These home appliances are using power even when turned off

Coffee makers. TV sets. Washing machines. Virtually every electrical appliance and electronic device you plug into your home consumes some amount of electricity—and adds to your utility bill—even when it’s not in use or even turned on.

The problem is known as standby power, and it’s getting worse as people buy more home appliances, more equipment becomes electric, and more devices become “smart” or connected to the Internet. It’s no longer uncommon for a household to have dozens of appliances connected to the grid at any given time – from a microwave oven with a digital clock to a smart light bulb synced with an app on their phone – and the overall power consumption of all these devices is low. -energy regime is non-trivial.

However, quantifying standby power can be challenging. “There is no generally accepted estimate of the share of household electricity consumed in standby mode,” says Alan Meyer, senior researcher in the Division of Building Technology and Urban Systems at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “This is because there is no agreed definition and no comprehensive set of field measurements.”

Meier’s “best guess” is that standby accounts for “between 5 and 10% of the average American home’s electricity consumption,” though he warns that “this figure will only increase over time.”

According to other estimates, the percentage may already be even higher. Ram Narayanamurthy, manager of the Emerging Technologies Program at the US Department of Energy, estimates the basic energy consumption of his own home at about 20% of annual electricity consumption. His definition of base energy matches what others in the field attribute to standby power, such as Wi-Fi routers, cable modems, and voice assistants that “stay connected just so you don’t have delays, when you want to use them.”

“This baseline energy consumption is something that a lot of people don’t know about,” Narayanamurthy says, “and we’re trying to better understand it and better focus on how we can solve this problem.”

One reason is to help consumers save money at a time when many are set to make even small changes to their electricity bills. The other is to help fight climate change. The building sector accounted for about 37% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, according to the Global State of Buildings Report released last month at the COP27 climate talks in Egypt. Part of the effort to decarbonize buildings includes finding ways to reduce energy consumption, Narayanamurthy said.

Individually, most devices don’t use much standby power: in the American home today, the average standby level for any device is probably 3W or less, and many devices use around 1W or less. This is according to a review of the published literature and measurements directly taken by scientists this year at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Low energy and home appliances include everything from air purifiers to mobile phone chargers, fans and TVs.

Meanwhile, many of the appliances or tools with the highest average standby power levels today are mission-critical infrastructure that you wouldn’t want to shut down for functionality or safety reasons, from security systems to water heaters.

For some devices with a hard mechanical switch, such as fans, kettles or laptops, the standby power may be reduced to zero. However, for many older devices, the maximum standby power can sometimes be five or 10 times higher than average.

Depending on the type of product, there may also be a large standby range. Take video games. Various Xbox devices, with the exception of the original model and the 360 ​​model, consume from 8.6 watts in standby mode. In contrast, many Nintendo and Playstation systems have lower standby levels of less than 1W to 5.7W.

To complicate matters further, there is no easy way to determine the standby power of a device by looking at it. “That’s one of the frustrating parts – you may think it’s zero, but it can still consume power,” Meyer says. He adds that in newer appliances, digital displays or indicators can indicate that standby power is not zero, “but in general it’s impossible to tell without measuring.”

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Manufacturers have already had to deal with this problem. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a cable box or set-top box used an average of 11 watts at all times, with some models consuming up to about 25 watts. VCRs used an average of 6 watts, some models used up to 13 watts, and some DVD players used an average of 4.2 watts, with a maximum of 12 watts. These high standby levels are largely due to the product chargers being inefficient and wasting power.

“People have always told me that their cats loved sleeping on their set-top boxes because they were so warm,” says Jennifer Amann, senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. “Anything that is hot is a sign that it is losing power.”

These devices usually had two prongs or prongs and were so good at absorbing energy while their wearers were asleep that they were sometimes referred to as energy vampires or vamp devices. “A good metaphor is a vampire constantly consuming electricity,” Meyer says.

Since then, Meyer notes, “extraordinary progress has been made,” which began with governments implementing both mandatory and voluntary programs to encourage producers to reduce reserve levels. In the US, for example, the government’s voluntary Energy Star program has begun considering standby power when evaluating and testing some consumer products, which Amann says has helped reduce standby stress on electronics and office equipment. Meanwhile, South Korea and countries in the European Union have started to require lower reserve levels for certain products.

All of these initiatives “really changed the nature of these loads so that they weren’t all that bad in isolation,” says Wyatt Merrill, a technology manager working on new technologies at the US Department of Energy.

Then the nature of the problem changed. That’s “mostly due to the fact that we have a lot more connections now than we did twenty years ago,” Merrill says. “The new challenge is how you coordinate all these different workloads and think about them collectively.”

If you’re interested in knowing how long your own house is on standby, “the first thing I would do is not so much look at your appliances as try to look at your electricity usage and your smart meter and find out what’s going on at 3am , “says Meyer. This will probably give you an idea of ​​the lowest level of continuous power consumption during the day, part of which will be in standby mode.

If you don’t have a smart meter, portable wattmeters available online, at hardware stores, and sometimes at your local library can measure standby levels. First you plug your meter into an outlet and then you plug your device into the meter; the screen on the meter shows the energy consumption.

An easy way to keep your device powered off while in standby mode is to unplug it completely. But experts don’t recommend this for devices that are used regularly or where disconnecting from the network could pose a security risk. Meyer suggests starting with seasonal appliances like lawn mowers, window air conditioners, and snow blowers.

Other possible candidates for unplugging are: small kitchen appliances, especially when you’re on vacation; spare TVs or cable boxes in underused guest rooms; and any lingering VCRs or other gadgets that are now more of a novelty than a utility.

Small changes like this can help. But unplugging your home is not a long-term backup power solution. “These things should be completely autonomous and perform actions without any intervention so that the user can work in the long run. [energy] savings,” Merrill says. “I don’t think the solution will come in terms of behaviour.”

To contact the author of this story:
Zahra Hirji in Washington

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