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RISMEDIA, March 31, 2009-(MCT)-The Obama administration has put a greener, more energy-conscious America on its priority list and spelled out a game plan rampant with technology-as-savior.

Clean-coal technology. Alternative energy sources. Plug-in hybrid cars that get up to 150 miles a gallon. These are all part of the bigger picture for a greener America.

But what about the little technology secrets Americans like to keep under the rug? The fact that the American home is teched-up like never before, with shiny tech toys that suck electricity in huge amounts, when one considers the impact in aggregate, as a nation.

Today’s average American home has three televisions, two DVD players or recorders, 1.16 digital cameras, one desktop computer and two cell phones, among other consumer electronics products (the average American household has 24 such tech devices), according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

The fallout: Consumer electronics is one of the fastest-growing categories of electricity use in the home – up from 5% in 1980 to nearly 15% of a home’s total electricity consumption today. By 2015, it’s estimated to be closer to 20% for many homes.

All by itself, the TV (swollen to a size of 40 inches or larger for the “main” TV in the house) represented a stunning 8% of residential electricity consumption in the U.S. in 2007, nearly doubling in just three years.

And, America’s video game console habit consumes as much electricity on an annual basis as the entire city of San Diego.

“I think for a long time most of us thought about the major energy consumers in our home as being our appliances and our heating and cooling and hot water heating. We never thought a lot about our tech products,” says Kathy Kaplan, EPA team leader, Energy Star product development. But Americans didn’t have three TVs per household. “We didn’t watch them as many hours, didn’t use them for gaming, didn’t use them to show our photographs, didn’t have TiVo, didn’t have sophisticated content options that make watching so desirable,” Kaplan goes on. “And we certainly didn’t have all these miscellaneous products that we plug in.”

The good news is that a little awareness goes a long way. There are simple adjustments that consumers can make in the use of their technology equipment and toys to make them more efficient.

Consider reducing the brightness of a TV set, which can cut its energy use by as much as 25%. Getting rid of the screen saver on a computer can save $50 to $100 in electricity costs over a year.

And when it comes to new tech purchases, it’s good to be aware that there are now greener options. Programs and organizations such as Energy Star and the Natural Resources Defense Council have done considerable work to encourage manufacturers to deliver more energy-conscious products.


In general, the amount of power a TV uses increases with screen size. A 52-inch, high-definition TV can use as much energy annually as a new refrigerator, and that’s likely to be two times more energy than a consumer’s old, smaller TV. “The typical 42-inch plasma TV uses approximately 100 more watts than a similar sized LCD,” according to Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. That amounts to at least $200 more in electricity, over the life of the product.

To do: Turn down the brightness of your existing TV and cut your energy use as much as 25%, depending on the TV. Most TVs (traditionally) ship at an overly bright level, meant for display in retail stores. The “standard” or “home” mode is recommended. When shopping for a new set, look for TVs bearing the ENERGY STAR mark. They are up to 30% more energy efficient than other models. Look for a TV with automatic brightness control, a sensor that automatically adjusts the picture level according to the light levels in the room.

Set top boxes
(Cable box, satellite box, boxes with DVR function, TiVo)

Set top boxes are big-time power suckers. Unlike the TV (which goes into a standby or low-power mode when it’s turned “off”), these boxes run at near full power 24/7. Some of the fuller-featured ones (those with TiVo-like capability) can consume more than 250 kWh a year. That’s roughly equal to half the annual energy use of a new refrigerator.

To do: Ask your service provider for one of the new ENERGY STAR-qualified set top boxes, which became available Jan. 1, or at least ask your provider to investigate getting them. Although it’s a first-step by ENERGY STAR with more stringent guidelines to come in the next few years, set top boxes that meet this first spec are at least 30% more energy efficient than other models – and largely because portions of the device power-down when the box is not in use.

Power strip/surge protector

Power strips or surge protectors are one of the most useful tools for eco-conscious consumers with lots of techno toys. They make it easy to completely “power off” electronics that go into a standby or low-power mode when you think you’re turning them “off.” U.S. households spend about $100 a year on such vampire power. Consumer electronics account for about $40 of those $100. As a nation, those numbers get even more dramatic: It’s estimated standby power accounts for more than 100 billion kWh of annual U.S. electricity consumption and $11 billion in annual energy costs.

External power supplies
(Little black boxes to charge everything from cell phones and BlackBerry’s to computer printers and digital cameras)

They may be small but they’re not insignificant. The average American has five or more of these external power supplies and they are often left plugged in 24/7. These boxes typically were very inefficient, as they converted a lot of incoming power into waste heat.

To do: Unplug power supplies when they’re not charging something.

Video game consoles

More than 40% of all U.S. homes have at least one video game console, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Assuming half of these are left on all the time, our video game habit as a nation consumes an estimated 16 billion kWh a year in electricity. That’s about equal to the annual electricity use of the city of San Diego.

To do: Save your game and power-down the system when you’re done, and enable the auto-shutdown, power-saving mode if you’ve got it.


The annual electricity usage of a computer that’s left on and not power managed, can account for up to one-tenth of a car’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Do’s and Don’ts: Don’t disable the power management feature. Most of today’s computers ship with it “enabled.” It tells the monitor/computer when to go sleep (after a preset period of inactivity) and when to go into a deeper, power-saving mode, called standby.

Do plug your computer into a power strip/surge protector and power that off completely at the end of the day, after first powering down the computer. If you’re worried about getting updates from Microsoft, download them yourself.

Do wait till July to buy a new computer. That’s when some of the industry’s most energy-efficient computers hit the market, thanks to a new specification from ENERGY STAR. Desktops and notebooks that meet the new spec will use 30% less energy on average than most other computers on the market.

Do get rid of your screen saver. The screen saver serves no useful purpose and does not extend the life of your monitor. Getting rid of it could save you $50 to $100 on your electric bill over a year.

Do consider a laptop. A new laptop could use up to four times less power than your old computer and LCD monitor.

© 2009, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.