Q: My niece told me that appliances drain energy from sockets even when they’re not in use, but I have a lot of trouble believing it. How could that be?  - Betsy, NJ


A: Believe it, Betsy. Appliances—cell phone chargers, desktop computers, computer monitors, televisions, cable boxes, coffee makers, clocks, and more—drain energy anytime they’re plugged into a socket, regardless of whether they’returned on or off. And we’re not talking about a piddling amount of energy, either: According to the NRDC, reducing active mode power consumption in TVs by 25% would save over 10 billion kWh of energy per year in the United States. Annually, this would cut energy bills by nearly $1 billion, and prevent about 7 million tons of CO2 emissions. A computer screensaver alone costs about $60 a year of electricity to maintain. Saver schmaver!

To banish these terrible, power-sucking vampires from your home, look for the Energy Star sticker anytime you buy a new appliance, and unplug, unplug, unplug. Does your cell phone charger really need to sit in the socket all day, when you’re out and about carrying your phone in your pocket? Probably not. Get in the habit of unplugging all sleeping or not-in-use appliances. Or, plug your appliances into power strips (like Smart Strip) with kill switches designed to block energy flow.

Surprisingly, televisions and cable boxes are actually the most ferocious vampires, according to NRDC spokesperson Jenny Powers. And TiVo, that little menace, is one of the thirstiest vampires of all. And unfortunately, unplugging and power stripping won’t work perfectly for tricky devices like the cable box, TiVo, or DVR. After all, how do you record your favorite shows if you unplug the box every time you leave your house? Richard Brown, Research Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, says that the reason DVR-type devices use so much power in standby mode—only slightly fewer than the 20-30 watts they use when they’re fully active—is that they’re built to receive constant, 24-hour satellite signals so no one can hack into your system and get cable without paying for it. Televisions also have some circuitry that keeps energy flowing even when the set is turned off so that itcan receive a signal from a remote control. It’s only slightly more expensive to design devices that are energy-efficient in standby mode, says Brown, but “consumers are not demanding it, so designers are not even thinking about it.” Let your cable company know that you're eagerly awaiting the day a greener option arrives, and in the meantime, unplug whenever you possibly can.

Story by Diana Dilworth. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Vampire power
Appliances drain energy anytime they're plugged into a socket.