Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

September 28, 2010

Always On: Hunting, Finding and Saving Electricity (Still!)

Category: Household,Save Electricity,Tips – Tom Harrison – 10:28 pm

Phantom Power Hunt

Always On (photo: uberculture)

As part of my participation in a beta test for PlottWatt (very cool), I have come to understand that our house’s “always on” electrical load accounts for about one third of our consumption. Perhaps more vampires? Doesn’t seem plausible.

The only way to find out: measure each outlet with a Kill-A-Watt! (Can you say “obsessive“?) But occasional obsessiveness is good for the soul. And budget.

So on the last grey Saturday, me and my trusty Kill-a-Watt went around seeing if we could answer the question: how much could we save?

The answer was neither encouraging nor discouraging: it was simply illuminating. (And, another $70/year, tax free savings — see the link to my spreadsheet below.)

And isn’t that what it’s all about? My objective in writing this blog, working for Energy Circle, learning about software, or digital cameras, Economics, Physics — it’s all about understanding the truth.

Oh, and the exercise was enriching. In the sense of having more money.

Progress So Far

I have been obsessing writing about the things that are always on, even when they’re off since the early days of this blog. And I have made some serious progress.

Killing Vampires with Smart Strips

I have addressed some phantom load with BITS Smart Strips. When my computer monitor turns off (which it does automatically based on the power settings of my computer), so do my speakers, my wireless phone charger, and my USB Hub. When the TV in the basement goes off, so does the sound system, the Wii, the DVD player, the sub-woofer (but not the Wii remote charger).

Replacing Our Cheap, Dead Phones

Panasonic phones. They work better, but the new phones also replaced 4 vampire transformers with 4 switch-mode type. Kill-a-watt reads 0 for all but the base station, which is 2W. Hopefully the new ones are not the cheap junk that defines most consumer electronics and will last a while. We’ll see.

Et tu, TiVo?

I confirmed that my TiVo Series3 HD is an improvement over the standard cable box that gets plugged in by your cable company — around 37W — not nothing, but it beats the pants off the 90W Motorola box I had before (which I had in addition to the TiVo Series 2 — the new TiVo doesn’t need the cable box, since it uses the CableCARD standard). I am going to try turning it off at night when we don’t use it using a simple timer switch I have lying around.

Sleeping Beauties

I confirmed that Sleep is better than Awake, at least as far as computers go. (This finding seems to apply to cats and teenagers, as well.) My MacBook uses about 15 Watts when on without the screen (it’s probably more efficient than most computers — my older Dell laptop uses about 35W). When asleep, both use about 1W.

Unfortunately, my Mac seemed to have the same sleep/standby problem as my Windows XP computer — it wouldn’t sleep automatically. I thought hitting the sleep button worked fine, then realized it did, but only for a few minutes, after which it would resume. I have been sort of careless with this, so spent some time figuring out how to make a Mac go to sleep reliably, and recently found a good (free) solution for sleepless Macs.

Not A Culprit! Sort of…

One interesting finding: I have been blaming the transformer on my cable modem as being a vampire — needlessly sucking power even when it wasn’t being used. So I bought a replacement switch-mode transformer, and plugged it in. But the cable modem still used 6 watts — it’s the modem itself. Rats!

In the experiment, I did, however find a simple device that could be used to replace vampire transformers with more efficient switch-mode versions. Maybe there’s some other transformer I can use this to replace.

The little (cheap) Ethernet switch I have in my office draws 4 watts — I doubt I need wires since 802.11n wireless seems to just work. My wireless laser printer goes to 5 watts when asleep — I could probably put that on the same timer switch as the TiVo. My new cordless phones have switch-mode transformers and use almost nothing. Apple chargers use almost nothing.

Who You Gonna Call: Dustbuster

The Dustbuster charger uses 2 to 3 watts all the time so that we can bust dust once or twice a month? Not worth it! That’s going to my “battery charger station” (regular power-strip) which I turn on only when I am charging stuff all our rechargeable AA and AAA batteries. The control for the sprinkler system, which we only use a few times in the summer — unplug. A new or repurposed BITS Smart Strip for my son’s Apple Mini (and speakers, LCD screen, USB hub).

However, It Doesn’t All Add Up

Am I being obsessive? Of course, I hope you have come to expect nothing less!

When you do the math, it adds up — 115 watts of “always on”.

That’s a little odd. When you look at Google PowerMeter, it measures a bit less than double that for its always-on estimate — there’s about 100W unaccounted for.

Wherefore Art Thou?

I wonder what I missed? I covered every single 120V outlet in the house (I even moved the stove and fridge out). It could be that Google PowerMeter’s estimate is wrong, but it correlates pretty closely to PlotWatt’s. Also, when I go to bed the TED sometimes reads as low as 196W, but never 115W. Could it be something that’s hard-wired (dishwasher, furnace, various lighting, ceiling fans)? Maybe the Kill-a-Watt is wrong? Maybe my math is wrong?

I did a test like this back on Earth Hour, where I switched off breakers one by one while watching the TED 5000 display. I did manage to get it down to zero, I think, and I recall something about a 1920’s era doorbell transformer. Hmm.

Wait, I just remembered — what about the garage? I have a rechargeable lawnmower — it’s got a charger plug I didn’t check. And there’s a garage door opener — that seems a possible suspect.

Not Playing With A Full Deck

Well, if it’s not obvious by now, I am purely a nut. Crazy. Whacked. Not rowing with both oars in the water. A quart low. Or, perhaps most apropos: “A few watts shy of a night light.” (Check the link, there are some pretty good ones :-)

Somehow There’s Always More Savings To Be Had

The key thing here is this: I have been crazy like this for years now. I keep doing things to reduce how much electricity we use. And I keep thinking, well, that’s surely about as much blood as I can squeeze out of this stone.

And then I go off and find more.

I still have some incandescent lights (granted, the Philips Halogena Energy Saving bulbs) in our kitchen and living room lights since dimmable CFLs still suck.

A Brief Digression on How Badly Dimmable CFL Bulbs Still Are, and Why Joe Barton Has A Point, Even If He Is A Lying Lier Who Has His Facts All Wrong And Is Just Trying to Get Elected, And How I Would Like Some Enterprising CFL or LED Manufacturer to Give Me Lightbulbs That Actually Dim Well So I Can Go Back To Disliking Joe Barton

By the way: that’s a direct challenge to any manufacturer who makes an R-20 or PAR-30 dimmable CFL, or better yet, LED that use a standard dimmer switch that can produce suitably bright light that isn’t ugly. I will be happy to accept demos, and if your product is good, I will write a great review here, and other places. But I am fed up and not spending more of my money for junk. I have now purchased more than 75 CFLs all of which claim to work perfectly, dim evenly, and all of which sucked!

I need 6 of the R-20 floods, 50W equivalent, and 7 of the PAR 30 or PAR 38 floods, 75W equivalent or thereabouts, both warm white. My email address can be found here.

(end of brief digression)

I suspect my fridge is worth replacing. We could use the dryer less (actually, here’s a great tip: if you have two medium loads of wash, dry both together and use about 30% to 50% less on drying). There are tons of things we could still reduce — but we try to only replace things when we need to.

The Bottom Line

Here’s a link to an Excel spreadsheet with device by device standby usage data.

With minimal investment my mitigations can save about 42W of “always-on” stuff. At my electrical rate, I’ll save about $70 a year. That’s a couple of very nice bottles of wine. Or a case of silicone caulk.


  1. Re: fridge coils — see the link in the previous comment to my first post on this topic.

    Re: cable boxes — I would be very surprised if they lost their settings on power failure, and depending on the model, those puppies really suck up the juice. If you have a regular cable box, think about a light timer for about $9. If you have a built-in DVR, you may want to be a little more judicious about when you turn it off (since shows sometimes record at times you wouldn’t be watching), but it should still be no problem.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — October 13, 2010 @ 9:49 am

  2. Other vampire’s are the control transformers internal to every furnace, central air conditioner, heat pump air handler, central vacuum cleaner systems and your traditional door bell. These transformers are very inefficient when at idle, pulling about 4 to 8 watts each, even when the appliance it serves is not running. I’ve never owned a gas fired water heater, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a similar transformer lurking inside them as well.

    Heat pumps have at least one or two additional vampires besides the control transformer. Every heat pump has an electrically operated solenoid valve, commonly called the switching or reversing valve. Depending on who made your heat pump, your indoor thermostat will power the valve on or off to switch between cooling or heating modes. Most manufactures (like Carrier and Trane) require the valve to be on for cooling mode and off for heating mode. Heat pumps made by Rheem / Rudd typically work the opposite ( valve on for heating, valve off for cooling). The valve on my heat pump pulls about 15 watts when energized.

    What’s not openly published is that the indoor thermostat will maintain the valve at it’s last state, even when the compressor is not running. This means that for all the hours in a day that the compressor is not running, your reversing valve is energized during the winter or summer, depending on who manufactured your system.

    Another heat pump vampire is the compressor crankcase sump heater. These heaters are always found on heat pumps with reciprocating compressors. Heat pumps with scroll compressors tend not to have them. The heater in my heat pump draws about 60 watts. Some heaters run all the time (ouch), some are thermostatically controlled to come on whenever the outdoor temperature falls below about 60~65 degrees, while others (the best) use the same outdoor thermostat only when the compressor is not running.

    Comment by Steve — December 6, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

  3. Steve — they lurk everywhere indeed — thanks for the awesome list.

    I can answer the one about the gas water heater: no — it’s not plugged in. (Although it has a sort of gas vampire in the pilot light!).

    I was pretty convinced that my doorbell transformer (1930’s era) was one of the unidentified sources of vampire power — I just haven’t gotten the energy up to crawl back over to my breaker panel and unwire it to see how bad it is :-).

    Thanks for the comment!

    Comment by Tom Harrison — December 6, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  4. Tom – Thank you for the great blog!

    1st off I made a typo in my post. My heat pump sump heater is more like 60 watts. (Updated)

    As for door bells transformers, mine was pulling ~4.42 watts in idle. This summer I disconnected the 18Vac wires and attached them to a ordinary 9 Volt transistor radio battery. The door bell seemed to work just fine. Maybe a wee bit less louder than before, but good enough for me. Based on that result, I went ahead and disconnected the 120 AC to the transformer all together. So, after 4 months things still seem good.

    Comment by Steve — December 6, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

  5. OK, you have motivated me sufficiently to get off my rear and deal with my doorbell transformer. Maybe its 1930’s vintage means it’s where my unaccounted for 60 or 70 watts are going :-)


    Comment by Tom Harrison — December 6, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

  6. Hi Tom,

    I’d be very surprised if you’re going to save 60+ watts, but it’s worth a try. I suggest removing the low voltage wires first and see if a battery will be sufficient to ring the bell. Another consideration is the type of doorbell button. If the button is illuminated, be it a small incandescent lamp or even an LED, that lamp is going to drain a battery pretty fast. My button was illuminated, so I just pulled the bulb out since my front porch has plenty of illumination from my CFL powered porch lights.

    Comment by Steve — December 6, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  7. Hi Tom,

    I have a hunch as to what that 120 Watt spike is on your nifty PlottWatt graphs. Your refrigerator is probably similar to my freezer in that every 12 hours of compressor run-time, it initiates a defrost cycle. The defrost cycle will last up to 30 minutes or whenever the temperature sensor on the cooling coil exceeds 40 degrees (whichever comes first). During the defrost cycle the compressor is stopped and an electric heating element (similar to the ones in toaster ovens) in energized. But this just a guess… :).

    Comment by Steve — December 7, 2010 @ 10:59 am

  8. Heh, I did the same thing; see this post:

    In my case I found 76.5W of “little things” under 10W; then there are the big things (fridges, radon fan, the computer serving the above blog post…) With those, it was a whopping 186W always on. And I’d already gone around doing the easy stuff!

    I’ve recently realized that there is an abandoned 24VAC heater transformer in the basement somewhere.

    Which reminds me, BTW, you forgot to measure your doorbell transformer ;) You could save a couple watts there:

    Comment by Eric — February 9, 2011 @ 12:36 am

  9. Oh, I’m sorry, you did cover the doorbell! Wow. Nicely done. ;)

    Comment by Eric — February 9, 2011 @ 12:38 am

  10. I am glad someone went through the trouble to discover every meaningless killowatt for all us followers! Thanks for the hard work!

    Comment by Karen — February 18, 2011 @ 9:10 am

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