Energy Adviser: Beware phantom power load

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Somewhere in your home, energy is leaking out. Unfortunately, weather stripping and insulation won’t stop this leak. It’s best found in the dark. Turn your lights off and walk around your home. How many red or blue lights peer out at you? Count ’em. When you’re done, you will have counted nearly every electronic device in your home — DVD player, digital recorder, PC, laptop, router, Internet modem, coffeepot, microwave oven, scanner, printer, set-top cable box, streaming video unit and … well you get the idea.

Wait — there’s more. You haven’t discovered the energy wasters without lights. These lightless black and white electrical extensions stick out of wall sockets sucking up energy. We charge our smartphones and tablets with these dongles. Most of us never unplug them, because that would be inconvenient.

“Any unit that’s remote-controlled, any instant-on device, every shining power light and every bright digital readout you see signals power consumption,” said DuWayne Dunham, energy services supervisor for Clark Public Utilities. “Builders are sealing up homes and cutting energy losses. Now often it’s the habits of those who live in them that need to change to reduce energy waste even further.”

Apparently, “off” doesn’t mean not using power for many devices. Instead, it’s the equivalent of a leaky faucet, every little drip adding up on your utility bill.

The U.S. Department of Energy says that 75 percent of electricity consumed by home electronics occurs after users turn their devices off. The phantom load for a DVR can consume as much as 35 watts when it’s turned off. So, it costs you about $20 a year, and that doesn’t include the extra you pay while actually using it.

That DVR box is one of the bigger energy wasters and currently no energy-efficiency standards apply to the boxes. Several consumer groups, including the Department of Energy, are working toward a standard that would reduce the energy set-top boxes use 10 percent to 40 percent by 2017.

Simple steps add up

What can you do about these electrical leaks costing you money? Your first step is to unplug appliances and electronics you’re not using. Many devices, like coffeemakers and laptops, are easy to unplug when they are not in use and there’s no slow down when it’s time to use them. There’s no way to eliminate every phantom load by pulling power cords out of sockets. Some products you cannot do anything about. Jerking the cord on your set-top box makes it a hassle to start. And you probably can’t even reach the plug on a built-in microwave. But getting even a few appliances unplugged can add up to a lower electric bill.

The second way to eliminate electrical leaks is to plug them into smart strips. By buying a smart power strip for around $50, you can stop many devices from sucking up energy. A smart power strip uses special circuitry to monitor and control device outlets. As soon as a gadget settles into its standby mode, the power at its plug-in turns off while all other sockets stay on. This both saves you money and is good for the environment. Standby power accounts for around 1 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Cheaper “dumb” power strips can still make turning off your equipment easier, because they allow you to completely power down several appliances with one switch.

“When customers eliminate phantom loads, they lower their bills,” Dunham said. “And the more wired we get, the more of a difference it makes to make the rounds at home and unplug wires, cords and chargers that aren’t immediately required.”


Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.