Energy Vampires

Save $100 a year or more by finding and fixing these watt wasters

Save energy and money by reducing “stand by” losses through electrical appliances and devices. We show you what wastes electricity and how to stop the loss.

Photo courtesy of S. Meltzer/Photolink/Photodisc/Getty Images

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

The problem: Electricity wasters in your home

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you're paying $100 per year for nothing. The culprits are your “energy vampires,” those electrical appliances that continuously draw power even after you've hit the “off” button. Admittedly, some items, like your refrigerator and heating system, need to run 24/7, but many others, like your computer, DVD player or coffeemaker, don't. The problem is that these appliances possess “smart” features—miscellaneous chips and/or electronic controls that prevent them from ever shutting down. Most energy vampires only suck a few watts apiece (see Figure A), but considering that the average home contains 20 of these watt wasters, the cost adds up. By some estimates, energy vampires now make up 11 percent of your utility bill and will cost you even more in the future. The good news is that you can search out and stake these vampires in the heart with a simple strategy and a few cool tools. You'll also learn how to keep the least efficient appliances out of your home in the first place.

Fact: The EPA estimates that energy vampires consume $4 billion worth of power per year. That's equal to the amount of electricity generated by 12 power plants!

Figure A: Where Are the Watts Going?

Some appliances use more power than others even when doing nothing. Until recently, manufacturers didn't worry about standby power because consumers didn't consider the cost.

Power usage chart Power usage
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Ways to stop the drain

Here are a few simple solutions that can help you stop unwanted energy vampires.

Pull the plug. If an appliance has an indicator light, touch screen or feels the least bit warm to the touch, it's using power. You can't unplug everything, but pulling the plug on a few items, such as the coffeemaker, battery chargers and VCR, can save as much as turning off a light.

Strip stop. Surge protectors enable you to turn off multiple devices with one switch. The Smart Strip (see photo) is handy when you can't easily reach the strip. This surge protector automatically shuts off peripherals when the main unit, such as your computer or TV, is turned off. The strip has “always on” receptacles for satellite boxes, modems and wireless routers.

Read the fine print. Manufacturers don't usually include standby power info on the box. A plug-in meter is your best bet, but another way to decrease wasted electricity is by choosing appliances with fewer bells and whistles. Looking for the EnergyStar logo can also help. Starting this year, appliances bearing this stamp must use 50 percent less energy when operating and when in standby mode.

Check Your Computer

Some PCs draw as much as 250 watts, almost as much as an energy-efficient refrigerator. To rein in your power-hungry processor, set your machine to go into “sleep” or “hibernate” mode when left unused for more than 30 minutes. For more savings, turn off the processor, monitor, printer and speakers if they won't be used for more than two hours. Despite the myth, cycling your computer on and off will not damage the system.

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Meter readers and plug-in watt watchers

Unplugging your refrigerator, then manually reading the still-spinning meter, will show that you've got a problem, but because you're calculating a single moment, it's not terribly accurate. To find and fix the drain, you'll need either a digital meter reader or a plug-in meter. Both devices show real-time usage. More important, they track longer trends so you can see how much an appliance is costing you when it's on and off. Using one or both can help you pinpoint energy vampires. From there, you can decide to pull the plug or shop for an energy-efficient replacement.

Plug-in meters measure single devices. Simply plug the unit into the wall, then connect the appliance to the meter. P3 International's Kill A Watt EZ will tell you the operating cost of any household appliance per day, week, month or year. A meter can show you how much money you can save by upgrading older appliances. Replacing a 10-year-old refrigerator with an Energy Star model can save over $100 a year.

Digital meter readers measure whole-house electricity use. They attach to your meter or panel box to provide real time and average usage/cost information. To find out how much all your energy vampires are costing you, turn off all the lights, unplug the refrigerator, then check the screen.

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