The truth about electronics, from a Power Smart expert

Nina Winham

First, you got a calculator. Then maybe an answering machine (remember the pre-voice mail days?). Then a CD player, a VCR and a larger TV. Then a home computer. Next came speakers, printer, external drive, video games, a cell phone, electronic games for the kids, a Blackberry or iPhone, a DVD player, and of course rechargers and batteries and remote controls for everything.

No wonder we're using more electricity!

The era of electronics is in full swing. Almost daily, new products and innovations come to market, harnessing the power of electronic technology to do all sorts of new things. The good news is that it's now getting easier to be Power Smart when you buy home electronics.

Related: Hardcore gamers get a chance to go green, cut energy bills

The (energy) cost of entertainment

Up until the last four years, most of the [energy efficiency] focus has been on appliances – your fridge, your washer, your dryer," says Tony Mauro, Senior Engineer with BC Hydro Power Smart. "Now we're seeing a shift, where the refrigerator actually consumes less than what you would need for your entertainment system for a year."

Mauro says even people who have started to check energy consumption when they purchase a stove or microwave are not accustomed to thinking about energy when they go shopping for electronics.

"When people are out there shopping for a computer, a printer, a cell phone, [or back-to-school electronics] they don't think about looking at the ENERGY STAR® labelling," he says.

ENERGY STAR is a product rating system that establishes energy efficient performance levels for a wide variety of consumer goods. If it has an ENERGY STAR label, a product is among the best in its class in terms of reducing energy usage. The system has been applied to a wide variety of consumer electronics, from televisions to battery charging systems.

Looking for the label makes a difference. For example, ENERGY STAR labelled televisions use about 30% less electricity than standard models – and that will save you on your energy bill over time. It also helps shift the market, sending a message to manufacturers that people will choose an energy efficient model when given the choice.

If you're thinking of buying, you can search the ENERGY STAR site for products before going to a store – or just ask for the label when you get there.

Remember this anytime you shop: if it has a plug, look for an ENERGY STAR label.

With computers, look for EPEAT

Another rating system to watch for, that considers even more environmental impacts, is EPEAT. Currently applied primarily to computers and associated items, the standard includes ENERGY STAR efficiency as well as criteria such as recycled materials, hazardous materials, and packaging design.

The standard was developed for institutional purchasers (i.e. municipalities and businesses), but is still a place to search for products that are doing the right thing for the environment.

How much is too much?

Of course, buying green electronics is only part of the picture. You can reduce the impact of your electronics in other ways as well. Mauro says the lure of home electronics is so strong that people often buy more capacity than they need.

"Most people will walk into a store and say, ‘I want a 52-inch TV,' and buy it, when really their room is better for a 42 inch," he says. "That can cost you an additional 100 watts of power draw on that device, so it's worth taking stock of the way you're equipping your house."

Similarly, using a laptop computer instead of a desktop computer can reduce power consumption by an impressive 90%.

Turning electronics off is a powerful way to reduce energy consumption. And finally – with 230 million products on the shelf that have battery-charging functions (from electric toothbrushes to portable DVD players), it's worth asking yourself if you really need one more thing that plugs in.

"If a person puts an entertainment system downstairs, has one in the living room and each kid has one in their room, you can see very quickly you're going pretty crazy with your consumption numbers," says Mauro.

Anyone for a good old-fashioned book?

Nina Winham is a Vancouver-based sustainability consultant and writer.