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We’re Going on a Vampire Hunt: Standing Up to Standby Power on Earth Day

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Yesterday we talked about 10 ways to celebrate Earth Day with your family, save money, and cut your carbon emissions. Here’s a deeper dive into two of them: how to find and get rid of phantom loads or energy vampires, in ways that engage the kids.

You can pitch your Earth Day adventure to the kids as an updated version of the classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (easy-listening video version here). Fun for the whole family. But without the mud, the river, or the long swishy-swashy grass.

Actually, we're going on a vampire hunt (Copyright: Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury)

Actually, we’re going on a vampire hunt; bears will have to wait. (Copyright: Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury)

We’re Going on a Vampire Hunt

Bears, kids understand. But phantoms and vampires? That might require a brief orientation in the kitchen before you start out.

Here’s how we talk about them in our book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living:

…many devices around your home use a small amount of power in so-called standby mode even when they are not turned on. Standby power, sometimes called “phantom load” or “vampire power,” is used by anything plugged in that can be turned on with a remote, that displays the time, or that has a little red light that glows when it’s off — as well as by many devices that give no external sign at all that they are consuming electricity.

The helpful folks at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) identify anything with an external power supply, a battery charger, or a soft-touch key-pad as additional possible suspects.

I know, I know: already in your mind’s eye you’re seeing oodles of opportunities where before there was just… stuff. Weird, isn’t it? Just think how excited the kids are going to be.

This post is part of a series on Earth Day 2014.

We’re Going to Catch a Big One (or Not?)

Of course, a key part of Cooler Smarter is focusing on the important things, not sweating the small stuff. Phantom loads, we say, “don’t compare with the large amounts of electricity used for lighting or running the refrigerator. So you might imagine that they are in the ‘not to worry’ category.”

But wait; there’s more!

But this is a case where the sheer scale of the problem means we can achieve fairly big savings, especially if everyone takes action. Plus, there is something particularly galling about items using electricity when we think they are turned off.

When the subject of vampire loads came up in a conversation with another parent at school (doesn’t it always?), he put it just right, and with just the right amount of indignation: “Off should be off.

But it clearly isn’t. According to LBL, a typical American home has something like 40 different devices drawing power all the time. All told, those add up to close to 10% of residential electricity use. Bear-sized opportunities, one might say.

What a Beautiful Day; We’re Not Scared

You and the kids are going to want to be properly armed when you do your Earth Day hunting. You’ll want the power of power strips on your side. As LBL says, “A surprisingly large number of electrical products… cannot be switched off completely without being unplugged.” Power strips where appropriate make that “unplugging” much easier. (And this handy infographic from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory can help your family envision the many possibilities.)

And as another tool — something even more kid-friendly than a sharpened stake — try a Kill-a-Watt meter or something similar, gadgets that let you plug in a device and measure how much it’s drawing, on or off. They might even be available for borrowing from your local library.

The graph below hints at what you and your pint-sized posse might find, and LBL has more in tables and charts.

What some vampires look like. Source: LBL, in Cooler Smarter.

What some vampires look like. Source: LBL, in Cooler Smarter.

Of course, translating those opportunities into dollar signs can drive your troop forward faster than a fistful of gorp (or an upset bear). If you want a quick way to think about the savings — or if your junior helpers are agitating for their share of the profits — you can estimate $1 of savings for every 1 watt that you nix, for items that spend most of their lives just pretending to be “off”.

And that math can be motivating. The downtime draw of our vintage TV, and the higher rates in our neck of the woods, meant that putting it and related electronics on a power strip saved us close to $20 per year. A more modern one with a DVR could be twice that. And unplugging a laser printer in the home office could save you more than $100 every year. Many (many) weeks’ worth of allowance in my household.

Into the Bedroom, Under the Covers

Getting all the way down — vanquishing all vampires — would be tough. But, says LBL, “an aggressive campaign, armed with knowledge about which products draw standby, can cut total standby by as much as a third.”

And appliances are getting smarter in some cases; looking for Energy Star should help.

So happy hunting, on Earth Day and beyond. Bond with the kids, add a new dimension to a lovable children’s tale, and cut carbon and energy expenses. A good day’s work.

[Note: Energy vampires, like bears, should be treated with appropriate caution. Make sure the littler ones in your family leave the plugging and unplugging to the bigger ones. And LBL warns about some vampires that might best be left alone, like rechargeables that you need to be there when you need 'em.]

Feature image: Flickr; PNNL

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming Tags: , , ,

About the author: John Rogers is a senior energy analyst with expertise in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and policies. He co-manages the Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3) at UCS that looks at water demands of energy production in the context of climate change. He holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan and a bachelor's degree from Princeton University. See John's full bio.

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