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Finding Phantom Loads: What are they and how can we reduce their energy consumption?

Updated on March 24, 2013

Power Adapters Are Common Phantom Loads

A transformer, a common phantom load
A transformer, a common phantom load | Source

What's a phantom load?

A phantom load is any electrical device that consumes energy when it is supposedly off. The energy they consume is called standby or vampire power, and can account for as much as 7% of wasted energy in a typical home. This may seem like a contradiction to what we expect to be happening when we turn these devices off and aren't actually using them. There are a few reasons why these devices continue to use power even when turned off or not in use.

How can we reduce their energy consumption and how can we figure out how much we'll save?

The majority of phantom loads are devices that use transformers (the black or white cubes that you plug into an outlet), which convert household alternating current to lower voltage direct current. Even though the device might be turned off or not even plugged in, the transformer will continue to draw a small amount of electricity if its left plugged in. The best example of this situation is a cell phone charger. When purchasing devices that use transformers, look for the Energy Star logo, which means that the transformer will draw little or no energy when left plugged in but not in use as compared to a device without the logo. To reduce energy usage from devices like this that you already have, simply unplug them or plug them all into a multi-outlet power strip and turn it off when they're not needed or in use.

Other phantom loads are appliances that have a digital clock display. This could be your microwave, vcr (if you still have one), and yes, even your alarm clock. Unless your as crazy as I am about saving energy and could get along fine with switching to using the alarm clock on your cell phone and unplug your clock, we'll stick to unplugging or switching the microwave and vcr off with a switchable plug. Of course, every time you plug them back in or flip the switch on, the clock won't display the right time. However, if you're like me, you won't really care, as long as they work.

Other phantom loads are the peripheral accessories that you might use with your television or computer. DVD players, cable and satellite set-top boxes, scanners, printers, speakers, sound systems are all devices that can draw power even when your tv and computer are turned off. The simplest way to deal with these devices is to purchase a smart power strip and plug your devices into it. They typically include one or two always on outlets for your tv and computer. When you turn your computer or tv on, all of the other outlets are activated and your other devices come on. When you turn your computer or tv off, the other outlets are deactivated and your devices are turned off.

How Much Can Phantom Loads Cost Us?

In order to find out how much energy a phantom load is using, you need to plug them into an electricity meter. This will tell you how many watts a device or unused transformer is consuming. I recommend the Kill A Watt EZ meter because it fairly cheap, easy to use and easy to locate nearby or online. Measure each phantom load you have and note how much it costs you per year to operate. It is best to do this with multiple devices plugged into a power strip that's plugged into the meter as devices that consume very little energy do not trigger the meter to calculate what the yearly cost is, however, it will tell you how many watts it consumes. For those devices, multiply the watts by the number of hours that they're not in use but plugged in every day by 365 to find out how many watt-hours they use in a year. Then divide that by 1000 to find how many kilowatt hours this is and multiply that by the rate your utility charges you per kilowatt hour. For example, my old notebook charger uses 6 watts when not in use. We'll assume that I use it for 2 hours per day and my utility charges me USD $0.097 or 9.7 cents per kwh.

6 watts x 22 hours = 132 watt-hours per day

132 watt-hours x 365 days = 48,180 watt-hours per year

48,180 watt-hours / 1,000 = 48.18 kilowatt hours per year

48.18 kwh x USD $0.097 = USD $4.67

That's quite a bit of money and energy to be wasting for no reason. Luckily I use a netbook now for most of my needs and even though its energy star rated, I always unplug its charger. I hope the above information will inspire you to look for ways to save energy in your home. I also hope you learn how to calculate how the cost of an appliance or device using the example above relating to the notebook charger.


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