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Eliminating "standby" electricity loss from home appliances could save up to 25 percent on electrical bills, study shows
09 Feb 2001

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Berkeley - If you need proof that your appliances are sucking energy even when they're sitting unused, just turn out the lights some evening. All those glowing red dots and flashing digital clocks are a clear sign your household appliances are spending your money while you sleep.

One of the biggest energy gobblers are the transformers that continuously recharge your cell phone, power your computer peripherals and keep your Game Boy ready for use.

A recent study by students and scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) shows that the average California home pays between $50 and $70 every year to keep those little red lights burning, the clocks ticking and the electronics humming while the appliances go unused. Eliminating this standby or "leaking" electricity could save households between six and 26 percent on their average monthly electricity bill, the study found.

"We've only recently found out how substantial the energy savings can be," said Daniel Kammen, professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley and director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. "People could save enough power to offset the rise in electricity rates."

J.P. Ross, a master's degree student in the Energy & Resources Group, conducted the study last spring, the first time anyone in this country actually went into homes to measure standby power consumption. He sought out 10 homes in northern California of varying size, number of occupants and income level.

Checking every appliance in each house, he and co-author Alan K. Meier of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at LBNL found that standby energy use averaged 67 watts per household, more than you would waste by burning a 60-watt bulb day and night all year long. Standby usage ranged from six percent to 26 percent of the homes' annual electricity use.

In a 1999 study, Meier and his LBNL colleagues had estimated average U.S. home standby usage at 50 watts, or about five percent of nationwide annual electricity usage, based on lab measurements of leakage in many different appliances.

"Whether it's six percent or 16 percent, it's a significant quantity of electricity being wasted," Ross said. "Typically, the larger the house, the more appliances and the greater the standby energy use."

On average, each of the 10 homes contained 19 appliances using standby power.

The study was small and localized, considering there are more than 10 million households in the state, but Ross said the message is unambiguous: more needs to be done to reduce leaking electricity.

One solution is to unplug appliances when not in use, Kammen said. An alternative is to group appliances on one surge protector or power strip so that all can be turned off at once. This works well for entertainment systems or for a computer and its associated printers, scanners and other peripheral devices.

Computer printers are one of the big energy wasters, some of them drawing 11.5 watts when idling. Some TVs and video cassette recorders draw almost as much, while set-top cable boxes can draw twice that: the most wasteful Ross found drew 23 watts when the box was off.

And one of the newest appliances on the market, personal video recorders meant to replace VCRs, can draw 50 watts when "off," he said.

A permanent solution, however, is in the hands of appliance manufacturers. While it is impossible to turn off many U.S. appliances, in Europe many come with two "off" buttons: one a remote ready and another that actually turns the appliance off. Rechargers, on the other hand, could include a feedback circuit that shuts off the transformer when a battery is fully charged.

The range of standby waste in similar appliances shows that it is possible to reduce standby waste substantially with no loss of function. Meier and Ross advocate a standard of one watt standby usage for energy efficient appliances.

"Our model predicts you could get a 68 percent reduction in standby usage if all appliances drew only one watt when not in use," Ross said.

This shouldn't be too hard for industry to achieve, he said, "Manufacturers have to pay attention," he said. "People from industry are getting interested because policy makers are now interested."

The California Energy Commission, for example, set up a workshop on standby power use after LBNL published Ross's results in May 2000. Ross also reported the results at an international conference in Italy last September.

For now, homeowners need to take a close look of their energy leakage. Ross found it was possible to reduce his own small household standby usage to 14 watts, by getting rid of his cell phone, unplugging his "powerless" power tools and unplugging other appliances when not in use.

"We don't have to buy into the current paradigm of ever increasing power usage," Ross said. "We should all question how much power we are using."

The study of standby power usage was funded by the Energy Foundation and the assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

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More information on standby power consumption can be found on the Web at http://eetd.lbl.gov/leaking/.

For more about UC Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, visit its Web site at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~rael/.

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