Saving Electricity: Reduce Standby Power Consumption

It doesn’t take much effort to reduce standby power consumption; and you could save the equivalent of a few tanks of gas a year.

You might save the equivalent of three or four tanks of gas each year by reducing your home's standby electricity consumption. Image: Joseph Devenney/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

You’re already paying a bundle every month to your cable and Internet providers. Why fork over even more money to the power company for the standby power consumption that TVs, computers, and cell phones eat when they’re plugged in but not in use?

Standby or “vampire” consumption accounts for about $100 of your electricity bill annually, says Energy Star. But you can save at least some of that money by using a few simple tactics, if you’re willing to form new habits and do a little investigative work.

Buy a portable energy meter

A great first step: Identify the biggest energy vampires in your house. A portable energy meter—$22-$100 online (some super-precise meters can cost big bucks) from such retailers as Amazon.com—can help you pinpoint hot spots and pay for itself in less than a year. Some libraries may even loan them. These devices measure voltage, electricity cost, and electric consumption. They can tell you how much it costs to operate everything from your refrigerator to your computer—both when using standby power and when operating at full blast. They’ll even calculate the expected payback time when you replace older equipment with more energy-efficient models.

Madison Gas & Electric Co., a public utility in Madison, Wis., followed a three-member family in Madison, who used a monitor to track 29 electrically powered devices in their home. The family calculated that vampire consumption cost them at least $134.97 annually. The single biggest culprit was a high-definition cable TV box, sucking up 20.7% of their standby electricity.

Other devices that the family found were heavy standby energy users:

  • Standard cable TV box, 11.8%
  • Computer, 10.5%
  • VCR, 8.9% for one and 4% for the other
  • Stereo subwoofer, 6.6%

Make it easy to manage standby consumption

Once you know your energy culprits, start unplugging items routinely. Make that easier by plugging devices close to each other— such as computers, monitors, printers, and desk lamps—into a power strip or surge protector.

Homeowners Gary Kenigsberg and Marsha Koschik of Pittsburgh put their TV, VCR, DVD, stereo system, two computers, and all of their peripherals—such as a scanner and an electric microscope—on surge protectors. When they’re not using the devices, they turn off the strips. More than six months after they began using the power strips, Gary says his monthly electric bill payments have dropped into the $40s; before they had been in the $60s and $70s.

You can also invest in smart-power strips—about $20 to $40 through online retailers. When you power down a primary device, such as a home computer, the strip automatically shuts down related peripherals. The strips include “always on” outlets for devices that you don’t want to turn off completely, like TiVo, so you don’t miss your favorite show. And if DVRs/TiVos and satellite or cable boxes stay on, you won’t wait for them to reboot. Depending on how many devices you attach, you could recoup your cost in a few months.

Like most people, you probably leave your cell phone charging over night. But most charge in about 90 minutes, amounting to about seven hours of lost energy. You might not feel guilty if you know that charging each unit longer than necessary costs only a few cents per year. But if blowing any money makes you cringe, remember to unplug them or charge them in your car’s cigarette lighter.

Bottom line: You won’t pay for that vacation to Cancun by reducing standby consumption, but you might save the equivalent of three or four tanks of gas each year. And you’ll know you’re doing your part to help the environment. Without vampire electricity, the U.S. could shutter 17 power plants and eliminate 27 tons of carbon dioxide in the air, according to Lawrence Berekely.

Alternatives to saving on standby energy

If battling standby consumption seems like more trouble than it’s worth, there are alternatives for saving energy.

  • Opt for Energy Star appliances, if you’re in the market to buy new. They’re 10% to 50% more efficient than standard appliances.