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Green Building News

‘Always On’ Electronics and Appliances Waste Billions

A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council pegs the loss at $19 billion every year

Electronics that are never really off help consume billions of dollars needlessly in energy each year, according to a new report. Other common culprits include appliances with digital and internet capabilities.

Electronic devices that use electricity even when they appear to be turned off, and a new generation of appliances with digital components and internet connectivity, together waste a total of $19 billion a year in electricity, according to a new report.

“One reason for such high idle energy levels is that many previously purely mechanical devices have gone digital,” Pierre Delforge, author of the report and director of NRDC’s high-tech sector energy efficiency, said in a statement. “Appliances like washers, dryers, and fridges now have displays, electronic controls, and increasingly, even internet connectivity, for example. In many cases, they are using far more electricity than necessary.”

The report, “Home Idle Load,” said that idle loads or “baseload” consumption includes appliances and equipment in “off” or “standby” mode that are still drawing some electricity; devices in “sleep mode” that are capable of powering up quickly; and equipment that’s left fully on even when no one is around to use it.

UtilityDive said that the Natural Resources Defense Council study set the loss at $165 for an average household in the U.S., but said so-called “vampire energy drain” can cost a consumer as much as $440 a year.

The NRDC worked with Home Energy Analytics and the Stanford Sustainable Systems Lab to study three separate data sets: smart meter readouts from 70,000 homes in northern California, smart meter and other data from 2,750 San Francisco Bay area homes, and “a detailed in-home audit” of 10 Bay Area homes.

The wasted energy collectively is roughly the output of 50 large (500 megawatt) power plants. On average, the “always on” electricity used by inactive devices represents nearly 23 percent of household electrical consumption in northern California homes, the report said.

What to do about it

Waste can be sharply reduced at little or no cost, according to a companion “self-diagnosis and action guide.”

The guide suggests how to find the devices that are wasting electricity, and several ways of calculating how much power is involved, either by measuring the household’s total idle load or measuring power consumption device by device with a Kill-A-Watt meter.

To reduce idle loads, the report offers these ideas:

  • Unplug devices that aren’t being used or are rarely used, such as a TV in a guest room or a spare refrigerator that’s currently empty.
  • Plug devices into a power strip that can be switched off manually, or use an advanced power strip that automatically turns devices off when they’re not being used.
  • Plug some devices into a timer.
  • Adjust power settings. Set a computer, for example, so it goes to sleep after 30 minutes or less of inactivity. Or, disable the “instant on” feature on a game console if you don’t need it.


  1. user-984364 | | #1

    Other tools to help alleviate the problem
    Belkin makes a neat solution to this problem, which works well in some cases. Their Belkin Conserve socket has a button on top to enable it, and a selectable timeout of 30 mins, 3 hrs, or 6 hrs, after which it turns itself back off. So it requires positive action when you want to use the appliance, but the shut-off is automatic. It's saved many hours of pointless power drain from my espresso machine. ;) They also make a remotely switched power strip which can make it easier to turn off i.e. the stereo rack, because the switch can be conveniently placed.
    Unfortunately both of these require the homeowner to be aware and care enough to use them; overall I suppose the situation won't improve until these devices become inherently better in this respect.
    And the above items don't work so well for things like cable boxes and PVRs, though - those do need to be around, waiting for work to do. The incentives aren't in the right place, there - you don't get to choose your PVR, and the cable co doesn't really care about your power bill.

  2. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #2

    Cable boxes & DVRs are often atrocious parasites.
    When the local cable company went all-digital requiring all customers use a cable box (manufactured by Cisco Systems) to decrypt the feed, I measured one with a Kill-a-Watt at continuous 13-14watts whether it was "on" or "off". The boot up time from power up to where it linked to the system and was possible to watch TV measured in several minutes over multiple power cycle attempts, which means most people wouldn't tolerate simply powering down to kill the parasite. That's over 110kwh /annum whether it's being used or not. I've been advising people with digital TVs to just buy an antenna, if the only thing they're using the cable system for is basic TV. (The broadcast digital resolution is higher than the cable company is delivering anyway.)

    Some DVRs are over 50 watts in "off" mode.

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