Unfortunately, the inexpensive electronics we’ve become accustomed to have notoriously inefficient power supplies. High transformer core losses in the power supplies themselves will waste electricity as long as they’re plugged in. And many built-in power supplies are switched on the output, rather than on the input side of the transformer, so some electricity at 120 volts is continuously being consumed. This means that the transformer is never actually turned off, even though the appliance itself may be.
Not all appliances have external power supplies, but the lack of a visible wall cube doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Many electronic devices such as computers and TVs have built-in internal power supplies. So just like your cordless phone, your TV is likely using electricity unless it’s unplugged from the wall outlet. Plus, most TVs and many other appliances have remote control receivers that are powered all the time, ready for you to hit their power buttons to turn the appliances on.
While new appliances are getting more energy efficient, most of our homes have all manner—and all ages—of appliances. You may have a new high-definition TV, but an old cordless phone. As a result, the standby losses of appliances can vary radically between one home and another. To complicate things, standby loss figures are rarely presented on an appliance’s labeling. In the end, actual hands-on measurement is the only way to accurately quantify standby losses. Luckily, inexpensive, handheld digital power meters are available to help you determine your appliances’ standby energy use (see Access). Other than a piece of paper, a pencil, and a calculator, a power meter is all you need to ferret out phantoms around your home.
In general, identify appliances with external power supplies, remote controls, continuous digital displays, or rechargeable batteries. Chances are that these products will have standby losses. Plug the power meter into the electrical outlet, and the appliance being measured into the meter. Set the display to watts and jot down the power draw when the appliance is turned off, powered up, and operational. Multiplying the wattage you measure by 24 hours (or the amount of time the appliance is not in use each day) will give you a daily energy loss (WH) figure for the appliance. An hour or so spent roaming around your house with paper and meter in hand will probably be all the time it takes to determine how many phantom loads are present, and how much energy they’re using each day. Once you’ve identified the worst offenders, the next step is to truly shut them down.
You’ll likely need to live with some phantom loads, such as cordless phones that need to be ready to go at any time. Answering machines, on the other hand, can easily be replaced by voice mail provided by your phone company. Once you’ve identified unnecessary phantom loads around your house, the next step is to figure out how to conveniently shut them down when they’re not in use or required.
One option is to unplug any appliance that has a standby loss, but this can be inconvenient. Instead, using plug strips can be a simple and effective strategy to defeat phantom loads. They cost about $5 each, and are available at hardware and appliance stores everywhere. Plug strips can be used to group appliances that you regularly use in conjunction with one another—your modem, computer, and monitor can be on one strip, while hardware you use less frequently, like your printer, scanner, and external hard drive, can be on another. If you’re rewiring circuits in your home, or building from scratch, well-planned electrical circuits can include switched receptacles that will shut down phantom loads at the flip of a switch.
The subsidized, low cost of grid electricity in the United States has led many of us into bad habits when it comes to energy use, and it has also served as a disincentive for appliance manufacturers to design highly efficient products with low standby losses. As electricity costs continue to escalate, and as federal programs like Energy Star continue to reward manufacturers with efficient designs, we can expect the trend of improved appliance energy efficiency to continue.