SHIFT: How I became a power-vampire slayer

DVICE writers take a closer look at the latest tech trends in our weekly column, Shift.

A few years ago, I had a problem roommate. She was pathologically messy and would sometimes lock herself in her room for days at a time, resurfacing only to microwave plates of turkey bacon, which she would then leave lying around her bedroom. She had another annoying habit: She would unplug the living room's TV whenever she had the chance, something my other roommate and I found endlessly frustrating. She claimed that electronics use electricity even when they're plugged in. I didn't believe her, and figured that even if it were true, it was probably only a small amount — seriously, only crazy people go around unplugging appliances all the time, right?

Wrong. By now, most of us know about "vampire electronics," power-sucking televisions, game consoles, microwaves, radios and phone chargers that waste electricity even when they're turned off. But do we really believe? And how many of us choose to do something about it, risking arched eyebrows from our loved ones as we run around the house turning off surge protectors? Four months ago, I decided to give this "unplug your gadgets" thing a try. Read about the results after the Continue jump.


Just the Facts

The U.S. Department of Energy's website makes the case clearly, writing "In the average home, 75% of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed while the products are turned off." This isn't news. Good magazine has a useful chart showing just how much vampire energy home electronics take when they're turned off or on standby, using data from 2005.

I read some of the facts about vampire electronics two years after my roommate and I had parted ways, but the fact that she had been right didn't cause me to change my habits. I went right on keeping my surge protectors on and toaster plugged in all of the time. Living in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, my electric bill has always been pretty low in months where I don't use the air conditioner — it just wasn't something I thought about.


PS3: Power Glutton

That changed recently with the arrival of a new family member: A PlayStation 3. PS3s are notorious energy hogs: One study has shown that if you leave your PS3 on and idling year round, it will use five times as much electricity as a medium-sized refrigerator. I had no intention of leaving my new PS3 on all — or even most — of the time, but I didn't want to take any chances that it was on and idling while I was at work.

I started turning off the surge protector that powers my TV, DVD player and PS3 every time I was done using them. I can't do it with a remote, unfortunately, but I haven't been able to figure out how to turn the PS3 off with a remote either, so it didn't seem like that big a deal. While I was at it, I unplugged the air conditioners (it's winter, after all) and started shutting off the surge protector that has my phone charger on it when I'm not charging my phone.


The Math

The next step was convincing my husband to follow suit. It took just over two months — that's when our lower electric bill started looking like a pattern instead of an aberration. In January and February of 2008 my apartment used just over 5.5 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per day. This year, my average use in January and February was 4 kWh/day. That's a 27% decrease in electricity use, and it's been true consistently since I started turning off surge protectors.

In New York, I pay around 17 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity and electricity delivery from Con Edison, so we're not talking a huge savings here, at just under $10 a month. But I'm just talking about four power outlets: two for air conditioning and two surge protectors. Most American homes use far more power outlets than I do in my little apartment, and far more electronics that could be unplugged when they're not in use. I don't have a washing machine, Xbox 360 or even a desktop computer. Most people outside of New York City pay less per kWh than I do, so while I can't guarantee that running around the house unplugging things will save you thousands of dollars a year, it could well save you $100.


Enough with the Clocks, Already!

So many gadgets these days have clocks on them. In my house, my microwave and radio have clocks, but it's not unusual today to see clocks on toasters and DVD players as well. Unplugging gadgets means losing these clocks, and having do deal with flashing zeroes when you do use your microwave. I hope that over time electronics companies will kill the clocks, or to make them battery powered so they run separately. In the meantime, wall clocks and watches tell time just as well as a microwave.


Going Green

More and more, companies are coming up with solutions that make turning off your surge protectors easier. Gadgets like the PowerCost Monitor do just that, monitoring your home's power usage in real time so you can adjust your electricity bill before the end of the month. And Belkin's Conserve surge protector has a wall switch so you can turn it off remotely. That switch only turns off six of the gadget's eight outlets, the other two are for things like your DVR or cable modem that you really need to keep on all of the time. This Power-Saving SurgeArrest will automatically turn off secondary computer gadgets (like printers, scanners and speakers) when the computer turns off or goes to sleep.

Green gadgets are great, and over time appliance manufacturers may be able to make goods that use no standby power. But until they do, the best way to make sure that something's not costing you money when you're not using it is to unplug it.

There are plenty of articles out there about how to save money on your utilities. Insulate your house better. Switch to CFLs. Wear sweaters in winter and pull down your blinds in summer. These are all important — especially the bit about insulating your house. But let's focus on something small here. Unplug your gadgets when you're not using them. I did. It does seem crazy and inconvenient at first, but after a couple of months you'll feel virtuous. Not convinced? You'll also feel wealthier.