'Vampire' appliances – they suck electricity even when switched off – cost consumers $3 billion a year, says Cornell energy expert

The typical American home has 20 electrical appliances that bleed consumers of money. That's because the appliances continue to suck electricity even when they're off, says a Cornell University energy expert. His studies estimate that these so-called "vampire" appliances cost consumers $3 billion a year – or about $200 per household.

"Off doesn't mean off anymore, but standby," says Mark Pierce, a Cornell Cooperative Extension associate in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis (DEA) in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "As a result, we're using the equivalent of seven electrical generating plants just to supply the amount of electricity needed to support the standby power of our vampire appliances when they're off."

And since much of electricity generated in the United States comes from fossil-fuel power plants, vampire appliances significantly contribute to the production of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, Pierce says in a recent issue of Housing and Home Environment News (summer 2002), a DEA publication.

Electrical appliances slurp up energy even when switched off in order to support features such as timers, clocks, memory and remote "on" and "off" switches, says Pierce. "Satellite receivers for televisions and VCRs, among other appliances, use almost as much electricity when they are switched off as when they are on," he points out.

Satellite TV systems and some DVD players, for example, each cost about $9 a year for standby power; an energy-thirsty TV can cost more than $10 a year. The vampire appliance bill becomes significant when audio systems, garage-door openers, clock radios, phone/answering machines, microwave ovens and standard ovens are included.

The standby power of a computer monitor, however, only costs about $3 a year when the computer is shut down nights and weekends. However, if the computer's "sleep" function is used, the power costs $41 a year for those nights and weekends – almost as much as the $57 a year it costs to run the computer just on weekdays.

Worldwide, standby power consumes an average of 7 percent of a home's total electricity bill, although that figure is as much as 25 percent in some homes. In Australia, standby power accounts for 13 percent of total energy use; in Japan it accounts for 12 percent; and in the United States, 5 percent.

Increasing the efficiency of appliances would cut standby power consumption by about 72 percent, according to a recent study by the International Energy Agency in France.

"Yet the vast majority of consumers aren't even aware that electrical appliances continue to draw electricity when switched off," says Pierce. "And even if they were aware, they would not be able to purchase a non-vampire, or at least a less voracious vampire appliance, because no regulation requires manufacturers to label how much electricity their appliances draw when off."

What can consumers do? Pierce offers several actions:

  • If timers and other features aren't being used, consumers can turn off their most wasteful appliances by plugging them into fuse-protected power strips (also known as surge protectors) that, when turned off, can disrupt the flow of electricity when the appliances aren't being used.
  • Consumers can encourage their U.S. representatives to support legislation that would require labeling of appliances with their standby energy requirements.
  • When choosing a new appliance, consumers can research if it uses less than 1 watt of standby power by accessing web sites such as http://standby.lbl.gov/data/1wproducts.html at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

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