Article

10/30/12

TECH BEAT: Slay Vampire Energy with Gadgets, Not Gore

You may already have worn a fang-tastic Halloween costume hanging in your closet, but have you thought about the vampires lurking in your home? Vampire energy – also known as phantom load, standby power, or idle current – is the electricity that outlets greedily suck from what plugs into them, even if that plugged-in device is off or on sleep mode. 

Today’s most notorious vampires – besides Twilight's Edward Cullen – are TVs and their accessories. With set-top boxes, DVRs, DVD players, speakers, and game consoles, your turned-off TV can draw significant power. Such big energy vampires likely are sucking nearly a month’s worth of electricity annually for your household. But you can cut the vast majority of that wasted energy through some techie tips.

Here’s how to keep vampires from taking a bite out of your wallet:

Power Strips

The most direct way to cut off energy vampires is just to unplug them. Many vampire slayers connect multiple devices to a power strip and flip one switch to cut power to them all.

Power strips come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including ones that allow you to rotate the outlets. And some, like the Belkin Conserve Switch Surge Protector ($39), have a remote control.  

If you want a bite-sized version, get the newly patented OnPlug ($7): It’s a single outlet that plugs into your wall and lights up when energy – including vampire energy – runs through it. To sever the flow of power, just flip the tiny switch on the side of the plug.

Smart Power Strips

Regular power strips function just like a wall socket when set to “on,” so they draw vampire power from plugged-in devices. But smart vampire slayers are using smart power strips, many of which connect to WiFi and come with apps to monitor home energy use from your mobile device. There are three main types of smart power strips:

Timer-Equipped

Timer-equipped smart strips have outlets that are controlled by programmable timers. You schedule the plugged-in devices to automatically turn off or on. Belkins' WeMo products – including the WeMo Switch for a single outlet ($50) – allows you to put your whole home on a schedule and control it from your phone.

Occupancy Sensing

Occupancy sensing smart strips have outlets that are controlled by a motion detector. Devices plugged into them automatically turn on/off in response to your physical presence. ‚ÄčThe WeMo Switch mentioned above also comes with a motion sensor ($99.99). And the WattStopper Isolé IDP-3050 ($90-$100, depending on retailer) is an eight-outlet strip that comes with a sensor that you can mount under your desk. It automatically powers up when it senses movement into the room, but you set a period of time – from 30 seconds to 30 minutes – for the device to power down after a room becomes vacant. 

Current Sensing

Current sensing smart strips detect when a device plugged into its “master outlet” has entered a low-powered sleep mode or is off, and then automatically turns off any “slave” outlets connected to accessories (it also detects when a main device turns on, and then wakes up the accessories). This function makes it easier to cut power to peripherals when a PC or TV is off. 

  • Bits Limited’s Smart Strips ($30-$50, depending upon features) can monitor electricity use and automatically cut power to devices in standby mode.
  • The UFO Power Center ($130) has four sockets, and you assign “roles” to each socket so the device knows to shut down power when connected devices are not in use. What’s more, the EnergyUFO app tells you the real-time energy cost of the devices plugged into it, and allows you to turn them off from your phone. 
  • The Energy Saving Smart Surge Protector from Niagara Conservation features one master outlet; four slave outlets that automatically (and in less than 1 nanosecond) switch devices on and off based on the master's power level; and three "always on" outlets. It also uses less than 1 watt when fully energized.

Just like regular power strips, the smart ones come bite-sized: ThinkEco's modlet (short for “modern outlet”) works like a smart strip for one socket. The two-pronged, plug-in device automatically cuts vampire energy and displays real-time energy use via the Internet. It’s $50 for a starter kit (including a modlet, USB, and web-based software). But depending on how many modlets you use, ThinkEco says the gadget pays for itself within a year.

Video: Learn more about the modlet.

Chargers

Watch those wall warts: Chargers with boxy plugs and other AC adapters suck a significant amount of electricity when they are connected to a laptop or mobile phone that is fully charged, as well as (but to a lesser extent) when it’s just left dangling from the wall. 

If you’re OK with paying more for automation, get one of Bracketron’s GreenZero chargers, in ergonomic mushroom and smooth stone shapes ($25-$40). When you plug in a USB cable, the gadget lights up while it’s charging your device and completely shuts off power when it’s fully charged.

Other Ways to Slay Energy Vampires

  • Remember digital picture frames: In addition to obvious electronics, remember that your digital picture frame can be a vampire. Don’t treat it like any other piece of art – plug digital frames into your power strip and turn them off with the other items that you put to rest when you leave the room.
  • Inquire about set-top boxes and DVRs: Ask your cable company if it offers an energy-efficient version of its equipment.
  • Measure your energy: Handheld power meters, such as the Kill A Watt, tell you how much energy different devices consume.