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Vampire Power
Jeremy Faludi, 2 May 06


No, it's not the latest summer B-movie. It's not a Red Bull knockoff for goths. It's the electricity your appliances keep sucking down even when they're turned "off". (Also called standby power.) Sometimes it's surprisingly large: a DVD player might use 75% as much power when off as when on, and the average desktop computer sucks down 35 watts when in standby. For the latest numbers on all kinds of appliances, check out the Australian government's report on standby power. Anything with a transformer, such as chargers for mobile devices or computer power supplies, keep using power whenever they are plugged in. Sometimes it's just a watt or two, but sometimes it's much higher. As GrinningPlanet points out, this still only amounts to 10% of most people's energy bills, but that still adds up, particularly in an office. Vampire power is an issue that's been known for quite a while, but industry is accelerating on things you can do to stop it.

How do you know if your innocent-looking printer is secretly a vampire? We've mentioned the Kill-A-Watt power meter before, and hardcore geeks can get things like the Watts Up meter, which has the ability to log consumption data over time and send it to your computer, so you can chart daily / yearly variations to see if your consumption patterns would match different power generation methods. (For instance, photovoltaics in your home generate most of their power during the day, when you're probably off at work and thus not using much power at home.) Building contractors can put in professional-grade meters for monitoring whole circuits in buildings. But for testing vampire power at home or in the office, a Kill-A-Watt will do you just fine. And if you can't afford that, build your own.

Once you know you have a vampire, what can you do about it? One thing you can do is replace it. For manufacturers reading this, a company called Power Integrations makes chips which you can use in your power supplies to reduce standby power drain by 75-90%. For consumers reading this, getting an EnergyStar certified device usually helps, sometimes a great deal. You can search by category (computer, audio equipment, etc.) at LBL's website, and you'll find there's a lot out there. But many manufacturers don't go that extra mile for you, and you may not be willing to part with what you've got (either for functional, sentimental, or non-landfilling reasons). What can you do if replacement isn't an option?

If you have one device that does standby well, you can use it to trigger a power strip that shuts off other devices. Smart Strip by Bits Limited monitors one outlet, and when the device plugged into that outlet starts to use much less power because it's gone into power-saving mode, the Smart Strip shuts off the other outlets (though it also has a couple always-on outlets if you need them). Then when the triggering device ramps back up to high power use, the other outlets get switched back on. I have one, and it'd be perfect for desktop computer users with the normal complement of monitor, printer, external drive, or other peripherals. I was hoping it'd be useful for my stereo too, but there isn't enough difference between idle and on, which is all the more evidence that I need to intervene there.

If you don't have anything that stands by well, you can use occupancy sensors to shut things off when you're not in the room. The Wattstopper eliminates the need for rewiring your house or hacking your plugs--it is a power strip that comes with an occupancy sensor to turn all but two of its outlets on and off.

Of course, you can always just unplug things, or have them plugged into a power strip which you manually turn off. This is the cheapest method, but requires the most diligence. Still easier than a wooden stake through the heart, though. Happy vampire killing!

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Well the reason for alot of this is cheap suff from china. If you combine a VERY innefficient power supply with a very low tech old fab tech chunk of electronics and alot of very low quality parts you get a snowball effect on the power reqs of a component.

A good example is while moder cpu use 90 and even 65 nm lith fabbing tech many consummer items have chips in them that while still rather small use 500 and even 1000 nm lith tech.

Very poor design. A very well designed circuit can use very litle energy compared to a poorly made one and cheap goods often time use basic unoptimized computer generated chip layouts. This can increase energy usage 1000%.

Oh and my favorite... some realy crass buggers use super cheap components that dont handle on off cycles all that well then put an off button that just turns the led light on and off;/ By avoiding on off cycles you can shave pennies off the cost of the bits used in the system and that can be alot when your talking 10 million units with a profit of only .5 cents per unit.

Posted by: wintermane on 2 May 06

Is there a data source that better reflects current devices? The chart and underlying data was last updated in 1999.

Perhaps WorldChanging or another interested party could set-up a website where people with a Kill-a-watt or homebrew equivalent could record their electrical appliances? Linking, of course, to other sites that track how it is made and what you can do with it when done.

Posted by: ray on 2 May 06

Does the kill-a-watt generate parseable output? Need to look into this...

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 2 May 06

Partial solution to this:

Put your "vampires" on power strips and shut them off when you're not using the devices in question.

The tricky part is that there are some devices that need power all the time. I don't want to have to reset the clock and channel settings on my VCR every day, for example.

As a result, I have multiple power strips plugged into some sockets.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 2 May 06

"Vampire Power", hehe. That kind of title will definitely make anyone stop and read this article.

I've often wondered about this, if some items still use up power even though they're turned off. Now I'm going to have to keep an eye out for appliances at home and unplug them when they're not being used.

Posted by: Lynn on 2 May 06

In New Zealand, every outlet has a small switch next to it. People use the switches.

It should be possible to store times, dates, channels, etc., with a very small battery and no plug power. Why not? Most computers do this.

Posted by: David Foley on 2 May 06

It's cheapness and laziness, David. My clock radios have battery backups. In them, it's a feature. In a VCR, it's a few points of added costs. It should be possible to sell it as a feature, but no one has tried.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 2 May 06

I thought the term was phantom load and it amounted to about 5% of electrical usage. I have been going the power strip route for years.

Posted by: gmoke on 2 May 06

Well one problem is some devices will break after 1-200 on off cycles.

Anouther is that most battery backed up timers are very inaccurate.

And a final one is that for many things we are talking about a fantom load of less then a watt. Your power strip will eat that much energy and then some.

Posted by: wintermane on 2 May 06

Hey, all. You'll be happy to hear that I talked to Alan Meier at Lawrence Berkekely Labs, and he pointed me to the most recent studies of standby power: they're from the Australian govt in 2005:

I've updated the article to include the link. ...Unfortunately the Aussie study doesn't have as nice a chart for the whole picture in one stop, but it has reams of numbers.

The good news is that it looks like most appliances have improved. Now computers & peripherals are the biggest culprits.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 2 May 06

wintermane - most appliances have phantom loads far higher than a watt. My satellite boxes consume 12 watts when on, 10 when "off". Times 5, that's 50 watts per day, 438,000 watts per year of consumption even if they are supposedly off. I found many other culprits in my house a few months ago and they are now on switches one way or another. Luckily most rooms in my house have switched outlets around the room so most things go on that switch.

Most outlet strips do not have a phantom load since they are just a switch and outlets. Some that have (useless) surge protection have capacitors and other components that do use some watts all the time, but not the majority like you infer.

Posted by: Doug Gaede on 3 May 06

Settop boxes dont turn off because they are always running so your personal recorder can always change channels and so the network can always update the box.

The bad news is its gona get worse as settop boxes deal with high def the cpus in em are going to be more poeer hungry.

Posted by: wintermane on 3 May 06

California already requires that all appliances sold in state have to meet their stand-by requirements. The Economist also wrote an article on this recently:


Posted by: andrew on 5 May 06



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