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Standby Power: Ways to Save Electricity

Updated on September 26, 2012

Standby power is the most common way many of us don’t know we are spending—spending not as obvious as a TV left on or the drip of a faucet, but as concealed and alarming as a hole in the pocket.

The biggest thief in the world is an energy thief we’ve all learned to live with.

What Is Standby Power?

Standby power is commonly understood as the energy consumed by a product while it is switched off or not performing its primary function. Most experts agree on this basic definition although there is no official definition of the term, currently being debated at the international level and something we’ll consider momentarily.

What makes standby power necessary are various internal devices—circuits and sensors, soft keypads and displays—that require continuous power and for instant start-up. Any product with an external power supply, remote control, continuous display, or that charges batteries uses standby power. There may be no obvious sign of energy leakage, but the use of energy occurs.

The International Electrotechnical Commission and other groups are working to produce an official definition of standby. Its original definition, including the one used by George Bush in a 2001 executive order, is a product’s minimum power consumption while plugged in—important from a technical standpoint.

Sometimes determining an appliance’s power draw is not as tidy as the switch being “off” because some appliances don’t have power switches, like cordless phones and refrigerators. Other times an appliance’s main function is performing at all times as with various computer products. In these cases standby energy is determined when the units are not in use or performing primary functions.


Watts and Kilowatt Hours

Before moving on it is important to explain how standby power is measured: in watts. A watt is equivalent to one joule per second, a measure of velocity much like miles-per-hour.

Here’s the conversion factor for understanding what your appliances cost you: if your appliance draws one watt continuously for a year, its energy consumption is 9kWh and that costs you about one dollar: 1 watt = (9kWh) = $1. Simple.

So, that 60-watt incandescent bulb you just installed as opposed to the 12-watt CFL equivalent will use 540kWh and cost you in excess of $60 a year as opposed to using only 108kWh and saving you up to $48 per year.

Hmm, implications abound…


The Need for Alternative Energy

Standby power for most people is more a nuisance to convenience than the role it plays in today’s global energy crisis. Studies show that standby power accounts for 7-13 percent of most developed nation’s residential energy consumption, an alarming fact.

In the U.S. it is between five and ten percent. In 2010 the average American household consumed 11,040kWh of electricity of which 10% was standby energy. Remember our formula? Let’s do the math:

11,040kWh/9kWh = 1,227 watts = $1,227 in electricity costs = 123 watts in standby power = $123 spent on items turned off .

The problem only grows for all the new appliances that feature a standby mode. It may be easy for one to argue that a simple alarm clock doesn’t contribute to global warming issues—most appliance standby is between <1-25 watts—but what about the microwave and computer and coffee maker…and…and…and? Most homes have at least 20 devices that use standby energy. So all the creeks and streams come together to form a big river and all the rivers become a sea.

Then, most electricity is generated by the combustion of hydrocarbons (oil, coal, gas), which release carbon dioxide, a major factor in global warming. And should consumption continue to increase, more power stations will be needed and so will the associated costs of building and maintaining them.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated in 2007 that standby energy produced one percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. What does that look like? Well the world’s total air travel contributes less than three percent of global emissions.

One Watt Initiative

The One Watt Initiative is an energy reduction plan designed by the IEA in 1999 to reduce standby use by any appliance to not more than one watt beginning in 2010, and .5 watts in 2013 in all OECD nations (Organization for Economic and Co-Operation Development) of which the U.S. is a member. Many nations have followed with regulations of their own.

This should have the effect of removing over 18 million cars from the roads.

California leads the pack in the U.S. having already (2007) limited standby power to .5 watts. Also, in 2001 President Bush signed an executive order mandating federal agencies to purchase products that use no more than one watt in standby mode.


Vampire Diaries

So let’s look at a few devices in the standby power issue. You can examine the chart for yourself but follow along with me for now.

Mobile phones. No big difference in power consumption having it on and charging and on and charged. It’s best to unplug the charger once charged because a plugged power supply is costing you as well.

Desktop. Turn it off! Doing so costs you about three dollars annually. Sleep mode is about $21; and idling costs you an egregious $74.

Laptop. Better than a desktop. Charge it up ($44) and unplug everything—period.

Night Light. Costs about five dollars! Just be sure to turn it off (50 cents).

Fax. Use a laser rather than inkjet. The inkjet will cost you six dollars turned off; the laser won’t cost you anything...maybe.

Digital Cable Box. If you’ve got a DVR connected to it, it’s costing you about $45 a year; without it you’re spending about $30 max.

CD Player. It’s costing you five dollars turned off; on, playing or not, you’re spending about nine dollars.

Reducing Standby Consumption

Most products do not indicate their standby usage, so knowing what your appliances are costing you requires a meter that measures standby. Let me save you the trouble: It’s not worth it since most of the meters are expensive (from just under $100 to over $500) and are of poor quality. Go figure.

But since we are certain that energy is leaking from our homes…well, money is leaking from our pockets…there are surer ways of preventing it.

Unplug your appliances or use a power strip with a switch. There are also energy-saving power strips available as well as functional power strips, which can be important when using certain appliances that need to remain on when others are turned off. These energy-saving strips can save you as much as 90 percent of standby energy.

Buy Energy Star labeled products for such things as light bulbs, dishwashers, and air conditioners. Energy Star is a joint project of the EPA and the Department of Energy with strict guidelines for appliances, new homes, and businesses that result in a conservation of energy and less utility expense—“without sacrificing features, style, or comfort.”

And especially important, eliminate old appliances and devices that are large and warm to the touch. These can use 10-15 watts of energy.


The Challenge of Energy Conservation

I’ve been a little maniacal about standby power since learning about it a few years ago. I unplug everything but the savings are real. I suggest you give it a try.

All you need to do is try it for one month—unplug, disconnect, turn off everything, or use the power strips you’ve got packed away. Then, go back and compare the trial month’s bill (and energy use) with the previous month. I’m sure you’ll notice a big difference—and become convinced about standby power and the costs you've saved.


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    • ithabise profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael S. 

      7 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      I know, Alocsin. I remember when I changed all the bulbs in my house to CFLs and the amazing savings I had. The pennies add up!

    • alocsin profile image

      Aurelio Locsin 

      7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Not something people normally think of as an energy waster. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • ithabise profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael S. 

      7 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thanks, Evylyn. I unplug the microwave, too! But you're right--why waste money? If everyone did the little they could do, we might not have some of the problems we have. Glad it was helpful to you.

    • Evylyn Rose profile image

      Evylyn Rose 

      7 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Awesome hub! After last month's energy bill, I started going around the house unplugging everything not in regular use. I even started unplugging the microwave. Sure, it has a clock that is useful, but so do the other rooms in the house. Do we really need to have that energy wasted just for a single clock?

      You've got some great tips here I didn't think of, so I'll be sure to put them to use as well. Thanks for sharing!


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