Why your cable set-top box is an energy vampire

Powering your cable set-top box and DVR may be the biggest part of your electricity bill.
Written by Laura Shin, Contributor

Your cable set-top box may be guzzling more power than your refrigerator.

A new study shows that these little boxes as well as digital video recorders (DVRs) such as TiVos have become the biggest consumers of electricity in many American homes.

One of each of these energy vampires can devour 10% more energy than a 21-cubic foot energy-efficient refrigerator, according to the study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (pdf).

Collectively, these energy hogs, which number 160 million in American homes, eat up a staggering amount of electricity and money. They consume more than 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually -- more power than the state of Maryland uses in a year -- and cost Americans $3 billion a year to power.

Why set-top boxes are such energy vampires

Set-top boxes wolf down a lot of energy for several reasons. First, they are on 100% of the time, but we only use them a third of the time. (This means that Americans pay $1 billion a year to use them -- and $2 billion a year to not use them.)

Second, manufacturers don't make them with efficiency in mind. In Europe, similar devices have a standby mode that cuts their power use in half, or they have a "deep sleep" mode that slashes energy use by 95%.

However, powering them down or putting them in sleep mode means that users have to wait for them to reconnect when they are turned back on. In the U.S., depending on your cable company's hardware, software and network, reconnecting could take a short time such as 45 seconds or as long as a few hours.

Third, low government standards mean that many set-top boxes can receive a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star rating without even offering a standby or sleep mode. However, over the next few years, Energy Star qualified products will face more stringent requirements, with the average electricity consumption being dropped 30% by September 1 and even lower by mid-2013.

Finally, there's low customer demand for more efficient models. As reported in this New York Times article,

Cable providers and box manufacturers like Cisco Systems, Samsung and Motorola currently do not feel consumer pressure to improve box efficiency. Customers are generally unaware of the problem — they do not know to blame the unobtrusive little device for the rise in their electricity bills, and do not choose their boxes anyway.

The article quotes John Wilson, a former member of the California Energy Commission who is now with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation:

[W]hen he was on the California Energy Commission, he asked box makers why the hard drives were on all the time, using so much power. The answer: “Nobody asked us to use less.”

Suggested improvements

The NRDC estimates that better-designed set-top boxes could use 30% to 50% less electricity by 2020. Some of its recommendations include designing such appliances so that they have a deep sleep mode that requires minimal wake-up time and so that service providers can remotely wake set-top boxes from deep sleep.

In the meantime, if you want to slash your electricity bills, you could set a timer on your set-top box so it powers off when you're not at home and then starts up again before you get back.

via: The New York Times

Photo: emilbacik

Chart: Natural Resources Defense Council

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards