Homes waste watts of power, study finds: TVs, computers, others leach energy and money
Jun 21, 2010 - Thomas Content Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune
n one of the first studies of its kind, energy researchers in Madison have uncovered a simple way that most consumers can save on their electric bills: pull the plug.
The researchers set up more than 700 in-home metering devices in about 50 homes to monitor the proliferation of electronic devices in our homes, and how they affect our energy use.
Thirty years ago, federal data shows, a typical home had about three plugged-in devices. The new study shows our wall sockets are jammed, with each home hosting 30 or more devices. All told, computers, printers, televisions and other devices account for 15% to 30% of a home's total electricity use -- about 20% on average, the study found.
The Energy Center of Wisconsin study was able to quantify the impact of having so many devices plugged in and ready to go -- sometimes on, sometimes off, and sometimes in standby mode.
Case in point: Home computers that are left on around the clock in some cases suck power even when they're sitting idle.
"Most computers are set up to turn the monitor off after about 20 minutes," said researcher Scott Pigg. "So we turn it on and use it and walk away and come back into the room and see the monitor's off. We think: 'Well, my computer is managing its power and it's shut down.'
"What they don't realize is that two-thirds of the electricity draw is the thing that's sitting on the floor -- not the thing that's sitting on the desk," he added. "And the only visual indication that you have that computer's on is a little fan noise and a little green light somewhere."
A step as simple as changing the power management settings on a home PC will take less time than running to the store and buying another energy-saving light bulb, Pigg said.
"We're talking about something that will take people a few minutes to do with one or two keystrokes, and it'll drop their electric bill by $25 to $40 a year," he said. "How's that for payback time?"
The study by the energy center, an energy efficiency think tank, was focused on single-family homes in Minnesota, and was funded by the state of Minnesota and a Minnesota electric utility. Pigg and fellow researcher Ingo Bensch believe most of the conclusions also apply to Wisconsin.
Based on the research, Pigg estimates that home electronic use across the state is consuming power equivalent to that generated by a small power plant. The 5.5 million televisions in Wisconsin homes use about 800 million kilowatt-hours a year, or roughly the amount generated by a 100 megawatt power plant.
The study found it's hard to persuade consumers to power down their TVs, because channel settings and DVD or DVR programming settings could be lost.
Consumers also were reluctant to unplug cable TV set-top boxes and satellite TV equipment, citing the complexity of these systems. "Reducing energy use when these devices aren't being used is probably best addressed at the manufacturing level," Pigg said.
The research will help utilities and energy efficiency programs such as Wisconsin's Focus on Energy educate consumers about ways to stop wasting energy.
Stopping energy waste resonated with homeowners in the survey, Bensch said. Consumers responded -- and wanted to make changes to power management settings -- when they were told, "Your computer system consumes half of its energy when you aren't using it.
All told, the researchers identified ways to cut 3% to 6% of a home's total electricity use. A lot of the attention is focused on the big appliances, but it's time for consumers to take a second look at everything that's plugged in, said Pigg and Bensch.
"Going into these homes in some ways was a little like an archaeology expedition. You pretty clearly see that people just can't seem to get rid of that old VCR because they paid a couple hundred bucks for it 10 years ago. It's still works, it's plugged in. We put a meter on it and it didn't get used once in a month."
"We're just accumulating old technology in houses that's become part of our growing phantom load."
The researchers also found some unique circumstances that resulted in unnecessarily excessive energy use, such as old TVs that don't even get a broadcast signal and are used only by the kids for video gaming.
There were some extreme cases, too, such as the family who kept their dogs in an uninsulated garage -- with a space heater and two heat lamps running.
"They had all this stuff going to keep these dogs warm," Pigg said. "It was on the order of $30 to $50 a month" that the home's power bills were going up.
Some savings can be reaped just by unplugging power-thirsty appliances when not in use -- or connecting them to a power strip that can be turned on and off.
Printers are a prime candidate because they are rarely used.
"Printers don't use a ton of electricity, but more than 95% of the electricity that a printer uses is used when it's sitting there waiting, waiting for something to do," Bensch said.
In some cases, researchers found homeowners didn't know how many TVs they had in their home.
"When we asked about one, they said they forgot they had it," said Bensch. "We found it, and it was out of sight, out of mind -- and plugged in."