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When Products Won't Turn Off

by Manny Frishberg
NW Current, May 31, 2006

Any number of vampires are lurking around the average home or office. These aren't the blood-lusting offspring of Count Dracula or Anne Rice's Lestat -- they're everyday electronic appliances that suck up electricity whether in use or not.

"The sheer reach of power supplies in the marketplace is quite remarkable," said Suzanne Foster Porter of Portland-based Ecos Consulting. "Any products that have integrated circuits -- any digital displays, timers, transmitters, DC motors or lighting, speakers, switches, remote controls or batteries, all have power supplies."

Even the garage door opener with a remote is drawing power 24/7.

A television that takes about 110 watts per month when it's being watched is still drawing almost 1 watt a day when it's off. Over the course of a year, that's the equivalent of leaving a 60 watt bulb burning for more than 5 hours. Home stereo systems that use less than 12 watts when playing music are still taking 9.5 watts when they are quiet.

Satellite receivers are far worse offenders. When turned on they use about 12 watts of power -- when turned off they use 11.6. At Pacific Northwest electric rates, that amounts to about $5.50 to $6 per year in excess electricity costs.

Computer monitors are even pricier. In sleep mode, with a screen saver on, they cost $25 a year more for electricity than when turned completely off.

And then there are microwave ovens. Because they are in use for only a few minutes at a time, while their clocks and internal power supplies are on constantly, the typical microwave oven consumes more power overall when it is not being used than when it is. The same is true, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, of home stereos and DVD players.

While none of these individual "vampires" amount to very large outlays for an individual household, they all add up, particularly considering that Americans have more than 200 million TV sets in their homes drawing more than 46 billion kilowatt hours per year, an estimated 4 percent of residential electricity use. By one estimate, the average American household is spending as much as $100 a year on standby power. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Businesses, with photocopiers, coffee makers, high-volume printers and a computer on every desk, end up paying a considerable sum for idled devices.

Porter said Ecos studied power supply efficiency under a contract with the Natural Resources Defense Council that looked at 800 different units from around the world and found there was a huge disparity between the best and worst of them.

"The most inefficient power supplies consume 1 to 3 watts with no product attached," she said. "The most efficient power supplies consume only .2 watts with no products attached. The worst were between 10 and 30 percent efficient; the best were between 70 and 93 percent efficient. If you could convert these power supplies from the status quo, which included a mix of some efficient and some inefficient, you could save between 1 and 2 percent of all electricity.

"Some of that is in standby," she added, "but most of that is actually when the product is being used."

Between 1994 and 2001, the problem grew at approximately 8 percent annually. Despite improvements in efficiency for TVs and stereos, there was a net increase in the number of devices in use. In 2001, the Bush administration estimated these electricity drains consumed a total of 52 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually -- equal to more than 25 average-size power plants - and cost consumers over $1 billion per year. If everyone in the United States were to start using more efficient Energy Star appliances and devices, they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 billion pounds of carbon dioxide annually -- the equivalent of taking 3 million cars off the road.

Every device that runs on DC power, meaning just about every piece of office equipment with an external converter (those little black boxes that plug into the wall) is not only pulling power but adding its own bit of excess heat to the building at the same time. Every kilowatt of excess electricity used in an inefficient power supply adds 1 degree to a building's cooling load, according to Porter.

Through the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, electric utilities are funding a voluntary effort called the 80 PLUS initiative to improve the efficiency of internal power supplies in computers and servers. The effort, introduced in the region in 2005, calls for efficiencies that are 80 percent or better [see "Going beyond the screen-saver," nwcurrent, Sept. 29, 2005].

Said Porter: "What we're looking at is that efficient power supplies save roughly 85 kilowatt hours per year and 300 kilowatt hours per server per year."

Power supply manufacturers, large original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and system integrators are the program's primary targets. To encourage sales of personal computers with 80 PLUS, OEMs and system integrators receive a $5 incentive per computer shipped with a qualified 80 PLUS power supply. It's estimated that 1.3 million personal computers will be purchased in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana in 2006. The 80 PLUS program hopes 100,000 of the computers will be equipped with the more efficient power supplies.

Manny Frishberg, Senior Editor
When Products Won't Turn Off
NW Current, May 31, 2006

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