Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Another Fine Myth

No, not the marvelous book by Robert Lynn Asprin...just another semi-debunking by yours truly. I've read, several times, articles by frugal folks that claim that you need to unplug all of your appliances, TVs, computers, etc., even while they're not powered on due to the whole issue of "phantom power". Phantom power appears to be the consumption of power by the circuitry of devices when they're in a standby state, without being fully powered on. If you unplug those appliances, you'll save lots of money, they claim.

A little background - first, I live in a state where we have pretty cheap power, generated mostly by hydroelectric means, so YMMV if you live in New York or California. Second, even if there were some amount of phantom power being consumed, I'd be willing to put up with it for the convenience of having some things always ready to power on, and we all know it's a real pain to have to reprogram the clock on your microwave, VCR and everything else in the house that has one, so the cost savings would have to be pretty large, as a percentage of my total power bill, for me to make the change.

I bought a little device at Home Depot last weekend called a Kill-a-Watt, which measures the power consumption of any device plugged in to a 120V electrical outlet. You can program your per-kilowatt-hour-cost (look at the rates on your most recent power bill) into it, and it will automatically calculate the hourly, daily, weekly, monthly or annual costs of the device - based on 24x7 usage. Unfortunately, it has no way to monitor the 220V appliances around the house, like my dryer, furnace, oven and water heater, as I suspect those are the big draws to begin with.

My total average monthly electric bill is $120 - higher in summer and winter, lower in spring and fall.

Here's some of my results:

The charger for my cordless drill, which I leave plugged in all the time, and which has a glowing green LED. Total Cost per month $0.

An entire group of charging devices for my wife's and my cell phones, bluetooth headset, Nook e-book reader, and Zune music player, plugged into a single power strip. Total Cost per month $0.05.

My wireless printer/scanner/copier on standby. Total Cost per month $0.38.

A dorm room fridge that used to belong to my son, that we keep soft drinks cold in, in the pantry. Total cost per month $1.42.

40" Flat Screen TV, Cable Box and BluRay player with WiFi. Total cost per month $2.29.

A 60W bulb in a light fixture on an end table in the living room. Total cost per month $3.11.

Two computers and all the peripherals in our home office. Total cost per month $3.93.

The refrigerator in the kitchen. Total cost per month $8.00. Now we're getting somewhere. By the way, the freezer out in the garage was drawing no power at all - but it's the middle of winter and about twenty degrees Fahrenheit anyway. I need to check it this summer.

The biggest draw is the block heater for my diesel pickup truck. Total cost per month $47.10. Good thing I've got it on a timer, so it only runs four hours early in the morning, which takes me back to around $8 per month. I read somewhere the other day that I could cut that down to one hour, but I'd hate to wake up and find out that wasn't long enough, and the truck wouldn't start.

I forgot to write down the result of running the washing machine through a couple of loads, but it was minimal; even less than a light bulb for a month's worth of laundry.

My conclusion is that phantom power is not as much of a big deal as they are claiming. It appears to be about the same amount as leaving one 60W bulb burning all day and night. Perhaps not the most thrifty of behaviors, but it's not going to make a big difference in your power bill. I'm pretty certain the best bang for the buck can be found in:
  • having a reasonably new energy efficient heating and cooling system installed in the first place, using a programmable thermostat to regulate temperature efficiently, and perhaps keeping the temperature just a little lower in the winter and higher in the summer than you'd really love to.
  • Keeping the water temperature setting on your water heater set in such a way as to ensure you have sufficient hot water for personal needs, while not keeping it too hot all the time.
  • Using your clothes dryer as little as possible.
  • Not forgetting to turn off the oven or (if you have an electric one) stove after you're finished cooking or baking.
  • If you do have lights that you leave on all night, for security reasons, or just to keep you from running into things, it might be a good idea to put them on an appliance timer - usually about $6 at the hardware store - to keep them from staying on during daylight hours when you're forgetful.


Loni said...

That's basically what I thought Phantom Power would amount to. Thanks for doing all this and sharing the results!

Jon said...

Loni - You're welcome. I'm planning on checking the new LED lights one of these days for power consumption, just to verify or disprove all the hype for myself. I tried out CFL bulbs when they first became available - bought ten of them and put them in fixtures around the house. Many of them did not last long, and the ones that survived had such horrible quality of lighting that I finally removed them after about six months and replaced them with incandescents once more.

Loni said...

Really? I only have CFL bulbs in my house. They work great and last forever. I can't remember the last time I changed a light bulb. Maybe it was the brand?

I look forward to seeing your results of the LED lights.