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Combating Sneaky Electricity Consumers

Posted by Mary James on June 05, 2007

You bought the new computer for yourself, the game module for your kids, those great new lamps that really brighten up the living room; then, one day you noticed your utility bill had really jumped.  Using less heat and shivering through November didn’t cut it. Welcome to the brave new world of energy use in your home.  Traditionally, heating and cooling, along with water heating, have consumed most of the energy we use in our homes. But the energy used to power our appliances, lighting, electronics, and other miscellaneous equipment now accounts for more than half of the electricity we use in homes nationwide, with major appliances eating up about a quarter of that energy use; lighting 18%; and miscellaneous equipment 14%. And that miscellaneous category—all those DVD players, cell phone chargers, and set-top boxes—is the fastest growing source of energy use in U.S. homes, projected to more than double in the next 20 years. This situation is particularly true in new homes, which tend to be larger and have more amenities such as built-in lighting, home theaters, and lots of sockets to plug in those electronic tools and toys.

Taking a look at a model home in a new subdivision in California gives a better idea of just where all those miscellaneous electricity charges stem from. The model home includes two large-screen televisions, a structured wiring panel that continuously draws 20 Watts to power three video security cameras and an internet router, several smoke alarms, many bathroom fans for the many bathrooms, and two hard-wired garage-door openers. Many of these devices use electricity whether they are on or off, as they sit in ready or standby mode waiting for you to come home. Then, there are all of the plug-in devices that many homeowners add to a house once they move in: computers, lights, and music systems, among them.

Other than return to the 1950s, what can you do to make sure that you are not wasting electricity and contributing unnecessarily to global warming? According to Alan Meier, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, you can whittle down these miscellaneous electricity uses in three ways. You can unplug any device that you don’t use very often—the sewing machine that could be used to repair your torn jeans, but hasn’t been, for example. Second, you can try plugging appliances that you either use with each other, such as televisions and DVD players, or that are simply close to each other into power strips. Power strips can be quite convenient for turning off a whole bunch of plug-ins at once, ensuring that these devices aren’t staying on when you really want them off. When you’re finished with your video viewing, you can turn the TV and DVD player all the way off with one click. Likewise with your cell phone and iPod chargers; they don’t need to be plugged in and turned on when you’re all charged up already. Finally, when you go to buy an appliance, be sure to buy one that has low standby power use. If an appliance has received an Energy Star rating, then that is a good indication that the energy used to power the device when it is in standby mode will be low. However, check with the salesperson to be sure. If he or she has never heard of standby power, consider shopping at some other store.

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