Teresa McUsic

How “phantom power” devices are inflating your electric bill

Consumers lose billions each year in “phantom power” to electronic devices that continue to draw power even when they’re not being used.
Consumers lose billions each year in “phantom power” to electronic devices that continue to draw power even when they’re not being used. AP

If you think you’ve done everything to make your house more energy efficient — from adding insulation in your attic to upgrading your air conditioner — think again.

“Phantom” power is eating our collective lunch.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recently found that a whopping 23 percent of the electric power used in 70,000 households was from “phantom” power — appliances and equipment like Xboxes and cell phone chargers that are still drawing power even when not being used.

Think about that for a moment. Nearly one-quarter of the power used by a household is not for air conditioning or refrigeration or even television, but for stuff that has no purpose. That translates to about $19 billion worth of electricity, equal to the output of 50 large power plants.

As we enter the summer months and higher electric bills, that phantom power becomes even more of a costly nuisance.

The NRDC study, done in conjunction with Stanford, found that one of the reasons our homes have so much phantom power being used is we have so much more stuff.

An onsite analysis of ten houses in the study found on average 65 devices in an off or “standby” mode but still drawing power (such as furnaces and garage door openers), or in a “sleep mode” ready to power up quickly (like game consoles), or left fully on but inactive (like computers.)

Another reason is a lot of our appliances and equipment has gone digital, said Pierre Delforge, the report’s author and NRDC’s director of high-tech sector energy efficiency.

“Appliances like washers, dryers, and fridges now have displays, electronic controls, and increasingly even Internet connectivity, for example,” he said. “In many cases, they are using far more electricity than necessary.”

Other findings in the study also shed light on this issue:

▪  The traditional large electricity users (heating and cooling, lighting, and refrigeration) accounted for just 15 percent of always-on consumption.

Consumer electronics (televisions, computers, printers, game consoles, etc.) accounted for 51 percent, and other miscellaneous electrical load (MEL) items — such as recirculation pumps, fishponds, aquariums, and protected outlets in bathrooms, kitchens, and garages — comprised the remaining 34 percent.

▪  Idle load varied widely, depending on device models. For instance, the idle load of printers ranged from 2 to 26 watts per home, and cordless phones from 1 to 12 watts.

So now that we know we have this problem, what can we do about it?

The answer is plenty. The NRDC has an action guide with directions and a form to show consumers their idle electricity consumption at http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/home-idle-load-action-guide.pdf.

Among its suggestions:

▪  Unplug items that are rarely used.

▪  Use a smart power strip that automatically turns off devices plugged into it when not in use.

▪  Use a digital timer that puts the device on only when you normally use it.

▪  Adjust power settings. For example, a television quick start can use 37 watts when on all the time. But that setting can be disabled, as can similar settings on computers and game consoles.

Also remember most North Texas homes have a smart meter now, which can help in finding your phantom power. The tool, at www.SmartMeterTexas.com, tracks your electricity usage by 15-minute intervals, provides graphs and charts of usage over two years and allows you to analyze how many kilowatts you are using.

So take some time now to figure out where your phantom power is and you’ll save some money in the process.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

Annual cost of “phantom power”

1. Water recirculation pump, $93

2. Desktop computer, $49

3, TV, $38

4, Cable set-top box, $30

5. Audio receiver/stereo, $22

6. Printer, $11

7. Furnace, $8

8. Coffee maker, $6

9. Dryer, $4

10. GFCI outlets, $1 each

Source: National Resource Defense Counsel