Losing Power in Standby Mode

I've been hearing for years that the appliances in our homes use small amounts of electricity while they're not turned on. At first I didn't think that usage could be significant enough to do anything about. Now I am trying to be more conscious, not only of my money but also of the energy we use at home. Could you tell me if appliances do drain electricity when turned off, and what can be done about it?

Your question is more pertinent to the average American than most of us know, what with ubiquitous computers, cable boxes, answering machines, microwaves, and the like in our homes. The amount of electricity these appliances waste is not insignificant.

According to the California Energy Commission, home appliances that function in a standby mode, such as answering machines, cell and cordless phones, and electric razors, continue to draw energy after they're turned off. Of those appliances that deplete electricity without our knowledge, video products—cable boxes, satellite dishes, VCRs, etc.—are the biggest culprits, accounting for 35 percent of energy lost. Home audio equipment accounts for 25 percent and 10 percent is burned by communications devices. Amazingly, since most people only use their small audio systems for an hour a day, 93 percent of the units' total energy usage happens while they are ostensibly shut off, but continue to draw about 9 watts per hour.

In 1998, a Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory study showed that the average American household continually leaks about 50 watts of electricity. Eliminating that trickle, would save $1 billion annually in wasted electricity.

The only fail-safe strategy to avoid leaking energy is to unplug your appliances or turn off the switch on the power strip. Energy-saving circuits that have a hard-off switch can save 90 percent of the potentially lost electricity. Look for the EnergyStar label on products such as office equipment, light bulbs, dishwashers, and air conditioning units. This EPA-backed program's mission is to set a high standard on energy-saving appliances; TVs with the EnergyStar sticker can cut standby electricity losses by 75 percent.

By the way, the EPA has extended the label to cover new homes, commercial and industrial buildings to cut down on energy waste across the board. See www.energystar.gov.
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