For years, "vampire power" (standby electrical power) was a big issue — with all those little wall warts, cellphone chargers and computer monitors sucking energy. Then it all went away. New regulations came into place that limited standby power to one watt, and then as of 2013, it was reduced to 0.5 watts. We all thought we had driven a stake through the heart of that vampire.
However a different species of vampire has risen, and it’s not the little wall wart but the bigger stuff built into our appliances. It's not regulated in the same way and it can be much larger. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a study in 2015 that looked at how many "always on" and "idle load" devices the average house had going at once — the digital displays, electronic consoles and Internet routers of the average household — and found that there were an average of 65 different devices sucking little bits of electricity. They don’t take much, but they do it all day, and that segment totals 23 percent of our electricity consumption, costing between $165 and $440 per year per household, or $19 billion nationwide.
That's a lot of juice. (Photo: NRDC)
It’s in the oddest places too. The ground fault circuit interrupter safety outlet in your bathroom is sucking energy and costing you a buck a year. The electronic display that now appears on every appliance.
The worst offender is the cable TV set-top box (16-57 watts). In 2011, the NRDC reported that these boxes consumed more power than EnergyStar-rated refrigerators, which roughly ended up costing $3 billion a year in electricity costs. Soon after, companies made energy-efficient set-top boxes. Today instead of having a box for every TV in a home, households can now have one main box with smaller side units for other TVs.
"The best thing people can do is, if they’ve got multiple DVRs, trade them in for the new upgraded system," Noah Horowitz, NRDC senior scientist, told The New York Times. "You’ll cut the energy use from the equipment by about a half."
Set-top boxes aren't the only piece of technology you should worry about. In my house, the printer is sucking 2.5 and the Apple airport time capsule, 10 watts. Add my router and my smart bulb controller and it adds up fast, costing me about $39 per year.
Vampires hiding in my closet (Photo: Lloyd Alter)
Then there is our much-vaunted smart home and an entire set of new idle loads. My beloved Bluetooth Philips Hue light bulbs are extremely efficient, but they draw 1.5 watts in standby. They are consuming more energy in total while off than while on. Much of the energy savings I've gained by going LED are being eaten up by the connectivity. Multiply this by the dozens of new smart devices coming into our houses and it starts seeming pretty stupid. As the NRDC study notes, we have to start thinking about this and designing for it.
An increasing number of devices can now be connected to a home network, such as smart thermostats, appliances, plugs, and even light bulbs. This allows for smarter home energy management and has the potential to save energy, such as switching off devices automatically when no one is home. However, energy savings can be offset by high idle load if devices are poorly designed. Technology exists for connected devices to use very low power when in standby mode and connected, but they must be designed that way.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in May 2015.