Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Vampires slurping electricity

Electronic vampires lurk in my house and are probably lurking in yours, too. While the bloodthirsty vampires of fiction are frightening, the electronic variety should scare you--or at least your wallet--even more.

Electronic vampires refer to the standby and low-power components in products like microwave ovens, DVD players, computers, phone chargers, and the like. They get their name from the two electric plug "fangs" that stick out from small black voltage adapters in consumer electronics but refer more generally to any device that draws power continuously, 24 hours a day regardless of whether the device is switched on. So unlike the fictional vampires, electronic vampires don't retreat when the sun comes out.

Those small amounts of electricity add up. It's estimated that some five percent of U.S. electrical consumption is devoured by vampires.

President Bush brought attention to these devices early on in his administration. One of the most useful things to come out of this was a directive to the Department of Energy to develop new standards for its ENERGY STAR labeling program, so that consumers could be better informed and act voluntarily.

To defang the vampires, there are three main things that consumers can do. The first is to shut off appliances and devices when they are not in use. The DOE recommends shutting down computer monitors and CPS if they are not going to be used for at least two hours. TVs, stereos, and lights should also be turned off if you are leaving a room.

The second is to really turn off some unneeded devices by cutting the power that flows to them when they are not in use. For example, cell phone, toothbrush, and other types of rechargers can be unplugged when they are not needed. It's as simple as removing the plug from the outlet. Other systems, like computers, are more complicated because of the number of plugs involved or the awkward placement of the outlets. For these systems, you can connect all of the relevant plugs to a surge protector with an on/off switch and then flip that single switch when the system is shut down.

The third thing is to look for the ENERGY STAR label when purchasing new appliances or replacing old ones. The approved appliances often use less than half the electricity of other appliances. The approved appliances typically cost more up front but end up saving money in the long run. It seldom makes economic sense to replace an otherwise functional existing applicance. However, ENERGY STAR replacements are a good idea when those less-efficient appliances wear out (or when you can talk your wife into the necessity of a new gadget).

Cutting energy use this way obviously saves consumers money without much in the way of inconvenience. It also reduces the need for power plants, cuts pollution, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. It's not tricky to treat your wallet and the environment well.