Cutting back on ‘phantom power’ could save money

Posted Feb. 01, 2009, at 8:14 p.m.

In the heart of another Maine winter with yet another storm bearing down, most of us probably have done everything we think we can to reduce our energy costs.

Many readers likely will scoff at suggestions that a few simple steps could cut household electric bills by $200 a year. Yet that’s the figure that researchers at Cornell University came up with when they studied the phenomenon of phantom power.

Phantom power is the electricity that many of our most-used appliances require to keep them “ready to run.” If you need to reprogram after a power outage, it’s probably using phantom power. The “instant on” feature of many devices — TVs come quickly to mind — can gobble up larger quantities of electricity than most people imagine.

The statistic is 75 percent. All those conveniences we live with use three-fourths of the total power they consume just waiting to be turned on. Put another way, if people in your home watch television five hours a day, your set is burning more power when it’s turned off than when it’s on.

One reader of this column wondered why her electricity use took a sudden spike after she retired. She visited Bangor Hydro-Electric Co.’s Web site, found the section on bill analysis and soon discovered that running two computers for 12 hours a day burned 324 kilowatt-hours, or 52 percent of her total electric bill in a non-heating season.

She took action by limiting the time her computers ran. “By waiting to turn the computer on later, instead of automatically turning it on first thing in the morning and turning it off if I’m going to be gone for most of the day, we have reduced our consumption and saved a substantial amount of money, much more than any other action we could have taken.”

She went even further, analyzing her household’s energy use with a device called the Kill-A-Watt Energy Detector. The meter is used to determine how much power an appliance is drawing, both during use and when it’s “turned off.” Through a program run by Efficiency Maine, more than 650 meters have been distributed to li-braries across the state. People can borrow them and measure their power consumption.

She found the process helpful, although the meter was somewhat cumbersome. The display goes blank once it’s unplugged, so you may want to note the readings before unplugging it. Since the display is difficult to read when the unit is plugged into an electrical outlet near the floor, she suggests using an outlet closer to eye level. Computer knowledge is not necessary to use the meter.

For those who want to take action now to curb phantom power, here are some tips:

• Unplug appliances when not in use. Pay special attention to those items you rarely use.

• Disconnect chargers for cell phones and other devices when not in use.

• For devices used together (computer systems, home entertainment systems), consider plugging all associated items into a power strip. After turning off individual items, turn off the power switch. Now those devices are really off!

• When it’s time to upgrade, buy energy-efficient appliances. The ones with the Energy Star seal save power, running or not.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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