CONSUMER FORUM

Drawbacks to TV set-top boxes

Posted July 10, 2011, at 8 p.m.

It’s not just the number of remote controls that has grown during our recent years of television watching. The number of boxes associated with the process has grown as well.

We saw a big influx of set-top boxes prior to the much ballyhooed conversion to digital broadcasting. Consumers report varying levels of satisfaction with the accessories, which are estimated to number 160 million in the U.S.

Almost all of the set-top boxes are owned and installed by service providers, so consumers don’t have a lot of choice about which device ends up atop their set. The machines might provide programs to a single TV set or to multiple sets in the home, either for watching them or recording for viewing later.

One troubling aspect of set-top boxes is not only the amount of electricity they consume but also the way that juice is used. Almost all the set-top boxes in a recent survey used nearly as much power when no programs were being recorded or viewed, as when those functions were taking place. That is, the devices were never “off,” even in a low-power or “sleep” mode, and they used virtually as much power as when recording or playing shows.

The hidden cost occurs when the devices are in low-power mode: not doing anything but still draining electricity. Across the nation, the boxes are in standby mode about two-thirds of the time. These things vary in efficiency; so other than saying they may be wasting as much energy as a small state consumes each year, there aren’t many conclusions we can draw.

The study results were made public last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The research was funded by a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, although the EPA says the views and findings of the study authors don’t necessarily reflect those of the agency.

Noah Horowitz, senior scientist for NRDC, relates what he calls the “a-ha” moment in the study of 58 energy meters hooked to set-top boxes. “Hitting the power button does next to nothing … all it does is dim the clock,” Horowitz said.

The study did have a number of recommendations, centering on anticipating technological changes. It notes that manufacturers have made real progress in cutting the amount of power used in the “on” mode; it wants manufacturers to build set-top boxes that automatically go into a low-power mode when users aren’t watching, downloading or recording shows. It says service providers should replace outdated boxes with more energy efficient models that meet Energy Star standards. These have changed over the years, and a new, tougher standard is set for 2012.

For its part, industry officials say they have new multiroom viewing setups and power management features that add up to real savings. They say Energy Star-certified boxes are increasingly available and can generate about 30 percent energy savings over other models. The industry says if all set-top boxes sold in the U.S. met Energy Star standards, savings could top $2 billion a year.

The flip side of that argument is this: a business-as-usual approach could increase the power bill by $3.5 billion by 2020 (an NRDC estimate). Public awareness and pressure on both service providers and manufacturers would seem to be the keys to traveling along the savings path.

Cut your power bill by unplugging set-top boxes or other electronics when not in use; using a power strip can allow one-switch shutoffs (see Consumer Forum, Feb. 1, 2009).

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, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email at contacexdir@live.com.

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