Q. Do all power strips cut power at the source, so that you're not draining phantom power when appliances are off, or do I have to buy one of those special ones advertised as energy-saving? – Marie, MN 

A. Happily, you don’t have to invest in the latest electronic wizardry to banish “phantom power” (the electricity that plugged-in electronics continue to draw from sockets, even when they’re turned off) from your home. Regular power strips are usually lots cheaper and can also be really useful in reducing phantom power, as long as they have an on/off switch. The only hitch, of course, is that you have to remember to turn it off, otherwise your toaster, television, printer, and what-have-you will be drawing (read: wasting) as much energy as they would if they were plugged directly into the wall, says Amanda Korane, a research assistant for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “For example, I have my printer, fax, and shredder all plugged into one strip that’s within easy reach—when I need one, I just flip the strip on—easy.” 

Crawling beneath your television stand to flip a switch whenever you’re finished watching Dancing With the Stars would obviously not be so easy. Nor would remembering to switch it back on so you can Tivo it on nights when you’re out on the town (that would kind of defeat the purpose of having the Tivo, in fact.)

Here’s where one of those gadgets you’ve seen advertised could come in handy. Strips like the Smart Strip and the Watt Stopper can sense when appliances are actually on and in use, and will cut the power to all or some of the sockets when they’re not. Pretty nifty, but also pretty expensive; the Watt Stopper will run you $90, and the Smart Strip is yours for a modest $40. So unless you have an atrocious memory and money to burn, you might be better off outfitting most of your home with ordinary strips, which cost around seven or eight bucks, and just being diligent about flipping them off whenever possible. It’s like they say: Every time you hear a power strip being clicked off, a power phantom loses his fangs. 

Story by Tobin Hack. This artcile originally appeared in "Plenty' in November 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008