Unplug this blog!

That glow below your TV could be a sign that you're wasting energy

Posted by Tony Mauro

Give yourself a solid pat on the back if you bought an ENERGY STAR 5.1-qualified TV.  Now, before you brag to your friends about being eco-savvy, take a step back from the TV and follow that mess of cables down, way down.

Did you forget about all those black and silver boxes hanging out, looking out at you through glowing LEDs?  Now that you’ve greened your TV could it be those sources of content are now sucking down more power then your TV ever could?

Quick inventory:

  • DVD Player: Check
  • VCR: Check
  • 5.1 Surround Sound Stereo: Check
  • Cable or Satellite HD PVR (Personal Video Recorder): Check
  • Xbox 360, PS3, Wii: Check, Check, Check

A lot of stuff there, not including more niche items like AppleTV, Roku, or the Slingbox, but I think you get the idea.  There’s a lot going on down there,  and where there are electronic devices,  there’s an opportunity to reduce your energy waste and save some money.

What’s entertainment for you?

Everyone has different entertainment needs, from the avid cable TV watcher to the cinephile and the uber gamer. One solution to reduce power does not fit everyone, so look at different strategies.

The traditional TV watcher

You’ve got all the gear, but most of your viewing time is spent with your cable box humming along as you tune in exactly when the show comes on. You have a PVR but are still scratching your head as to how to make it work.

Some might laugh at this, but studies in the U.S. indicate that certain types of people are upsold to the PVR but continue regular viewing habits.  If this is you, there are two smart choices: get acquainted with the PVR or go back to using a standard cable box. 

If you’re not using your PVR because you prefer to sit down and watch shows as they’re broadcast, your best bet might be to sell that PVR and purchase a plain vanilla set top box.  Right off you’ll see a power reduction of 50% in that unit!. 

Some PVRs churn away at 30 watts per hour on a 24/7 schedule ($21 per year!), while a high-definition set-top box (that box that turns on when you watch TV) will hum away at a more palatable 15 watts per hour ($10 per year!).  Newer PVRs are more energy efficient but still go all day and all night.

All or none TV watcher

You’ve got that integrated Logitech Harmony remote that turns on your TV, PVR, and stereo so you can immerse yourself in TV.  It’s the set-up that’s the envy of your friends, but ask yourself whether the surround sound of the evening news is something you’d miss?

How about the laugh track on your favourite sitcom?  5.1 surround sound enhances the viewing experience, but there are times when it doesn’t add anything more then extra power consumption. You got that low power TV but now have a stereo fired up to a whopping 75W just so you can find out that tomorrow has the chance of rain (I live in Vancouver so that’s always the forecast). 

With a Canadian average of five hours of TV watching per day, that’s about $140/year to hear Global TV's Steve Darling in surround sound.

If you have an advanced remote (like a Logitech Harmony Remote), maybe it’s time to create a few more actions. Consider one for watching the news, your favourite sitcoms or cake decorating show on TLC –  turn on only the TV and set-top box but leave the stereo humming in standby mode (1W!).

The other action could be for high-action, blow-things-up programs, musical drama or dance reality shows. It takes about five minutes to create such options with remotes that support actions, but can really cut down on that power consumption.

Movie buff and full-season TV show watcher

I see the numbers growing for this type of TV viewer, and I don’t see that growth slowing with Netflix now in Canada.  At  the end of the cable TV season, many people opt for renting or downloading their favourite shows and watching them like a movie.

Again, the lessons from the previous group apply here – set up an action so that you only use surround sound when you need it.  If you do all your watching using DVDs, that’s great.

A lot of DVD players meet the ENERGY STAR criteria, and if yours doesn’t, maybe it’s an excuse to upgrade to a BluRay player (but recycle that old DVD player!).  If in your mind DVDs are what your parents used and you get all your content online, then a little more thought might need to be put into this.

There is no current ENERGY STAR guideline for set-top boxes that are internet-based (not tied to your cable provider), so they can go crazy with power draw. And if you use your game console (Xbox or PS3) for watching DVDs, BluRay, or online content, you could be drawing up to 10 times the power  by using that device.

So if you don’t game, but use the console for movies, it might actually be a good investment to power down the console and buy a specialized box to view such content.

Game game GAME (then shut it off)

If you are all about Call of Duty or Halo and have no interest in watching someone show you content – you’d rather create the action yourself – this is your section.

Game consoles are one of the largest energy-consuming products that live below your TV.  When on, they draw lots of power and when off, they still draw lots of power to ensure that they can get that online content quickly.

Different consoles have different energy profiles, but gamers select the product based on available content, not energy efficiency.  You can use Google to find a comparison of consoles’ energy efficiency, but buying a more energy efficient platform is not likely an option for you.

ENERGY STAR is in the process of creating a specification for this category. Meanwhile, for the active gamer, consoles represent the toughest area for trying to reduce electricity consumption.

Games take advantage of 5.1 surround sound, they light up the TV screen, and they have wireless controls so that you aren’t tethered to the device. So there’s no real tip for saving power while playing. That being said, power bar, power bar, power bar! 

If you have all the game consoles known to man, maybe two power bars are in order, one for the most used consoles and one for your late night historical Super Mario Brother events.

Other then getting console updates, patches, or PM online, there is not much reason to have these energy challenged devices running 24/7.  Turn them off! You can connect the entire entertainment system (TV, game console, stereo) to a power bar and flick it on or off.

If you have wireless controllers, use rechargeable batteries rather then USB or docked chargers so you don’t need to leave them plugged in charging. When you aren’t playing, keep it all off.

Learn to love the power bar

One really good suggestion that keeps coming around is to plug in entertainment devices that don’t need to be on all the time to a power bar. This prevents them from accidentally being left on and also kills the standby power draw.

The only products you should think twice about flipping off with a power bar are PVRs and set-top boxes, because they continually get content for the TV guide and become active to record shows.  A little inconvenience is normal with the power bar, but over the next few years you’ll be seeing new power bars that can be turned on and off with a remote,  which will just make it feel like another device (but also draw some standby power).

October is Power Smart Month

I want to finish with a reminder (if you haven’t seen the ads yet) that October is Power Smart Month. Take this opportunity to think about where you can take a step to reduce your energy consumption and to take advantage of limited-time savings on appliances, electronics and lighting.

Maybe this blog is the starting point, October is your month to rethink how your entertainment centre could be more energy efficient.  Feel free to post comments/questions and I’ll try to get some answers, but I’m sure if I don’t, there will be others in the blog community who can share their successes.

Tony Mauro is a Power Smart engineer and regular Unplug This Blog! contributor whose blog entries also appear on futureshop.ca's Tech Brand Talk blog.