National Energy Use of Pay-TV Set-Top Boxes is Heading Down

Since 2012, U.S. consumers have saved more than $1 billion on their utility bills, thanks to energy efficiency improvements made in the new cable, satellite, and telephone set-top boxes placed in their homes by service providers like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and Direct TV.

Bringing down the national energy use of the roughly 225 million installed set-top boxes in America is critically important because as of 2012 they consumed more than 10 large power plants’ worth of electricity each year, creating more than 16 million tons of climate change pollution. The companies that make the ubiquitous black set-top boxes that are needed to receive and decode the incoming pay TV signals and the service providers that buy the boxes—the cable, satellite, and telephone companies—have been working together to lower set-top box energy use. A new report  by D&R international describes their collective efforts and the substantial progress being made.  

Why do set top boxes consume so much energy and why that’s decreasing?

More than 85 percent of U.S. homes subscribe to some form of pay TV and most homes have more than one set-top box. Although the service providers purchase and own the boxes they place in homes and businesses, it is consumers who pay the electric bill for the boxes’ energy consumption. As such, service providers have historically not paid much attention to the energy use of their set-top boxes. But a Voluntary Agreement (VA) signed in 2012 by the service providers, box makers, and leading energy efficiency advocates, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has started to change that, bringing set-top box energy use down in a meaningful way. 

The chart below shows how the annual energy use for each type of set-top box—digital video recorder (DVR), non-DVR (a conventional box), thin client, or digital TV adapter (DTA)—has come down since 2012 when the Voluntary Agreement was signed. Most notable is the fact that the biggest energy-consuming set-top box in the home, the digital video recorder (DVR), has come down by 100 kilowatt-hours per year, or 36 per cent and the thin client, the box that is commonly placed on the second and third TV in the home, now uses 45 percent less energy. 

More changes are coming

Due to the prevalence of home wireless networks and the magic of the “cloud,” set-top box household energy use is due to decrease even more in the next year or so. Today, consumers can receive full DVR functionality (ability to record and play back a show at any time) on the second and third TVs in the home through the use of a low-power consuming thin client, which draws less than half the energy of a basic box, instead of through a power-hungry DVR on each of these secondary TVs.

Many service providers, including Comcast, are working to deliver their content through an application (“app”) and replace the set-top boxes in the home entirely. (Note: each home will still need to have a gateway box which includes a broadband modem and router to receive and move the content to the TVs or tablets in the home.) When fully implemented, users will be able to watch live TV, on demand movies, and have a virtual DVR that allows them to record and store shows in the cloud for future viewingall through a single app. In addition to having lower electric bills, consumers will no longer have to pay that nagging $10 a month rental fee for the DVR. NRDC is working with the industry to make this a reality.

What about “over the top” services for accessing live TV?

Dish Network offers an “over the top” Sling streaming service for live TV. Other companies are due to offer similar services too. In this case, the consumer gets live TV directly from the Internet and does not need to install equipment from the cable or satellite company. The content can be received directly on a smart (Internet-connected) television through an installed app or through a low-power streaming device such as Apple TV or Roku connected to the TV. These devices use much less energy (Apple TV or Roku draws only 2 to 4 watts and have low standby power) compared to a conventional set-top box.

Avoid using your video console for watching movies

While recent game consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation also allow consumers to stream movies and shows like House of Cards from Netflix and Amazon Prime via  apps, consumers should avoid doing so as these devices are energy hogs when it comes to playing video. Consider the Apple TV’s 2 watts of energy consumption compared with the latest XBox One that consumes around 75 watts to play the same movie. Consumers should instead install and use apps directly on their smart TV or access the content via a low-powered device such as Apple TV, Google Chromecast or Roku.

What else can consumers do right now?

Almost all service providers now offer a whole home DVR which negates the need to have a high-power consuming DVR on each TV. If you currently have more than one TV and DVR in your home, ask your service provider for a whole home DVR for your main TV and a thin client for the other TVs. Return the old DVRs, which draw a lot more power and you can save $20 -$50 per year on your electric bill, depending on your local electricity rates and number of DVRs. Also, when shopping for cable and satellite service, request a set-top box that meets the latest version of ENERGY STAR® (Version 4.1 and Version 5 in 2017), which will ensure you are receiving one of the more efficient models available on the market. You can also look up the energy use of each service provider’s set-top boxes online. At our latest check, Direct TV offered the most energy efficient models.

We are thrilled with all the innovation that is occurring in this space and look forward to the results from the next annual report under the Voluntary Agreement. And one last request for the service providers: please don’t forget to work on improving the energy efficiency of the other equipment you install in our homes as they  consume near full-power levels 24/7. These include the satellite dish on the roof and the optical network terminal (ONT) that is installed by the phone company when you sign up for service. 

About the Authors

Noah Horowitz

Senior Scientist and Director, Center for Energy Efficiency, Energy & Transportation program

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