New and Notable

September 04, 2011
September/October 2011
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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DVRs: Home Energy Vampires

Digital video recorders (DVRs), cable, and other pay TV boxes cost American consumers $3 billion a year -- $1 billion to operate them when they are in active use, and another $2 billion to operate them when they are inactive but still running at near full power. These are the findings of a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Also known as set-top boxes, it takes the equivalent of nine coal-burning power plants (500 megawatts per year) to operate these devices nationally. Why? Because they are not equipped to power down when they are not being used.


NRDC Set-Top Boxes, Other AppliancesFigure 1. Energy use of set-top boxes and other appliances.

Untitled-1Figure 2. The amount of energy consumed even when set-top boxes aren' t being used by the consumer.

"Set-top boxes are the ultimate home energy vampires, silently sucking significant amounts of energy and money when nobody's using them," says Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the NRDC. The NRDC study, "Reducing the National Energy Consumption of Set-Top Boxes," also found that today's average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more electricity annually than the new flat-panel TV to which it's typically connected, and about 40% more than its basic set-top box counterpart. In contrast, cell phones, which also work on a subscriber basis with a need for secure connections, can consume extremely little power when not in use -- primarily to preserve battery life.


There are approximately 160 million set-top boxes installed in U. S. homes, or the equivalent of one box for every two Americans. These boxes consume as much electricity each year as is consumed by the entire state of Maryland, and they are responsible for the emission of 16 million metric tons of CO2 per year.

National set-top box electricity use is growing as more consumers shift from basic boxes to DVRs, which provide them with a convenient way to record and play back shows. One DVR and one basic set-top box in a household typically use about as much electricity per year as a new refrigerator. These devices still run at near full power when the consumer is neither watching nor recording a show. Hitting the on-off switch merely dims the clock or display. It does not significantly reduce the amount of power used.

Dramatic energy savings could be readily achieved by having set-top boxes automatically go into a low power mode when they are not in use. This function is beginning to appear in boxes used in Europe. To achieve this in the United States, pay TV service providers such as Comcast, Time Warner, Direct TV, Dish, and the phone companies -- who control set-top box installation, configuration, software updates, repair, refurbishment, retirement, and resale service -- could work with manufacturers to develop and deploy more energy-efficient devices.

Most set-top boxes are given to consumers as part of their contract with a service provider, rather than sold independently at retail stores. So, when you are deciding on a cable or satellite service, be sure to ask the service provider for an Energy Star qualified set-top box. If you currently have cable or satellite service, check with your service provider to find out what, if any, upgrade options are available. Energy Star Partners who provide cable and satellite services may be able to provide newly qualified boxes as part of your service.

"We've improved the efficiency of all sorts of electronics -- from TVs to video game consoles," says Horowitz. "It's just as possible to improve the efficiency of our DVRs and other pay TV boxes. But they're not going to build a better mousetrap unless we, the consumers, demand it."

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To learn more about the NRDC, visit

Pellet Heating in Germany


Martin Bentele, managing director of the Deutsche Pelletinstitut.

"Germany's first pellet "filling station" was set up last year at Langenbach in the Westerwald. There, customers can bring their own containers, operate the metered "pump," and pay with their credit cards. Pellets are cheaper this way because there are no delivery costs, and stove owners, for example, are able to take only the small quantities they need.


This is symbolic of the strides Germany and Europe are taking to promote pellet heating, along with other renewable-energy measures. German households switching to pellets can get at least 2,000 euros (U. S. $2,850), and probably more, in the form of grants and tax breaks.

Germany also has a trade fair, Interpellets, with an accompanying forum, which is devoted exclusively to the use of the new fuel. In addition, Germany has a trade organization, the Deutsche Pelletinstitut (DEPI), sponsored by makers of pellets and heaters. It certifies pellets as meeting national standards and seeks, through PR measures, to make the public aware of the new movement to promote pellet heating.

In addition to the usual environmental arguments -- sustainability and CO2 neutrality -- the DEPI points out that homeowners can save money by switching to pellets. A one- or two-family house that uses 30,000 kWh of heat per year would need 3,000 liters of oil, at a cost (when the DEPI conducted its survey) of 2,220 euros (U. S. $3,175). The same heat could be provided by 6.5 tons of pellets, at a cost of 1,460 euros (U. S. $2,085).

At savings like that, it wouldn't take long for conversion to pellets to pay for itself. And the cost of oil continues to rise, while the cost of pellets remains stable. It is true that it costs more to install a pellet heater than it costs to install a comparable oil or gas unit. But the DEPI reports that the maintenance costs are lower for a pellet heater; and the pellets can be fed into the tank with no more manual labor than it takes to refuel an oil or gas unit.

For these reasons, Germany is the world's biggest market for pellets and pellet heaters. The use of pellets as a fuel was first authorized in Germany in 1996, and pellets first went on the market in 1998. In 2000, the country had 3,000 pellet heaters; by 2010, the number had risen to an estimated 100,000.

Although the wood pellet was developed in the United States, many environmentalists feel that this country is far behind in its policies to promote the use of biomass as a source of fuel. It hasn't developed the consumer awareness, sophisticated appliances, or incentive programs necessary to create significant consumer demand for pellet home heating. Pellets in the United States are used mainly for the generation of electricity.

-- Ted Shoemaker
Ted Shoemaker is a writer and editor based in Frankfurt, Germany.

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For more information on the DEPI, visit

Healthy Homes Leader Awards

HUD announced winners of the Healthy Homes Leader awards during the 2011 National Healthy Homes Conference, which was held in Denver, Colorado, June 20-23. HUD's Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control and its federal partners recognized the extraordinary contributions that these individuals and organizations made to the healthy-homes movement in 2011. Hosted by Renovation Nation star Steve Thomas, this was the inaugural year for these honors.

Winners of the awards were

  • Healthy Homes Pioneer Award: Rebecca Morley, executive director, National Center for Healthy Housing;
  • Healthy Homes Innovation Award: James Krieger, MD, MPH, chief, Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Section, Public Health, Seattle and King County, Washington;
  • Healthy Homes Hero Award: Tamara Rubin, executive director, Lead Safe America Foundation;
  • Healthy Homes Partnership Awards: Rebuilding Together, National Headquarters, Washington, D.C., and the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, National Headquarters, Baltimore, Maryland; and
  • The Best Exhibit Award: National Association for State Community Services Programs.

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For more information on the awards, visit HUD's web site at

Century Club Winners Announced


Energy-Star-Century Club

The Home Performance with Energy Star Century Club Award, given each year by EPA and DOE, recognizes companies that improved the energy efficiency of more than 100 homes in a year, through the Home Performance with Energy Star program.


Announced recently, this year's winners were widespread geographically, and the number of homes that they improved soared high above the 100-home benchmark. Coming in as the top producer was Hutchinson Plumbing-Heating-Cooling, along with its sponsor, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, which completed 713 upgrades in 2010.

The other top four winners were

  • Second place: Reeis AZ, Incorporated (sponsor: FSL Home Improvements), 554 jobs completed;
  • Third place: Nemow Insulation Company (sponsor: Missouri, Implemented by Columbia Water & Light), 502 jobs completed;
  • Fourth place: Comfort Home Improvement, Syracuse (sponsor: NYSERDA), 498 jobs completed; and
  • Fifth place: Strand Brothers (sponsor: Austin Energy), 484 jobs completed.


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For more information about the Home Performance with Energy Star program, visit

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