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Don't let vampire and phantom electric loads suck your power out of your house

Pumpkin spice lattes, football, leaves starting to change color, the approach of Halloween … it’s time to talk about vampires and phantoms.

Vampire and phantom electric loads, that is.

Many consumer electronics today are on even when they’re off. Clocks seem to be built into just about everything, though not used; they’re often just blinking 00:00. Computers, televisions and gaming consoles have standby modes to allow them to start up quickly, apparently because manufacturers think we’re too impatient to wait ten seconds to watch the Seahawks. (Perhaps they’re right. When I was the utility manager at the SeaTac Airport, I called cable TV the most important utility, because people sitting in airport bars can survive without water longer than they can survive without the Seahawks.)

The power consumed by devices that are supposed to be off are called a “vampire electric load” or a “phantom load.” The amount of power a device uses depends heavily on that specific device, so the effect is hard to measure without installing a meter on every plug in your house. However, the cumulative energy consumption from these devices is believed to be substantial. As lighting and HVAC systems have become more and more efficient, standby power has become a significant fraction of household use. Vampire electric loads might account for up to 10% of American household electricity consumption.

To drive a stake into energy vampires and exorcise energy phantoms, unplug electronics when they’re not in use. Doing that is extraordinarily inconvenient, so a more user-friendly solution is to plug electronics into a power strip and turn them all off using the power strip switch. The TV will take a little longer to start up, but if you’re consistent about it, your electric bill will go down.

A more sophisticated solution is to plug electronics into a “smart” power strip, which senses when a device is off, or when a primary device like a television is off, and automatically cuts off power. Or, if you have a device that needs to be on at certain times, like a security lamp, use a timer. (Yes, the useless clock will flash 00:00 when you turn it on. Think of it as proof that you’re saving energy, or just put a piece of electrical tape over it.)

Timers and smart plugs also allow you to control when devices receive power. Set them up to provide electricity during the times you need the devices to be active. This is especially useful when charging batteries, in anything from a cell phone to a car. Set up the timer or smart plug to be on only during off-peak electric hours (hours when it seems likely that everyone else won’t be using electricity at the same time, say, 9 p.m.-5 a.m.). Charging takes place when the charging least affects the electric grid.

When buying appliances, look for devices with low standby power consumption. Energy Star labeled devices typically have lower standby power requirements. Look for devices that can be set up to enter sleep or low-power modes when not in use. The setting is available on many new appliances. It significantly reduces standby power consumption.


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