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Ask Mr. Tight-Watt: Unplugging Appliances  Smart Choices Archive

Ask Mr. Tight-Watt: Unplugging Appliances

A smart power strip can help you rein in energy costs.

Ask Mr. Tight-Watt

Question: Is it true that you can save energy by unplugging items you are not using like DVD players or computers, or can you just turn them off? – from Jill, a Smart Choices reader

Mr. Tight Watt refers to Energy Star and past Smart Choices articles about phantom energy use.

Answer:  Not all appliances continue to use energy when turned off, but many do. The items that continue drawing power when turned off have a remote, a digital clock, or a memory chip, all of which keep working whenever the appliance is plugged in, even if the appliance is turned off. These appliances include appliances as diverse as TVs, coffee pots, cell phone chargers, computers, microwaves, and more (one source estimates that your home may have up to 50 such appliances!). Phantom energy use can account for up to 75 percent of the electricity used by electronics (according to the Department of Energy) and 10 percent of your home’s total energy use.

The only way to totally shut off these “phantom energy use” appliances is to shut them down and unplug them. One easy way to do this is by plugging those appliances into smart power strips. You can read our previous Smart Choices article on smart power strips.

Another good way to reduce the amount of phantom energy use is to purchase only Energy Star appliance models. While Energy Star appliances don’t totally eliminate energy use while in standby mode, those appliances use substantially less energy when in use and also when in standby.

Some examples from Energy Star:

  • New requirements for TVs and TV set boxes (used for cable, satellite, and telecommunications) went into effect in 2008 and for the first time, addressed phantom energy use. In general, Energy Star television sets use 30 percent less energy than other models.
  • When Energy Star computers go into sleep mode, they use 4 watts of electricity or less. An Energy Star labeled computer uses 70 percent less energy than an unlabeled computer.
  • Conventional battery chargers draw 5 to 20 times as much energy as is stored in the battery. New energy-saving designs use 35 percent less energy.
  • Energy Star cordless phones, answering machines, and combo units use about 1/3 as much energy as nonlabeled appliances. These products use less energy through features such as switch-mode power supplies and smart chargers.
  • External power adapters are used by all small electronic devices. There are about 1.5 billion of them in the United States (about 5 for every person!). They are used for MP3 players, PDAs, cell and cordless phones, digital cameras, laptops, and camcorders. The power that flows through them is about 11 percent of the national electric bill. Energy Star models of these adapters are, on average, 30 percent more efficient than conventional models and are also smaller and lighter. 
  • Energy Star DVD players use as little as one quarter of the energy used by standard models.
  • A new Energy Star specification for computer monitors/displays and digital picture frames becomes effective October 30, 2009. On average, Energy Star products will be 20 percent more efficient than standard options.


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