Is your home “haunted”? 

By Alex Bajcz

Some call this lurking presence a phantom or ghost because it’s invisible. Others call it a vampire because it’s an energy-sucker.

Whatever you call it, it’s a problem most of us share, whether we know it or not.

Phantom load is electricity drawn by plugged-in but “off” devices. If the device has a standby light (TV), remote (stereo), display screen (baby monitor), rechargeable battery (cordless phone), sensor (dehumidifier), settings maintainer (coffeepot) or clock (microwave), then it’s drawing at least some power whenever it’s plugged in, whether it’s off or on.

Even devices with no obvious standby function, like toothbrush chargers, can be energy vampires. Any device that feels warm when off is probably guilty too.

In fact, many irregularly used devices, such as TVs, consume more cumulative power daily when not in use than they do while we’re using them!

If phantom load is new to you, you’re not alone: about 70% of Americans don’t know about it, even though the average American owns more than two dozen notable energy vampires.

How much phantom load do we generate? Estimates range between 5 and 25% for the average U.S. household. Even the lowest estimates translate to at least $100 a year on our energy bills, a significant waste of cash, energy and carbon emissions.

It adds up: One government estimate suggests yearly U.S. phantom load could have powered 11 million homes and, according to Cornell University, that translates to about 6% of the country’s total energy usage.

Tracking your load

One easy option for measuring your house’s “hauntedness” is a watt meter, costing about $30. Plug a device into the meter and it’ll report the power drawn by the device even when it’s off.

If your house has a smart electricity meter reporting live energy usage, you can do something similar by comparing usage rates when key devices or circuits are “off” versus completely unplugged. Home energy auditors such as Home Energy Squad can also help, as can web apps like Dr. Power: drpower.hea.com.

Recognizing culprits

Energy vampires are everywhere. Beyond those devices and signs listed earlier, think also of printers, desktop computers, phone chargers, heated towel bars and radiant heaters, entertainment equipment (DVD players and game consoles), refrigerator-like devices (wine coolers, ice makers and mini fridges) and kitchen appliances like toasters and mixers.

In particular, look for devices with transformers (blocky plugs); many waste up to 80% of the power they draw.

Taking action

Stopping phantom load is easy: unplug your devices when not using them (82% of Americans don’t do this even occasionally).

That’s admittedly inconvenient, so you can plug devices into power strips with on/off buttons and switch these off instead. More advanced power strips (nrel.gov/docs/fy14osti/60461.pdf) can enhance your efforts by leveraging sensors, timers, apps or motion detection.

Other options: avoid purchasing “always-on” devices, unplug devices before vacations, put devices on timers and replace old appliances that are less efficient, especially those made before 2013, when new standards went into place.

Additionally, while not yet mainstream, new smart outlets and circuit breakers hold the promise of eliminating phantom load altogether.

Remember, though, that not all standby power is wasted—your refrigerator, smoke detectors and clocks, for example, should be allowed to draw power constantly. For these, focus on efficiency rather than “exorcism.” 

Alex Bajcz is the quantitative ecologist for University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center. He holds a doctorate in environmental science from the University of Maine. He serves on the St. Anthony Park Community Council’s Environment Committee.

Image: Graphic source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, nrel.gov

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