Beware the Phantom in Your Home

It’s out there ... 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, consuming constantly. It’s in virtually every home in the country. It may not have a big appetite, but it is eating every minute of every day. It may not run up your grocery bill - but it does add up on your power bill.

“It” is phantom power, also referred to as standby power: that little trickle of electricity used by many appliances in our homes even when they are turned off. Bizarre as that sounds, it’s true – many things in our homes use power even after we turn them off.

Why would something be designed that way? The answer is convenience.

Years ago, there was no such thing as phantom power. When you turned things off, they were 100% off.

But then along came a revolution in home electronics. We were introduced to televisions with innovations like remote control and quick-on – and we quickly fell in love with them. Before long, stereos had remotes too. Then microwave ovens got clocks, so they could be programmed to have supper cooked when we arrived home. Then along came new types of electronics, like VCRs and DVDs. They were programmable, so we could record shows even when we weren’t at home. We’ve continued to snap up new electronic gadgets ever since.

All with wonderful features, but all with something in common: they use power every minute of every day, even when turned off.

Why is that? Well, a remote control doesn’t work unless the TV you’re pointing it at can pick up its signal – so the TV has to be ‘listening’ all the time, and that takes power.

A programmable function on a DVD or microwave is useless unless there’s a clock built in to tell it when to start.

So thanks to these convenience features, virtually every TV, DVD, stereo and microwave oven in North America today is drawing a few watts of power this very minute.

How many watts? Well, my TV and VCR each use 8 watts while switched off. My DVD uses 9 watts, and my stereo uses 2 watts. The total, 27 watts, is equal to having 2 compact fluorescent lights on continuously. Just keeping those electronics plugged in is costing me about $24 per year.

That may not sound like much, but our home also has a microwave oven, a stove with a clock, cordless phones, an answering machine, a couple of portable stereos, a pair of walkie-talkies and a computer with all the attachments. Natural Resources Canada estimates that the average home has 25 or more of such products, all adding up on the monthly power bill.

So what can a homeowner do about it?

First, identify the culprits. I’ve already mentioned most of them, but perhaps computers deserve special mention because of our tendency to leave everything running all the time. My computer uses 60 watts, the monitor uses 50 watts and the wireless router uses 8 watts.

And many gadgets that can run on electricity or batteries have a transformer in their power cord – that black block, often on the plug end. If they’re warm when plugged in, they are drawing power.

Where possible, plug electronics into a power bar and turn the bar off when things are not in use. A power bar can eliminate standby power, and you can get one for less than $10 at most hardware stores. Simply unplugging things is another option.

Of course, there’s a certain downside: blinking clocks or clocks that always show 12:00; and the nuisance factor. It’s up to each of us to decide how far we want to go.

The longer term solution will come when you upgrade your home electronics. Look for the ENERGY STAR logo when you buy, because products with that logo use 1 watt or less in standby mode. Natural Resources Canada estimates that if all electronics in Canada were ENERGY STAR, it would save enough power to run 400,000 homes. That’s all of New Brunswick and then some.

So banish the phantom from your home by switching off, unplugging and buying efficient new electronics. It will help make your power bill a bit less scary.

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Carl Duivenvoorden is one of two Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver live presentations of “An Inconvenient Truth”. He lives in Upper Kingsclear, and can be reached via his website,

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