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Time to unplug

Phantom power may be causing rising energy bills

A common energy-waster called "phantom power" may be to blame for rising energy bills. Also named "vampire power" for sucking energy out of walls, phantom power results from leaving ordinary household appliances and other electronics plugged in the wall.

Devices with phantom power can include cell phone and laptop chargers, televisions, coffee makers, stoves and power tools.

Usually, any charging cord that features a small box near the end of the line, known as a transformer, draws energy and keeps the appliance warm and ready even if the device is turned off.

Over the years, loads of phantom power have increased significantly, according to Debbie Mytels, associate director of the Green@Home programs for Acterra. Acterra offers the High Energy Homes Project, which helps homeowners identify energy "leaks" through an online analysis home audit. An observation they made through numerous home audits is that plug loads are what cause high utility bills -- not the actual size of the home.

Mytels suggested the way to start reducing high utility bills is to first determine if certain devices have phantom power. The way to do this is by checking for any type of light or digital clock on appliances; if there is one, then sure enough, the device has phantom power.

Once phantom power is detected, Mytels said it would be beneficial to use a Kill-A-Watt Meter. This connects to an appliance or device and assesses the amount of energy being used. Because the Kill-A-Watt Meter is usually used just once, Darshana Greenfield, a volunteer for Acterra in its Green@Home program, suggests sharing it with neighbors -- or borrowing one from the library.

Kill-A-Watt Meters can be purchased at hardware or appliance stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot. Prices range from $20 to $40.

For some people unplugging devices to save energy can be a dilemma. If they tend to utilize a digital clock or want to record something on their television from their DVR, constantly unplugging appliances is an issue. An answer to this is purchase a Smart Power Strip or a basic plug strip, according to Mytels.

A Smart Power Strip features three different outlets -- one for something that needs to be plugged in at all times including a DVR, another as a control spot for items that turn on when the TV turns on, for example, and finally a personally controlled one for devices such as speakers or video-game consoles. The Smart Power Strip sells for around $30.

A basic plug strip (at around $5-6) is an alternate option for energy efficiency. Unlike the Smart Strip, a basic cable strip is personally controlled and does not feature an outlet for standby mode. Greenfield prefers a basic plug strip because "a Smart Power Strip uses more power compared to a plug strip." With a basic strip you can still turn it off and on.

"For folks who don't use their computers constantly, a plug strip for a computer/printer is also a great idea," Greenfield added.

Greenfield also noted that when devices are left plugged in they emit a certain magnetic field that stimulates the brain, which can be troublesome when trying to fall asleep, especially if a cell phone is left plugged in on a night stand.

When asked if unplugging devices to save energy outweighs the benefits of a clock or DVR for example, Mytels said, "It is an individual choice. People need to be cautious, especially with devices that offer no additional value when plugged in."

Age of a home plays another role in increasing energy bills. According to Mytels, older homes tend to not have up-to-date insulation and energy grids. Newer homes have to meet fuel efficiency and building standards from Title 24 within the California Code of Regulations. Some of these regulations include requirements for green design, energy efficiency and electrical and mechanical systems of the building.

Luxury appliances, usually found in larger homes, do not meet these regulation requirements because they are very expensive to maintain due to their lack of energy efficiency. An example of this type of appliance is a heated towel rack, which promises a warm towel after a shower or bath every time. Unlike common appliances, luxury products such as the heated towel rack are not EnergyStar-rated and use an extensive amount of energy -- about $500 worth a year, according to Mytels.

Research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows that a single device using phantom power will not significantly increase energy bills. If an appliance on standby mode continuously consumes 1 watt of energy for one year the cost would equal about $1. Annually, digital clocks or radios consume an average of $2 worth of phantom power; laptops, $4; power tools, up to $8; computer speakers, $4; DVD players, $7; and game consoles, $23.

Because households usually tend to use multiple devices that acquire phantom power, such as the examples previously listed, the amount of energy consumed can substantially add up.

According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, proper energy-saving measures can decrease phantom-power use by 30 percent.

To help improve home-energy efficiency, the Palo Alto Utilities Department offers the Smart Energy Rebate Program. If an energy-sufficient or EnergyStar-approved product is purchased, federal tax credit will become available -- another way to start becoming energy efficient.

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Like this comment
Posted by Debbie Mytels
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm

On behalf of Acterra, we appreciate the article highlighting the importance of home energy conservation. However, there are a few points that need clarification:

1.Acterra has two home energy programs that are a free service to residents: Green@Home serves Palo Alto and several other local cities. Palo Alto residents who would like a free Green@Home HouseCall, including the installation of energy- and water-saving devices, may contact Acterra at

2. Because of its funding source, the High Energy Homes program only serves residents of Atherton, Los Altos Hills, Monte Sereno, Portola Valley and Woodside. For more information, see

3. There's no need to purchase a Kill-a-Watt meter. You can check one out for free from any of the Palo Alto libraries. Ask at the reference desk.

4. Contrary to what the article implies, a low-cost "basic" power strip will not serve the purpose of retaining the programming on your Tivo or other DVR system. To keep your programming, you need to purchase a "smart" power strip with an outlet for the DVR that is marked "Always On." While a "smart" strip does draw a small amount of power (1 to 3 watts), it is minimal compared to the typical 40 watts or more than can be saved by its use.

We welcome questions about home energy saving techniques and challenges. Call us at (962-9876 x306 or write your questions in to our website: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Brit
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 25, 2011 at 6:42 pm

In Britain all power sockets have a switch at the wall to turn them off. Good idea and can save energy. The other idea is to use a power strip which has a switch to turn off all appliances plugged into the strip.

Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 25, 2011 at 9:43 pm

It is much easier to fuss over trivia than to face the real problem.

Ban all electric heating and cooking. Why? Because generating plants waste 70% of their fuel energy. No fault of theirs; it's the laws of thermodynamics.

It means electric stoves use 3 times the fuel energy to cook a meal as a gas stove does. In other words, the carbon footprint of your electric range is 3 times that of your neighbor's gas range. Your microwave oven's footprint is 6 times bigger. Same goes for electric heaters vs gas furnaces. The equivalence is very direct--most of the electric power generated in California comes from burning natural gas.

So forget those dinky little wall warts. Pull the bigger plugs on your electric stove, microwave, and electric heaters. Save exotic, environmentally expensive electric power for the things nothing else can do.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 26, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Always on circuits are for the purpose of storing information or expediting turning things on - probably less needed now with newer circuits. Vampire or phantom power? Really, now.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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