Energy Vampires: Ways to Reduce Energy Consumption Around the House

June 17, 2011

Energy Phantoms or Vampires account for approximately 5% of the electrical energy used in every household, spread that across every home in the US and it adds ups up to 65 billion kilowatt-hours of wasted electricity each year.

As quoted from the Investigations of Leaky Electricity in the USA  paper ….. the average US house leaks constantly about 50 Watts. This is approximately five percent of the residential electricity use in the US. Leaking electricity falls into three major categories: video, audio and communication. Video equipment such as TVs, VCRs, cable boxes and satellite earth stations account for the largest share of residential leaking electricity, approximately 35%. Audio equipment accounts for 25% of standby consumption, and communication devices (answering machines, cordless phones and fax machines) are responsible for an additional 10%.

Energy vampires  can be defined as electrical devices that consume an amount of energy by doing nothing but waiting to be activated or used. This standby mode can be most recognizable in TV’s, video and audio equipment. But it really goes way beyond that.

Some of the common energy wasters in most homes are the adapters (aka: wall warts) that come with rechargeable battery-powered cordless phones, cell phones, digital cameras. You will also find them with many music players, power tools, and other electronic devices.

Conceptually, if you can just unplug all of  them when not in use, this would solve much of the problem. Easier said than done. Being the techno geek that I am, there will always be a another way.

Techno Solutions:

  1. Individual Timers: You can use traditional electrical timers or this new style like this Belkin unit. It is designed specifically for applications that only need to be on for a certain amount of time where the specific time of the day is not important. At $10 bucks, it might be a good solution for your clothes iron, electric tooth-brush or MP3 player.
  2. Group Timers: Combined with a surge protector, these devices will not only protect the equipment connected, but also shut them down to cut off the phantom load. Price wise, they are still in the same range as a regular surge protector/power strip. Additionally, many of them include a couple of priority plugs that stay energized all the time.
  3. X10 Technology:  If you read my article on X10 Technology, you may  have already figured this out. Combined with your X10 units and the software package, you can set timed events for all of these devices. Or combine one with a power strip. If its possible; try to cluster all of these type devices into groups. Plug all of them into a  power strip, then plug the power strip into the X10 timer. Schedule the timer to run only a certain amount of hours per day. Probably 3-5 hours max.  For devices like televisions, DVR’s and audio equipment; try to do the same thing. If you dont use X10 timers, any traditional timer will work as well.   (TIP: If you have a cable box, U-Verse or satellite receiver, it would be best, not to cycle this device on and off. It is very normal for the service providers to perform late night downloads to update your software, turning them off at night may be problematic and cause you to have some service interruptions or cause you to miss some updates.)
  4. Energy Star Equipment: As part of the design specification, most energy star devices do a good job in reducing the phantom loads. However, because devices like televisions, microwaves and DVR’s usually have clocks in them, they will still use a little bit of energy. If you choose to shut these devices down, just understand that the device might require you to re-set the clock every time. The only way to find out, is to try it.

Managing Other Electric Devices: Here are a few tips for keeping the energy usage in check on the non-techy type equipment:

  1. Refrigerators: This device can use as much as 20% of your total consumed AC energy.   Most new refrigerators with electronic thermostats come preprogrammed to run 0F and 40F (freezer/refrigerator). If you have an older style, use a thermometer to make the adjustment. Set the freezer between 0-3F. TIP: Energy Star rated  refrigerators will make a significant impact on your energy usage.
  2. Clothes Dryers: Use the cold or warm cycle s as much as you can. Avoid the hot cycle.
  3. Dishwasher: Always run it full. Dry them cool instead of hot. Drying cool does not impact the dishwashers ability to sanitize the dishes. However, you may have to wipe them off before you store them. Doing this will reduce the dishwasher energy used by 20%.
  4.  Water Heater Thermostats: The default setting for water heaters is 140F, 120 will work in most cases. If you live in the southern part of the US, it is easy to drop the temperature during the summer. You will never notice the difference.
  5. Set Back Thermostat: Even though this does not technically fit into this article, it is a pivotal element in energy reduction. Worth an article on its own!!
  6. Energy Star Rating: Look here first when replacing appliances. These subtle changes will make positive affect on your overall energy usage

The Gas Gauge (Geek Overload): Believe it or not; studies show that if we are able to monitor the amount of usage of a product (while in use) it will cause us to use less. There are multiple devices on the market today; such as TED, Power Cost Monitor, and Energy Monitor that will provide instant feed back on energy usage. You will be able to see all the energy vampires at any time of the day. Some of them have software with data loging history, peak demand and the list goes on. Its pretty cool (geeky) to walk around the house and start yanking plugs and watching the meter drop. (NOTE: The devices mentioned may require  installation, in some cases they only work with certain brand of meters. Read the webpages carefully before purchasing).

Google Power Meter: In their “save the world mentality” Goggle has teamed with some utilitiy and equipment providers to allow you to view your usage on line. Neat idea and its free, but has limited availability.

TOP Household Electricity Vampires (Courtesy of Lawrence Berkley Laboratory)

Appliance Saturation Watts Watts / House
TV 180% 6 10.8
Cable boxes 50% 20 10.0
VCR 80% 10 8.0
Compact audio 67% 10 6.7
Answering machines 60% 5 3.0
Alarms 19% 15 2.9
Video games 55% 5 2.8
Portable stereos 65% 3 2.0
Rechargeable vacuum 20% 5 1.0
Cordless phones 49% 2 1.0
Fax 4% 15 0.6
Satellite 5% 11 0.6
Toothbrush 13% 3 0.4
Smoke detectors 84% 0.4 0.3
TOTAL 50.0

So what is this in dollars and cents. For example; if you use 1000kW per month at .12 per kW, that works out to be about $6 bucks a month. (1000X.12)*.05=6. Unless you are prepared to take some drastic measures, you may be lucky to cut 50 to 60% of that number. So look for $3-5 per 1000kW used as a target.

Okay, this article might be a little anal, to gain back $6 bucks a month as a payback period is not worth recognizing. However; look at it like a leaky faucet. Its not a bad idea, and long term its will save you a couple of bucks and if everyone did it we would have less dependency on the grid.

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Product Review Eton FR150 Radio/Flashlight

January 30, 2010

radiolightcharger

On average, electrical consumers experience 120 minutes of power outage per year.

 If you read my post on Power Outages you already know about dealing with short power outages. I mentioned the Eton FR150 Microlink combination Radio/Flashlight cell phone charger device. I decided to invest the $30 to have something dedicated to emergencies only. If you follow the policies of the American Red Cross, you need more than a radio as they recommend assembling a kit of supplies to be stored for such emergencies. The FR150 was my first step. I purchased mine from REI, but have seen them at Electronics stores as well as various on-line sources for about the same money. 

I liked what I read about the unit and figured it should meet most of my needs. The FR150 will  provide you a AM/FM/Weather-Band radio, LED flashlight, a generic plug-in for a cell phone adapter and solar charging cell on the top of the unit.  In concept, I like the fact that it uses a long life  NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride)  battery that can be charged in 3 different ways; 1) A USB plug, 2) solar cell, or 3) hand crank. The NiMH batteries are used to hold the charge.

Fit, Finish & Look: The product comes in several colors (Redcross red, black, yellow and green). The FR150 has a fresh look and a bit techy. In green and yellow it is translucent allowing you to see some of the electronics beneath the cover.

Size: The product was a bit smaller than I expected and later found this to be a disadvantage.  I took this picture by a soda can so you can get perspective. The good news is that it can be easily stored. I keep mine in a drawer next to my PC, where I leave it plugged in to the USB port for constant charging. Even though the PC is not on all the time, it should keep it100_0417 well charged. The dial and labels are easy to read with light but nearly impossible to see in the dark. I found the knobs (tuning and volume) slightly small and it may be difficult to tune in a weak station as the frequency dial to knob-turn-ratio is a bit quick causing you to pass through the frequencies even while turning the knob slow. 

Battery Characteristics:NiMH batteries are rechargeable and are typically known for their quick recharge time, ability to hold a charge and expected life cycle.  It should last for at least 3 years assuming you keep the unit in-doors in conditioned space (air-conditioned). If you keep it in a garage, attic or the glove box of your car, expect the battery to go bad twice as fast. If you live in colder climates, they could last longer. TIP: Most battery technologies baseline performance expectations using  77F.  In other-words, if a battery product claims a life expectancy of 1 year from date of purchase, its all based on the battery remaining  (on average) at 77F.

Performance: The manual recommend the unit to be initially charged for 8 hours. 

  • Radio & Flashlight: I ran the radio with the volume at level 5, after 8 hours the reception became scratchy, I turned the radio off and the flashlight on and found it continuously usable for 11 more hours for a total of 19 hours of continued use without any additional charging.  Since the flashlight uses LED bulbs, it consumes very little electricity. During  a recent outage I got to use it in a real life situation. Even thought it wasnt totally dark, I found it difficult to distinguish the volume from the turner. So without thinking I could change the station in lieu of adjusting the volume.
  • Flashlight Only: With the LED bulbs, the flashlight will produce usable light for over 20 hours before needing a charge. But remember, you can easily wind the charger and regain the light strength. I could easily see using the light for some limited room illumination by reflecting off the ceiling, however, with the charge connectors and a less than flat surface on the back, it doesn’t really want to sit flat with the light aimed at the ceiling.  It was still usable in that position, but a little movement or bumping it could cause it to fall over.
  • Cell Phone Charger: I did not test this feature

After an event, plug it in or set it in the sun to regain the full charge.

Accessories: Not really, but I didn’t know what else to call them.

  • The FR150 includes a wrist strap that allows you to carry the unit much like a hand held camera.
  • USB outlet. You will need to supply the cord. USB on one end with digital camera plug on the other. I had an extra one, so I just keep the cord/FR150 plugged in all the time.  
  • The unit includes a patch cord that provides a generic power plug for a cell phone charging adaptor. Eton provides you a mail-in card to order, at no charge, for you to order one connector. This is a pain in the butt. I got lucky as I uncovered a cheap little AA battery cell charger I picked up at a trade show that had every adapter known to man as part of the package. If you are like the rest of us, within your household you probably have multiple different charger needs. If I were you, I would hold out until you run across a similar opportunity or find something at a dollar store for adapters otherwise additional adaptors may cost you about $10 each.

Overall Impression:I found the product to deliver as promised as a good product for use in emergencies and non-powered applications, such as camping or hiking. I liked the styling and choice of colors. The radio performance is about like the little pocket radios we used as kids, so beyond an emergency, I will stick with an Ipod for music. However, the flashlight performance was great. This is primarily due to the LED bulbs and its ability to be recharged without a plug. Just for that fact alone, having one in your car as well might not be a bad idea either.  The biggest disappointment was recognized during a power failure. All the radio features were difficult to distinguish in the dark. Since the flashlight and the radio is in the same unit, you just have to feel your way through it. So on a simple 1-10 scale, I’ll give it a 5.  If I were buy another one today, I would look for a  unit with large control knobs and possibly  illuminated dials.

Take a look at my recent article on Power Outages Part II for additional hints and tips.