If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s practicing vigilance when it comes to making sure that I unplug any non-essential appliances and electronics when I’m not using them. As for the things that I don’t unplug on the regular, I ensure that they’re connected to a vampire energy-combating power strip or similar (prefably non-terrifying) devices. What can I say? I like to save moola.

However, in addition to the fridge, there are a couple of electronic devices in my home that I dare not tamper — highly essential items that I never turn off and leave plugged in 24/7: My modem and AirPort Extreme base station.

Having previously delved into the energy-guzzling nature of newfangled HD-DVR cable boxes (crazy enough, they suck more juice than Energy Star rated fridges), the Natural Resources Defense Council has now set its sights on modems and routers, devices, that like cable boxes, are ubiquitous and rarely unplugged. Collectively, Americans consume $1 billion worth of electricity per year on keeping home networking devices fired up but could potentially save a whopping $330 million in costs if they switch over to energy-efficient models.

In a just-released, first-of-its-kind report titled “Cutting Energy and Costs to Connect to the Internet: Improving the Efficiency of Home Network Equipment the NRDC’s crackerjack team of scientists in partnership with consulting firm Ecova examine exactly how much being constantly connected at home is costing us. For starters, standard modems, wireless routers, and similar devices consume just as much energy as a 32-inch flat-screen TV — that’s 30 times more than a phone charger. And there are approximately 145 million of them in use nationwide.

This all adds up to 8.3 billion kWH khours of electricity consumed each year, the equivalent of the output of three large, coal-burning power plants (500 MW). The result, according to the NRDC, “is an estimated 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, equivalent to the pollution spewing from the tailpipes of 1.1 million vehicles.”

Explains NRDC senior scientist Noah Horowitz in a press release:

These small, innocuous black boxes that never sleep consume enough electricity each year to power all 1.2 million homes in the Silicon Valley area, the hi-tech capital of the world. Small network devices suck roughly the same amount of energy around the clock, whether or not you are sending or receiving any data. But there are steps that manufacturers can – and should – take to make sure these devices are no longer energy vampires.

The thing is, hardly any manufacturers are currently stepping up to the plate to address the inherently energy-draining nature of home networking devices. Energy efficient options do exist — and they’re 25 percent more energy efficient, resulting in the aforementioned $330 million in saved energy costs —but are somewhat of a rarity. “The manufacturers know how to build the better mousetrap, and it’s time for that innovation to be a standard feature in the new modems and routers we buy at the store or receive from our Internet providers,” says Horowitz.

The mostly good news is that Energy Star is on the case:

The government’s ENERGY STAR® program is expected to soon issue a specification that will result in a label to help customers buy efficient models and choose Internet providers offering energy-saving network equipment in their subscription packages. However, qualifying models will not be required to meet the industry’s advanced benchmarks to scale power down when data is not being transmitted. In addition, the state of California is considering setting minimum energy efficiency standards to make sure every model sold there is an efficient one.

All rather sobering stuff but good to hear progress is being made.

More from Horowitz over at the NRDC Switchboard Blog.

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

In new study, NRDC examines the high cost of home connectivity
The NRDC turns its attention to-perpetually plugged-in devices that consume just as much electricity as a flat-screen TV: Modems and routers.