Electricity Vampires

Have you heard the term “Vampire Electronics”? Conservation advocates have coined the phrase to describe those appliances that are left plugged in all the time and quietly suck small amounts of electricity. Most electronic devices in our homes are sucking up energy even while they are turned off. This includes our microwaves, coffeepots, DVD players and stereos. They say that 5 percent of the power used in the United States goes to fuel these standby appliances, to the tune of $4 billion a year.

You can fight back against your vampire electronics by unplugging cell. Phone, laptop and camera chargers when they're not in use, rigging your computer system to depend on a single power strip and choosing Energy Star products. I've already unplugged my electric toothbrush and a couple of lamps that never get turned on. How will you start to slay your electricity sucking appliances?

“The toaster oven and microwave are my very own appliances”, says Elcenir. “I unplugged them both after I took that picture and am trying to keep them that way. The only thing that keeps throwing me is that I'm really used to looking at the clock on the microwave. I've just got to change my habits.”

Admittedly, consumers don't think much about it at all. For instance, they leave their laptop running overnight because they know it'll take five minutes or more to get things going in the morning -- not just booting up, but launching the various applications they start the day with, downloading their overnight e-mail, filtering out the spam, and otherwise "getting settled."

On a CO2 basis, that's 20 million tons of carbon dioxide, about the amount produced by 4 million cars on the road.

But big numbers like that become almost meaningless in an era of trillion-dollar bailouts, so to put the wasted energy in perspective, the study provides the data in terms you can better understand: If you run a company with 1,000 PCs left on overnight, you can save about $28,000 a year if they are turned off after hours. That's not chump change.

Of course, it's also a fact that your PC will function better if you restart it regularly, and nightly shutdowns can help you avoid having to suddenly reboot in the middle of the day when you'd otherwise be productive. So even though this little laptop, by my math, eats up only about a quarter's worth of power overnight, maybe it's a smart idea -- and ultimately a time-saver, too - to shut it down after hours after all.

OFF DOESN'T MEAN OFF ANYMORE, BUT STANDBY
Which electronic devices waste the most energy when they are turned off but still plugged in?

Set-top cable boxes and digital video recorders are some of the biggest energy hogs. Unfortunately, there's little consumers can do since television shows can't be taped if boxes are unplugged. It also typically takes a long time to reboot boxes.

However, some of the other major consumers of standby power are more easily dealt with: computers, multifunction printers, flat-screen TVs, DVDs, VCRs, CD players, power tools, and hand-held vacuums. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) measured standby power for a long list of products. Please visit their web site at http://standby.lbl.gov/summary-table.html .

Why do electronic devices use energy when they are switched off?
Electronics consume standby power for one of two reasons. They either have an adapter that will continue to draw electricity, or they have devices (such as clocks and touch-pads) that draw power.

Does everything suck energy when it's plugged in and turned off?
No. If your coffeemaker or toaster doesn't have a clock, then it's probably not using standby power. Chances are your hair dryer and lamps (although they may have a power adapter for the dimmer) are not drawing standby power either. Devices with a switch that physically breaks the circuit don't consume standby power.

Power Strip FAQs
Plugging electronics into a power strip and turning it off when you're not using it is a widely prescribed solution for curbing vampire power.

How much electricity costs, and how they charge you

What the heck is a kilowatt hour?
Before we see how much electricity costs, we have to understand how it's measured. When you buy gas they charge you by the gallon. When you buy electricity they charge you by the kilowatt-hour (kWh). When you use 1000 watts for 1 hour, that's a kilowatt-hour. For example:

Device Wattage ..•.. Device ..•.. Hours Used ..•.. kWh
• 1000 watts ..•.. medium window-unit AC ..•.. one hour ..•.. 1 kWh
• 1500 watts ..•.. large window-unit AC ..•.. one hour ..•.. 1.5 kWh
• 500 watts ..•.. small window-unit AC ..•.. one hour ..•.. 0.5 kWh
• 24 watts ..•.. 42" ceiling fan on low speed ..•.. ten hours ..•.. 0.24 kWh
• 100 watts ..•.. light bulb ..•.. 731 hours (i.e., all month) ..•.. 73.1 kWh

When the number is low we sometimes use watt-hours (Wh) instead of kWh. For example, we might say 500 watt-hours instead of 0.5 kWh.
Watts and watt-hours:
Watts is the measure of the rate of electrical use at any moment. For example, a laptop computer uses about 50 watts.

If your device lists amps instead of watts, then just multiply the amps times the voltage to get the watts. For example:
2.5 amps x 120 volts = 300 watts

• Watts is the rate of use at this instant.
• Watt-hours is the total energy used over time

How much does electricity cost?
The cost of electricity depends on where you live, how much you use, and possibly when you use it. There are also fixed charges that you pay every month no matter how much electricity you use. For example, I pay $6/mo. for the privilege of being a customer of the electric company, no matter how much energy I use.

Check your utility bill for the rates in your area. If it's not on your bill then look it up on the utility's website.

The electric company measures how much electricity you use in kilowatt-hours, abbreviated kWh. Your bill might have multiple charges per kWh (e.g., one for the "base rate", another for "fuel") and you have to add them all up to get the total cost per kWh.

Most utility companies charge a higher rate when you use more than a certain amount of energy, and they also charge more during summer months when electric use is higher. As an example, here are the residential electric rates for Austin, Texas (as of 11-03):

The average cost of residential electricity was 11¢/kWh in the U.S. in April 2008. The average household used 920 kWh/mo. in 2006 and would pay $101.2 for it based on the April 2008 average rate.

Saving electricity doesn't just save money, it also saves the planet. This is news to a lot of people. After all, when you plug something into the wall, it seems clean enough -- you don't see or smell any pollution, like you do with your car. But the pollution is there -- it just happens at the power plant. Most electricity is generated by burning coal and running nuclear power plants. Every time you turn on the lights, you create a little pollution. (See the sidebar.) So saving electricity doesn't just put money in your pocket, it helps keep the air and water clean, too.

We can't stop the oil from being burned for transport, since if we don't use it, another country will. But we can certainly stop burning our coal. And the quickest way to reduce coal emissions by 50%, is to reduce our electricity consumption by 50%.

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