Home phantoms stalking the grid

Home phantoms stalking the grid

In the days when television station choices could be counted on the fingers of one hand, a device that would operate your TV set from a distance seemed almost decadent. After all, just how tough was it to leave your easy chair once every hour, walk to the set, and switch channels to catch the latest episode of Daniel Boone, or The Tonight Show, or Your Show of Shows, among other early broadcast favorites? These days though, with 500 or more channels available, a remote control is more of a necessity, unless you're training for the Iron Man Triathlon.

In that light, paying a minor bump in your electric bill to keep the TV always remote-ready seems entirely reasonable. Problem is, consumers grew accustomed — very accustomed — to the convenience of those little black, gray, or white boxes providing point-and-click control. Stop and think for a minute. Just how many electrical devices do you own that are not equipped with remote controls?

Every one of those devices must remain in a power-on condition of readiness in order to provide its advertised ease-of-use. No power on when you wave that Cyclops-eyed box means no control from afar. And every one of those devices in power-on readiness makes your meter wheel spin just a little bit faster. But that's only one part of the story.

Add the proliferation of computers, appliances and other electronics offering "standby" mode operation and your monthly power usage multiplies. Finally, throw into the equation the numerous battery charges for cordless devices we've come to accept as necessary conveniences. Tally all those minor increases in your monthly electrical usage and you'll see some pretty startling numbers.

How startling? Try six to 26 percent of all power consumption according to a 2000 study of selected northern California homes conducted by grad school students at University of California, Berkeley. According to Pacific Power liaison, Kari Greer, the Energy Trust of Oregon estimates our own phantom power consumption averages a more modest five percent or so, but it's growing.

It's easy then to see why researchers and consumer advocates have come to describe this unseen but pernicious power drain in ways that bring to mind a Boris Karloff horror film. "Phantom," "ghost," and "vampire" appear frequently on the Web sites of the various conservation and eco-conscious organizations seeking to raise public awareness of annual power bill increases estimated to be as high as $4 billion dollars nationally. It's more than just your pocketbook they seek to protect. You shrink your carbon footprint whenever you reduce your energy consumption.

What to do then? How to battle those evil energy vampires? Forget holy water, garlic, or stakes through the heart — yesterday's technology all. What you need is knowledge, and this is it: "Standby" and "Off" are not synonymous. To kill the phantom, you must kill its power at the source. That means only unplugging will do for many of today's devices. Cell phone chargers, DVD players, power tool battery packs, the list goes on. If they're connected to an outlet, they're raising your power bill. Charge those batteries, and then unplug the transformers. To mitigate the inconvenience, cluster your devices in surge protectors with on/off switches.

Televisions, satellite and cable boxes, computers and peripherals, all command significant electrical flows, even when they're in standby mode. Unplugging them is the only way to stop the drain.

In some instances though, the booting process may tax your patience beyond its instant-gratification conditioning. Satellite receivers, for example, may take three minutes or more to come back online after unplugging. Others, like answering machines and alarm clocks, won't work at all without steady electrical current. With these, your only option is to pay the price and enjoy the benefits.

So it seems some energy phantoms are more vulnerable than others. You can't kill them completely, short of total off-grid living, but you can limit their marauding and gain some control over your power usage and utility bills simply by remembering this: If you're not using it... unplug it.

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