Vampire Hunters: Devices Reduce Energy Waste

Saving energy
It's 1 a.m., and everyone in the house is asleep. The television is off. The computers are off. Your cell phones and MP3 players are plugged in but no longer charging. And all these products are still sucking electricity.

"Vampire power," also known as "phantom power," accounts for a surprising amount of U.S. electricity consumption. According to a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report, "A typical American home has forty products constantly drawing power. Together these amount to almost 10 percent of residential electricity use." (For more about how organizations can manage their power consumption, see "Save Serious Money With a Business Energy Audit.")

What sort of devices suck electricity even when they're off? Chargers and AC adapters are notorious vampires, continuing to pull electricity even when the product they're attached to doesn't need it, or even when they're not attached to anything but the wall. Some products, such as a desktop PC, consume about 5 watts even when turned off and merely plugged in.

To slay vampire-power suckers, people are turning to a new class of surge protectors and rechargers. I looked at several of these products--and unfortunately, I found their usefulness limited. Trying them, however, beats running around your house every night yanking plugs from the walls before hitting the sack.

Surge Protectors

When used correctly, green surge protectors cut off power to devices that don't need it. One of the outlets on such protectors is designated the control outlet; when the wattage on that outlet drops below a certain level, the surge protector kills the power going to several of the remaining outlets. Other, always-on outlets continue to receive power.

The protectors make sense in an arrangement where one central device dominates the others, such as the computer in your office or the TV in your home theater. You're not likely to need your monitor if your PC is off, or your DVD player when your TV is off.

The always-on outlets are for devices that must be on at all times, such as a router or a DVR.

I tried three surge protectors--the Belkin Conserve Smart AV, the HP Monster Digital PowerCenter 800G, and the TrickleStar PC TrickleStrip--and all worked as advertised.

But while the concept is good, the devices don't cover everything. For instance, my Dish Network DVR needs to remain on, and it burns a frightening 53 watts in standby mode. A DVR in standby mode refreshes the program-guide data, downloads software, monitors the satellite for changes to channel lineups, and stands ready to record at any time.

Even so, a green surge protector cuts usage in my home theater by about 22 watts when the TV is off, for a savings of 14,000 watt-hours a month. (Those figures assume that the TV is on 3 hours a day.)

Of the models I tried, only the HP Monster was large enough to accept huge, space-wasting AC adapters, also known as wall warts, in each of its eight outlets (three switched, four always-on, and the control). It has a 3140-joule rating, promising substantial protection against electricity spikes. It also offers telephone, ethernet, and coaxial cable protection. On the other hand, at a street price of $80, it's by far the most expensive of the three.

Another problem with the Monster: It pulls about 1.6 watts with nothing plugged into it--at least in part because of its unusually large, pretty, but useless LEDs. That made it a bit of a power vampire itself.

Belkin Conserve Smart AV
The $30 (list price) Belkin Conserve Smart AV is the Monster's opposite. You can't plug an oversize wall wart into any of its eight outlets (five switched, two always-on, and the control) without blocking at least one other outlet. It doesn't protect phone, ethernet, or coaxial cables. It has a reasonable but unspectacular 1080-joule rating. With nothing plugged into it, the Conserve Smart AV drew so little power that the meter I used, a Watts Up Pro, indicated it was consuming none at all.

The $40 (street price) TrickleStar PC TrickleStrip offers fewer outlets than the others, only six (three switched, two always-on, and the control). The always-on outlets are spaced apart from each other, making one of them wall-wart-friendly. It can protect a phone connection, but not ethernet or coaxial (a very similar TV TrickleStrip handles coaxial but not phone). It protects your equipment up to 2160 joules. With nothing plugged into it, the device barely registered on my Watts Up Pro, going back and forth from 0.0 to 0.1 watt--not as impressive as the Belkin, but close.

One issue you shouldn't worry about is the power threshold, the point at which the protector shuts off or turns on the switched outlets. The Monster has fixed thresholds, the Belkin uses "intelligent chips," and the TrickleStar lets you set the threshold. In my tests, all three handled the job perfectly. The difference between what a PC or TV burns when it's on and when it's off is so great that any reasonable guess will be sufficient.

Next: Smart Chargers

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