How many like to give money away? I don’t mean charitable giving; I mean paying for something and getting absolutely nothing in return.  Across the country and around the globe we spend millions each year for electricity that we never use. Called phantom power or vampire power, devices all over our homes and businesses are sucking electricity even when they are “turned off”. In the average home this can account for 5-10% of your electric bill. In businesses the power used at “the plug” can be the third or fourth highest user of electricity in an office behind the HVAC and lighting.

In some cases, this phantom power is used to keep a computer or TV in stand-by mode so that it starts in an instant. Other devices use the power to run clocks. From my kitchen I can see four or five different appliances that have a clock…and they never display exactly the same time! Still other devices use the power to do, well, nothing at all.
One of the gifts my wife gave me for Christmas this year was a Kill-A-Watt. (

The Kill-A-Watt comes in two models. I have the Kill-A-Watt EZ which has some additional features. The basic operation of both models is very easy. They plug into any wall outlet, then the device or devices that you want to measure plug into the Kill-A-Watt. It then measures the amount of electricity being consumed and projects the usage over a day, week, month and year. The longer it measures the usage the more accurate the projections become.

On the EZ model, you can also enter the rate your electric company charges for electricity. The EZ can then calculate costs of the electricity over the same time periods. Now, entering the rate sounds easier than it might actually be. After receiving the EZ, I grabbed our latest electric bill and was amazed to find out the actual rate appears nowhere on the bill. In fact, from the invoice itself, it is impossible to verify the accuracy of the charges.

Not to be deterred, I called our local electric company. After waiting on hold for a few minutes, I was greeted by a very friendly customer service clerk, who told me that the rates were “too complicated to describe over the phone” and instead, directed me to their website.

I jumped on the web, browsed to their site and proceeded to try to decipher the THIRTY SIX pages of disclosures and descriptions of how my electricity is charged. In the mean time, my wife called back to the electric company and got a supervisor on the phone. He was very nice and tried for 30 minutes to explain the calculations. He was especially proud of the fact that they had not raised residential rates in over 10 years. While, I guess that is true of the base service rates, but did not take into consideration the rider for Demand Management Programs (which I take to be the utility’s costs to promote residential electric efficiency, really, we have to pay extra for that?), nor does it include the Fuel Cost rider that is now being assessed, although it was calculated when oil was almost $150 a barrel rather than the $40 some a barrel today; nor does it include the rider for Environmental Compliance, which means we get to pay the utility for doing something they should have been doing all along, and oh, by the way, we also pay for the Green Power Initiative (and I am very happy to do so) which means our power comes from 100% renewable sources, so we pay for them to clean up from the coal and we don’t even use coal power (don’t even get me started on “clean” coal).
But, I digress. I was really writing about the Kill-A-Watt and phantom power. I have been surprised, not only by the amount of phantom power we use, but how easy it has been to begin to make changes. Admittedly they are small changes, but old habits are hard to break, and old lessons are hard to relearn. For years, we were taught to leave our computers on…all the time. How many hours a day does it sit idle? 15? 20? More? Our televisions are in standby when not in use, still consuming power.

Changing these behaviors and relearning these lessons in our offices can have even more of an impact. Walk through your office after hours some time. Count the number of office lights, conference room lights, and hallway lights still burning bright. Then look at how many computers are still turned on, monitors either in full display or with screensavers running. How many other devices are plugged in and using power? It could run into the thousands of dollars a year in utility costs for even an average sized office. Simply turning off the computers at the power strip could make a significant impact to the bottom line!

3 replies
  1. Timothy Holtz
    Timothy Holtz says:

    Jeff, with your advance technological background, I know that you’re familiar with the arguable benefit of the warm stand-by used for many appliances: some basic settings are maintained for the system during the time its powered off. Similar to the ‘hassles’ that occur when your car battery is replaced and all of the personalized settings in the cockpit are reset…

    I’m curious if you know of a proposed alternative to simply keeping circuits warm? (and not relying on a watch battery, which is for very short-term timeframes) Does Energy Star cover this topic at all? Are there other nonvolatile methods available?

    As a side note, my father has always been aggravated with this form of wasted energy and powers his TV and stereo equipment off at the source every time. Now his TV doesn’t retain the list of programmed channels and his stereo’s internal battery is also shot and does not retain any station presets or customizations. Its with this in mind that I would love to know of manufacturing alternatives!

  2. Timothy Holtz
    Timothy Holtz says:

    Oh wow, in my haste I forgot to mention that I also received a Kill-a-Watt for Christmas! It was from my brother-in-law who is new into Architecture and very active in the sustainable building community.

    I will report my findings soon as well!

  3. Jeffrey Ton
    Jeffrey Ton says:

    I can’t wait to hear about your results with your Kill-a-Watt! To respond to your other comment, I agree there need to be advances made, perhaps storing profiles and preferences on flash storage etc. In the mean time I have done things like put my TV, sound system and DVD on to one power strip and my cable box/DVR onto another power strip. That way I can shut off all the power to the devices that don’t really need to save preferences while at the same time leaving the DVR with power to record the shows we want. Not a perfect solution, but a step in the right direction, I think. Doing a similar thing in my office. My laptop, monitor, and speakers are on one strip, and my printer and print server are on another one. Again, I can shut off my laptop et al, while leaving the printer and print server on and available to the other PC’s on my network.


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