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Green Building Curmudgeon

How Smart Is My Smart Power Strip?

Or maybe I'm just too stupid to figure it out

On the left is my plain old power strip, which I turn off when I am finished working. On the right is the smart strip, which I have yet to figure out how to integrate into my office arrangement.

I’ve been hearing about “smart” power strips for a while, and while I am pretty good about turning off the various electronics in my house on regular old manual power strips, I decided it was time to evaluate one of these advanced devices for myself. I purchased a TrickleStar unit for about $30 and set out to hook it up in my office to see how it worked.

The unit has two permanently on outlets, one “control” outlet, and three switched outlets that turn off automatically when the power draw on the control outlet is low enough to suggest that the main equipment is off or in standby mode. As I understand the way these things work, if you plug a computer or TV into the control outlet, when you turn it off, the strip recognizes that the power use has dropped; and while not turning off the power to the control outlet, it does turn off the switched ones, cutting power to peripherals such as printers, audio equipment, DVD players, and the like.

My lack of success

My office is small and crowded, but relatively simple. I have a laptop, a second monitor, a backup drive, and a set of speakers on one power strip, and my printers and a scanner on a separate strip. I turn the strips on and off manually when I use them, often several times a day, depending on when I am at my desk and what I am doing. Anxious to see how much effort my new smart strip would save, I connected my laptop to the control outlet, and my monitor, disk drive, and speakers to the switched outlets and went to work checking it out. I turned off my computer, and voila! Nothing happened. The switched outlets remained powered up. I took a look at the little transformer on the cord of my laptop and realized that it was probably drawing enough power to confuse the strip into thinking that it was still on. I unplugged the laptop cord, and the switched outlets turned off in a few seconds.

Interestingly, the switch on my smart strip doesn’t actually turn anything off; it just turns the switched outlets on if they are off. So, in order to take advantage of the product’s features, I have to unplug my computer. Seems more complicated than my current arrangement. I suppose if I had a desktop computer that drew no power when off, it would work fine, but these days most people use laptops, so the effect of smart strips is reduced.

Try it somewhere else, maybe?

OK, so it doesn’t really help with my office, but what about my TV setup? I currently have two old TVs, each on a power strip, with a cable converter at one and a DVR at the other. I turn off the TVs whenever I’m not watching them, but I have to keep the cable equipment powered on all the time to maintain programming (and to make sure I don’t miss recording my favorite shows on the DVR!). So if I hook up the smart strip to one of my TVs, it will automatically turn off nothing.

I realize that I am pretty behind on all the new AV equipment available, and if I had a DVD or Blu-ray player, a bunch of high-powered audio equipment, and who knows what else, I could turn it off automatically with the smart strip—but I don’t, so it doesn’t do me any good, at least as far as I can tell. And even if I were to use it with all that equipment, the TV would still be on in standby mode, wasting electricity 24/7. Studies have shown that the average TV uses about one half of its lifetime energy use while off, due to the power required to operate the remote sensor.

Let’s blame the manufacturers

I suppose that using a smart strip is better than leaving all the equipment on, but you could use a hardwired kill switch or manual power strip to turn off everything—it really doesn’t take that much effort. We should also look at the equipment we keep on and consider how often we really use it. I imagine that there are probably millions of DVD players, stereos, and even a few old VCRs out there, still plugged in and drawing power, that are very rarely turned on.

And let’s not forget to put some blame on the manufacturers who make all this stuff with remotes and clocks that are always on. How many digital clocks do I really need, particularly if most of them are set differently, and some flashing 12:00 permanently? People think that remote controls are made for their convenience, and while I agree that it’s nice to sit in a chair and change channels, we need to realize that they are primarily designed to save costs in the factory, as they can build much simpler equipment that is pretty much inoperable without a remote.

Do we really need remotes for ceiling fans and HVAC systems? Come on, people, grow up and get some exercise once in a while. I don’t need a clock on my microwave, either, but the mechanical dial controls cost more to make than digital displays and keypads, so we are stuck with them and the energy they use. Can you even buy a cooking appliance without a digital display anymore?

So, what’s smart about a smart strip?

Getting back to the smart strip, it might have some purpose for people who have a lot of equipment and don’t want to have to remember to turn something off. I suppose it’s better than leaving all the accessories on all the time, but I think it’s just encouraging bad habits. I heard someone say once that we need to replace a scarce resource—energy—with an even scarcer one: intelligence. Seems to apply in this case.

22 Comments

  1. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    Great topic, Carl
    Carl,
    I enjoyed your blog -- thanks.

    Here's my pet peeve: electronic volume controls on radios and TVs. Please, manufacturers: bring back old-fashioned volume knobs. They're so much easier than punching those up and down arrows repeatedly.

    Maybe we should start a protest movement.

  2. Daniel | | #2

    Smart Strips
    I just got one of these smart strips this week from the utility and it works great on my desktop computer setup. The speakers and two monitors all shut off when the computer goes into standby mode (presumably about 3-4 watts, though I haven't measured it yet.)

    Works like a charm, and is a great improvement over my use of a wall switch controlled outlet. I would often forget to flip the switch before I sat down to work, but now, I move the mouse and everything springs to life.

  3. aj builder | | #3

    percent of energy saved
    Tried some math. In an average home a smart strip would save $5-10/year for somone who may use $5-10,000 worth(of total energy,home, auto, etc)9.

    Going vegetarian would have an order of magnitude more effect.

    Limiting number offspring would have orders of magnitude more effect.

    If I took a day off from work, it would have an order of magnitude more effect.

    That all said, we are getting to nirvana rather quickly right now via ACS, Moore's law, nano and all.

    Smartstrips are a good stepping stone.

  4. User avater
    James Morgan | | #4

    Morgan's Law
    If a product is labeled 'smart' anything and has bits of green paint dabbed on it, don't expect too much.

    BTW the sensor in this device probably has a greater energy load than the microwave's digital clock. The passive load on those things is too small to measure. The self-contained stick-on ones you buy at the drugstore run for five years on nothing more than a hearing-aid battery.

  5. Ken Riead | | #5

    Carl, Please send me your email address
    Hey Carl, I have some questions to ask of you and I can't find your email address. Please send... Thanks! Ken Riead

  6. Ken Riead | | #6

    Hey, this is not a moderated comments area
    Oops.... Sorry Carl! Ken

  7. Anonymous | | #7

    Green power strips
    The off switch on the power strips I already own work just fine. This is just one more device of dubious effectiveness trying to encourage me to part with my hard earned money. Calling it green and smart means nothing. This device requires a sensor, which requires power, which means this device probably draws more power than a regular power strip.

  8. Don | | #8

    Green power strips
    With a laptop as your "desktop", it is advisable to use your monitor as the control. The down side of that is that if you are doing something that lets your monitor screensaver go on, or if you are going away for a while and turn off the monitor manually, everything shuts down. I had to learn that if I am doing a long print job, I need to set my power saver settings to always on. The up side is that I don't come into my study in the morning and find that my printer and my scanner, etc have been on all night.

  9. Bill | | #9

    Rather than buy a smart green
    Rather than buy a smart green power strip for $25 to save a few pennies worth of standby loss electricity, why not spend $25 weatherstripping a door, or add $25 worth of insulation?

    Better yet, you could put $25 toward a massively overpriced electric heater that will lower your oil or gas bill slightly, while jacking your electric bill substantially.

    Stuff like this is sold because consumers don't do the math.

  10. Stacey | | #10

    mine works great.
    I bought one of these with the same idea, to try it out and see if it really would be an easier way to turn off all my computer peripherals - I have a desktop computer and mine works great. I have the computer, not the monitor, set up as the "control", and the speakers, monitor, and printer on the automatic settings. My desk lamp is in the always on setting. What I like about it is that even when my computer goes into "sleep" mode, the strip considers it "off", and everything powers down. That means I can essentially walk away from my computer, and my whole office will power itself down in a few minutes. When I come back, I just wake up the computer and everything springs to life. I realize this is probably not saving a giant amount of energy (the kwh kind), but your article seemed to address more your personal convenience part - of not having to worry about turning switches on and off all the time - and for me, it does actually accomplish this.

    Interesting that yours doesn't work with your laptop though - mine actually has some kind of sensitivity dial on it - you can adjust how little juice needs to be flowing through the master receptacle before the strip will consider it "off" - mine worked fine without messing with it, but if yours has a similar control maybe you could try fiddling with that a little to get the laptop to work with it. Just a thought.

  11. The Hat | | #11

    light switch
    It is to bad that most people do not know that a light switch goes both ways. Up - On DOWN - OFF
    If they were not so lazy and use the Down mode they would save alot & not need "smart things".

  12. Anonymous | | #12

    No numbers?
    I think ultimately the habits that we form are really what make the difference, but I know that numbers drive my changes. What did it cost to run the power strip (that kind of logic may be cheap, but not free)? What would it have saved? It would be relatively easy to plug in a meter and get some real numbers!

  13. Erica Downs | | #13

    try a different brand
    I purchased a 10-outlet Smart Power Strip from the Energy Star catalog online (www.estarlights.com) for $22.50 and it works great. We have our TV and all entertainment equipment hooked up, and it works great.

    It has one control outlet, 6 automatically switched outlets, and 3 constant hot outlets, which is handy for those electronics that shouldn't be turned off completely. The DVD player/tuner is our control. This model also has a little dial to adjust sensitivity for various appliances. The only catch for us, is we have to manually turn off the TV before switching off the tuner, or the TV comes on next time no matter what, even if we only want to listen to the radio.

    I don't think it's a question of whether Smart Power Strips work, but which one works for you.

  14. User avater
    Carl Seville | | #14

    Thanks for all the great feedback...
    To the cynics like Anonymous, The Hat, and Martin, et.al., thanks for supporting me in my minor condemnation of bad behavior and the guilt-reducing devices that are sold to alleviate it. I'm with you, Martin, on the dials. I would much prefer to have a microwave with a mechanical timer dial and maybe a switch for different power levels. I don't need a dozen or more settings. It reminds me of the 12 blender settings - grind, pulverize, whip, puree, chop, blend, etc - what the hell is the difference between them?

    To those that actually find their smart strips to, in fact, be smart, and save some energy, all power to you. I will keep looking.

  15. Eric | | #15

    User error
    Try plugging in your flat screen, DVD player, Wii, and subwoofer into the smart outlets. The STB/DVR should be in an unswitched outlet. The reciever should be the activating device. If you set it up correctly, you can save money.

  16. User avater
    Carl Seville | | #16

    To Eric
    I don't own any of that equipment. I have a TV and a DVR, period. My office has a speaker set, printers, extra monitor, etc. but the laptop transformer doesn't power down enough to activate the smart switches. No user error here, just someone who can't take advantage of the technology and is willing to turn things off.

  17. Mike | | #17

    Smart Strips
    You can not plug any device into the control outlet that uses a "charging" transformer i.e. your laptop. The laptop charger has the same electrical load whether the battery is charging or not, whether the laptop is on or off. Bad choice for control.

  18. Tom Harding | | #18

    I think these products are great
    I bought a couple of these and they work fine. Mine have a sensitivity switch on the bottom - you should try adjusting yours. I like these products because with my pc and tv setups I like to have the cables hidden away (I wouldn't mount my strip on a wall like you have done). I dont like crawling under my desk to switch things off so I think these products are a good idea. My understanding is that the savings depend on how many things you have plugged in - the more you have, the bigger the savings.

  19. User avater
    James Morgan | | #19

    Laptop chargers
    "You can not plug any device into the control outlet that uses a "charging" transformer i.e. your laptop. The laptop charger has the same electrical load whether the battery is charging or not, whether the laptop is on or off. Bad choice for control."

    This may depend on the laptop. My MacBook Pro charger shows considerable range of load from about 60W (charging + laptop on) to almost nothing (fully charged, laptop sleeping). The charging mode would buffer the switching though so the smart strip would not track exactly with the laptop condition and your conclusion is probably correct.

  20. User avater
    Carl Seville | | #20

    Thanks for the advice, but...
    I appreciate all the recent comments about how to make the smart power strip work, but the key point I was trying to make was the way manufacturers have created endless products that entice us to purchase them, most, if not all, of which have large vampire loads which require either manual or automatic controls to limit their excessive power use. Many of these vampire loads are due to the fact that electronic switching and remote controls are less expensive to manufacture (and usually less durable) than mechanical switches which actually turn off power when you turn them to off, unlike remotes and the like. Combine this with the plethora of cheap electronics and the desire of consumers for more and more conveniences such as remote controls, and you have the perfect storm of excess energy use.
    We need to demand that more products be made with no vampire loads, buy fewer of them, and be willing, as a society, to take responsibility for our actions and start turning things off - without expecting to have it done for us. We are adults, after all, aren't we?

  21. Erica Downs | | #21

    Agreed!
    Well, if THAT'S your point, I am in total agreement. I think for the most part, the general public is unaware of vampire loads. People would probably like to eliminate them if they knew they existed. But since people are generally lazy, having an easy way to do this has the potential to bring more people on board. (It's like occupancy sensors on lights -- we SHOULD just turn the lights out, but since people seem incapable, we need controls to do it for us.)

  22. Lance | | #22

    trimmer
    some smart strips have a trim knob so that you can adjust how sensitive the control-sensor is.

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