Probably more than you might think, especially when you begin to break it down room-by-room. Of course, there are things like the refrigerator, microwave, television, and home computer that are plugged in; not to mention the cable box, alarm clocks, iPod charging cables, etc. And don’t forget all the other electrical gadgets drawing power in the basement, the bathroom, the laundry room and garage. Even when we power down for the night, we hear the constant hum of the fridge, and the sound of the HVAC kicking in. As we set our smartphones on the bedside table and glance one last time at the glowing display of the alarm clock to be sure we won’t oversleep, most of us are blissfully unaware of the amount of ambient electricity our homes need to maintain our living spaces. It isn’t until a power outage strikes that we realize just how quiet and dark it isn’t, most of the time. The common energy saving tricks are well known - “Turn the thermostat down a few degrees”, “Remember to turn the lights off”.
Even today, most of us assume that we are doing our part to save electricity. But even as we try to reduce our carbon footprint and save money on our electricity bills by switching to Energy Star appliances and compact fluorescent light bulbs, we’re being warned about phantom power and the hidden current drawn by all of those appliances we thought we turned off. Just how much power do our gadgets consume when we aren’t using them? And how much can you really expect to save by unplugging them?
Also known as phantom load, standby power, or idle power, phantom power is the energy used by appliances and electronics when they are turned off, but still plugged into a power outlet. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the average American home contains 40 products constantly drawing power. Individually, a single appliance won’t draw very much load; however, collectively these inactive devices may account for up to 10% of your household’s monthly energy bill! Despite improvements being made in terms of the energy efficiency of household products, this figure has risen over the past 20 years. What accounts for the rise in phantom power, despite an overall improvement in technology?
Generally speaking, the biggest energy offenders include any device with a remote control (such as TV, cable box, gaming device, or garage door opener); an external power supply – that rectangular block on the cord to your iMac charger – or a continuous display (an alarm clock, microwave, oven, etc). Of particular concern are laptops and cable boxes, especially cable boxes with an incorporated DVR, drawing 9 and 44 watts, respectively. Older appliances without digital displays, and devices with analog controls rather than a digital display are less likely to draw phantom power, simply because they aren’t required to perform any function during standby. Rather than waiting for a remote signal, powering a display, or maintaining an active memory state, they’re either on or they’re off! Of course, you can’t always predict phantom energy consumption of an appliance just by looking. Some devices that appear cold and dark might actually be drawing a current, and despite waiting for a remote signal, many newer TVs and electronics draw less than 1 watt in standby, due to a recent effort by manufacturers to adhere to Energy Star standards.
Let’s consider the example of your home computer that draws 21 watts, all day, every day, for an entire year. Every 1 watt translates into just a bit less than 9 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year (1 watt x 24 hours per day x 365 days per year = 8,760 watt-hours a year = 8.76 kWh/year).
21 watts x 8.76 kWh/watt/year = 183.96 kWh/year
Assuming the average electricity cost of 12 cents per kWh, the cost to power the computer comes to about $22.07 per year, or approximately $2 per month. While this number might not seem impactful on its own, when you consider that another 20-30 appliances may also be drawing phantom power in your home, the cost starts to add up quickly!
According to the Energy Star webpage, the average American household spends more than $100 each year to power devices that are turned off. Nationally, this accounts for $12 billion in energy costs and over 100 billion kWh wasted.
There are several strategies to reduce idle current draw around the house. The most effective method is to add an intermediary in the form of a power strip with a switch to cut off power to a block of devices. Some power strips even allow you to designate a “master” device – such as a computer – and automatically turn off power to peripheral devices such as printer, scanner, or speakers when not in use.
Of course, there are some devices that you can’t unplug every day. While a refrigerator might be the most obvious culprit, consider for a moment if you had to reset the digital display on your alarm clock every evening when you plug it back in. In cases like this, compare Energy Star rating for standby power before you buy.
The bottom line? Unplugging your appliances may not be your ticket to getting rich quick, but it’s an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint, as well as save a few dollars on your monthly energy bill. Consider if, as a country, we could reduce the $12 billion we spend on idle power by 5-10%. It all starts with you!