A version of this story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.
Imagine your home at its most peaceful. The television and stereo are off. You and your computing devices are in blissful slumber. The dishes are clean and dry, and the laundry is done for the week. Everything is still, except for one thing: the electricity meter. It’s spinning like mad. You are the victim of energy vampires—devices and appliances that continuously suck up electricity, even when switched off.
A 2015 NRDC study shows that “idle load electricity”—computers in sleep mode, digital video recorders, even certain kinds of electrical outlets—account for 23 percent of power consumption in the average household and represent roughly about a quarter of your electricity bill, paid for no good reason.
That’s a big number on its own, but the trend is even more troubling. Although we’ve known about the problem for years, idle load consumption continues to increase. Previous studies have estimated that it represents 10, or at most 20, percent of home-energy use. The recent increase raises questions about who’s to blame and who is responsible for fixing this vampire problem.
The proliferating bells and whistles on modern appliances have caused some of the surge in idle load consumption. A smart fridge, for example, can stream music from Pandora and scrolls news from the Associated Press. You can even see your Twitter feed. (For those of us who already waste electricity standing in front of the open fridge, now Twitter can distract us while we do it. Not good.)
Some devices could be better designed to help people save energy. Many heated towel racks, for example, lack a simple on/off switch. Unless consumers buy a separate switch, they have to plug the device into the wall before each use and unplug it after. It’s not a lot of work, but many people either forget or don’t bother.
Digital video recorders, one of the main culprits in idle load consumption, consume hundreds of kilowatt-hours per year—and nearly two-thirds of that is used when no one is watching. We already have the technology to solve this problem: Let consumers stream any content they want on demand. Streaming devices are far more efficient than forcing millions of homes to record their own copies of The Price Is Right. AppleTV, for example, consumes less energy than a typical DVR. Content providers are to blame here. The complicated economics and intellectual property laws associated with television limit the type and number of shows that can be streamed, resulting in an enormous waste of energy.
It’s nearly impossible for the average consumer to estimate his or her idle load consumption, even though the tools are available. Smart meters, which measure electricity consumption in small intervals, can tell people how much energy they’re using when everything appears to be turned off. Utilities ought to install them in every home and office.
The government could, at virtually no cost to taxpayers and consumers, require appliance manufacturers to list the idle load consumption of devices on the label. It could also ask utilities to offer solutions to consumers whose energy-consumption patterns suggest an idle load problem. Building codes could be revised to minimize the electricity consumption of furnaces, water heaters, garage doors, and even doorbells. We are doing almost nothing about this idle load energy consumption, although solutions are all around us.
It’s particularly bemusing, because the problem is big. Idle load electricity in the United States continually consumes the output of 50 major power plants—more power plants than exist in some states. We’ll never eliminate these electricity draws entirely, but reducing them would be a very good idea. Cutting idle consumption in half would be the equivalent of turning off the carbon emissions of a medium-sized country, say Yemen or Lebanon.
It’s hard to place much idle load blame on consumers, when it would be so much easier and more efficient to require industry to make better devices. But there are several things you can do right now to fight energy vampires in your home:
- Get a power strip: Speakers, TVs, and other entertainment gadgets consume electricity when you’re not using them. Plug them into a power strip, and you can flip them all on or off in a split second.
- Use timers: Plugging devices into timers will save you from having to remember to turn things on and off. This works particularly well with items you only use at specific times, like coffee makers or heated towel racks. Devices like computers have built-in timers that can power down the machine automatically. Use them aggressively.
- Turn off the “quick start” option: It’s nice that your TV or video-game console can spring into action in a few seconds, but the energy grid pays dearly for that service. Turn those features off in the settings if you can.
- Buy a power meter: Knowledge is power—or, in this case, saves power. These cheap and simple gadgets can tell you how much energy a device is using when sitting idle, which gives you the option of changing your behavior.
- Contact your utility provider: The company can help you determine your energy-consumption patterns, which will identify devices that are spinning your meter unnecessarily.
There’s one other thing you can do: Talk to your friends and family about this problem. Many conservation topics are a drag, because there’s little the average person can do on their own to save the whales or stop deforestation in the Amazon. Idle load electricity consumption isn’t like that. All you have to do is throw a few switches. Suddenly, you’re part of the solution. Feels good, right?