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Dirty little secret: your cable box is always on

Posted by Tony Mauro

I'm going to assume that, like most people, as the day ends and your favourite TV shows are over, you head to bed confident that in turning off the TV, you've also turned off your cable box (commonly referred to as Set Top Box (STB).

You might be surprised to know that "off" doesn't really mean what you think it does.

It's likely you've heard of the terms phantom power, standby loss or vampire power, which all refer to the constant draw of electricity most electronic devices have. That power draw is usually much lower than full operating levels, except in the case of your STB.

This little box continues to hum away at full power even when you've done your job of turning it off. And that means the energy savings from your new super efficient LCD TV – the one that prompted you to also buy a HD PVR Set Top Box to take full advantage of the technology – just got completely wiped out, and more.

No problem, right? Just plug the STB into a power bar and turn off the power bar at night. Well, if you do shut it right down, ,you'll prevent your STB from recording (if it's a PVR) and the unit will also have to reacquire the guide information you likely use to find what to watch.

The ENERGY STAR® STB

It's at this point that some of you might run off to the ENERGY STAR website looking for more efficient STBs. But while you may find information about STB efficiency, the bad news is that the standard hasn't been adopted by the industry.

The tricky part is that the company that makes the STB must meet certain criteria, and the cable provider must meet additional criteria. So far, the hardware is ready but the cable networks have not committed to the efficiency standard.

The Internet-based solution?

In general, the energy use ranking by TV delivery channel – from most to least – is roughly satellite, cable, then internet.

Internet-based TV services offered by the likes of TELUS and AT&T use the broadband internet to deliver TV content. Their STBs usually consume less, but some of those savings are lost to the need for additional Internet hardware, such as a modem and router.

Cable and satellite boxes are getting more efficient so the difference will likely not last forever.

What can you do?

A couple things you can do to reduce energy use associated with TV watching:

  • If you have satellite or cable, try to limit your service to using a single PVR. Other TVs in the house should use the simpler non-recording units. If you have an Internet based service there is a new technology that allows a single PVR in the house to present the saved content to any of the smaller boxes in the house. This technology is also coming to cable services but not yet available in Canada.
  • Consider upgrading to a new STB and recycling the old. The new units of all types of service are much more efficient then products bought just two years ago.
  • If you go on vacation and have no scheduled recordings, consider unplugging your STB. This will save you energy and for PVRs also retain the saved content you recorded before.

Ultimately, because content is king, it's unlikely the energy footprint of hardware will factor much into your decision on which service provider to go with. But it should be something you're aware of.

Service providers are starting to see energy consumption as a key aspect of their service. So don't be surprised if, in the next couple of years, when you turn off your STB it really does turn off.

Tony Mauro is a Power Smart engineer and regular contributor to both Unplug This Blog! and futureshop.ca's BrandTalk blog.