are off and powers down, eliminating energy usage in all peripheral devices such as printers. Another option is the Isolé power strip, which uses a motion sensor to turn off six of its eight outlets if it hasn’t detected anyone in the room for up to 30 minutes.



To ascertain what appliances are sucking the most power, you can buy a Kill a Watt power meter, a nifty gadget with a wall outlet that measures the watts, volts, amps and kilowatt-hours of a given device when off or on. I bought one and spent a fun-filled few days discovering the power my appliances were wasting. While my electric toothbrush and cellphone charger suck less than a kWh per day (around $5 a year), my VCR, which I seldom use, takes three times that much. I don’t have a plasma TV, but if you do, it’s likely using over 1,400 kWh per year (the equivalent of about $160) if plugged in but not technically “on,” according to a 2005 Department of Energy report. A Federal Energy Management Program Web site supplies information about the standby power wattage of office equipment such as computers, fax machines and printers.

To measure whole-house electricity consumption, try a monitor called Energy Detective. It costs around $190 and provides cost estimates of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Like a scale, it doesn’t help you lose weight or cut back on power. But by providing immediate feedback of how much money you are spending each day on energy, and how much you are likely to spend next month, it’s a solid motivator to unplug appliances and turn off lights. Consumers who used such monitors cut back their energy use by around 5 percent, according to a July 2007 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Currently, there are no simple devices to thwart the biggest users of phantom energy in our homes — the appliances that we unknowingly never turn off. The biggest such offenders are TV set-top boxes with a digital video recorder such as TiVo. Made without a standby mode, most models remain on even when you’re not watching or recording a show, consuming up to 400 kWh per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s enough energy to emit 0.05 tons of carbon dioxide per year (roughly the total emissions of an average citizen of Burundi), reported the New Scientist in November. While energy-efficiency advocates have been trying to get cable and satellite companies to reduce the energy use of these boxes, they’ve had limited success so far.

“A family with several such cable boxes may use more energy per year than to power their new refrigerator,” says Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist with NRDC, based in San Francisco. “The cable or satellite company provides the box, but they don’t pay the electric bill, you do. People should be calling their service provider in anger, saying there’s no reason these things need to be at full power all the time.”

Computer-game consoles are also often left on. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3, for example, use only less than 1 watt of power when turned off, but when left on (in order to not quit an unfinished game before dinner or bedtime, for example), they use roughly 150 watts. Although the Xbox 360 does have an automatic power-down feature, it arrives disabled. Users need to dig into the menu to enable the “auto off” feature.

Finally, an easy fix for saving additional power from your TVs and computers is to reduce the brightness of your screen by half, and watch power consumption of the entire machine drop by about 30 percent. And by using computer screen savers, you’re wasting as much as $100 per year. These constant displays don’t save energy or prevent the display disfigurement for which they were created 15 years ago; new technology fixed that problem long ago.

A major solution to vampire energy, say experts like Meier, will arrive when manufacturers design more efficient appliances. Even so, by using power strips and maintaining vigilance about unplugging the TV and devices that get little use, we can help those insomniacs get some rest.

Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Ore.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>