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Phantom power

The terms "phantom" and "vampire" conjure up images of creatures that lurk unseen in the shadows and suck the lifeblood of their victims. They also describe the increasing number of home electronic devices -- from computers and televisions to clock radios and cell phone chargers -- that suck up energy even after they've been turned off.

This phenomenon of electronics using energy when they are turned off is known as phantom load. Although it might not seem like a big deal, it can add considerably to your annual hydro bill and is what Ontario's Chief Conservation Officer Peter Love calls "the fastest-growing source of electricity consumption in people's homes."

The cost of phantom load
"There are more and more electronic devices and things with clocks and remote controls that operate in what we call standby power. You think the device is turned off, but what you don't realize is that you're using a lot of electricity," says Love.

Just how much electricity they use is only starting to be quantified. In his book The Carbon Busters Home Energy Handbook: Slowing Climate Change and Saving Money, Godo Stoyke estimates that "roughly speaking, each watt of vampire power costs you one dollar per year. So, if you have 25 power vampires consuming an average of seven watts each, they will cost you $175 per year and emit about 2,000 pounds of CO2."

To get an idea of how much energy was being wasted in their homes, members of the East Toronto Climate Action Group (ETCAG) purchased two electricity meters and are measuring the phantom load in their homes. They're keeping charts indicating how many watts various devices use when in use and when ostensibly in the "off" mode.

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Here are a few samples of what they've found so far:

In Martina's home, she has mostly true on/off appliances, such as a toaster that's either in use or not, thus drawing no hidden power. Still, she plugs her computer, printer and desk lamp into a power bar that draws 19 watts of electricity in its "off" mode.

In Toderick's home, the computer draws 21 watts when turned off, while the stereo draws another 26 watts. Dave and Julie discovered their TV/VCR draws a whopping 44 watts even when they don't have it turned on.

The cost of entertainment
Love says TVs and their peripheral devices are among the biggest culprits when it comes to phantom load. "Set-top boxes used to bring in high-definition television are a huge area of concern," he says.

Overall, one estimate pegs the amount of energy used by electronics in a typical Canadian household at a whopping 1,200 kWh a year -- equivalent to two refrigerators. This assumes an average household has two televisions, one a large-screen, high-definition TV with a DVD player/VCR and set-top box, and the other a small-screen analog with a DVD player/VCR and digital cable box. Applying an industry estimate of six percent phantom load, these devices alone will cost you almost $80 in wasted electricity.

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-- Posted: July 20, 2007
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