When Worlds Collide #8: Beware of ‘Vampires’ Sucking Out Your Power!

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 25 March 2012

This year’s Earth Hour will be observed worldwide on Saturday 31 March 2012. That evening, millions of businesses and households will voluntarily switch off some or most night lights from 8.30 to 9.30 pm local time.

Earth Hour is an annual event to raise awareness on saving energy and taking personal action to mitigate climate change. It started in Australia in early 2007, when the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper asked its readers to join a synchronised switching off of non-essential lights for one hour.

Five years on, Earth Hour has grown into a truly global event. In 2011, it took place in a record 5,251 cities and towns in 135 countries and territories, with an estimated reach of 1.8 billion people.

Earth Hour is largely symbolic – we can’t save enough electricity in just an hour to make any dent in planetary energy consumption. But it reminds us of the need to conserve energy whenever and wherever possible.

In recent weeks, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Power and Energy has reiterated pleas for conserving electricity. “Switch off a bulb at your home during peak hours and save electricity,” they urge all consumers.

The minister was quoted in the media as saying that as much as a quarter of the country’s electricity is wasted due to inefficient use. Considering that over 80% of our electricity is thermally generated — using costly petroleum or coal — this is a colossal waste of imported fossil fuel. Not to mention needless carbon emissions.

Of course, most consumers don’t need official reminders: they just can’t afford to waste electricity due to the high — and still rising – costs.

So what more can we do to reduce our load? Here’s one: try banishing the ‘vampires’ who suck electricity inside our homes!

Let me explain. A large number of electronic and electrical products — from TVs and microwave ovens to air-conditioners and batter chargers — cannot be switched off completely unless we unplug them. To make it easier for us to use them at a moment’s notice, they come with a ‘standby’ mode. That is often indicated by those ‘little red eyes’.

The ‘price’ for this convenience is a small but constant quantity of ‘standby power’. It can range from less than 1 Watt to 25 Watts (or more) depending on the appliance. This is also known as vampire power, vampire draw, phantom load or leaking electricity. (These ‘vampires’ draw electricity, not blood!).

A common ‘electricity vampire’ is a power adapter which has no power-off switch. Some such devices offer remote controls and digital clock features to the user, while other devices, such as power adapters for laptop computers and other electronic devices, consume power without offering any extras.

The microwave oven is another example. Over its lifespan, it consumes more electricity for its digital clock than it does in heating food. (While heating food takes much more power, average home microwave oven stays in “standby” mode most of the time!)

We are taking about cumulative effect. The wasted standby power of an individual item is very small. But devices within a modern household add up to significant quantity over many months. When millions of such households are connected to the national grid, it becomes a whopping number.

Vampire power is a bigger problem in energy intensive households in more industrialised countries. But we are now catching up.

“A typical American home has 40 products constantly drawing power. Together, these amount to almost 10% of residential electricity use,” says the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in the US.

LBNL, which comes under the US Department of Energy and conducts unclassified research in a wide range of scientific disciplines, maintains a separate website on this topic: http://standby.lbl.gov/standby.html

The UK’s 2006 Energy Review found that standby modes on electronic devices account for 8% of all British domestic power consumption. Studies have come to similar conclusions in other industrialised countries such as the Netherlands, Australia and Japan. Some estimates suggest standby power wasting up to 13% of electricity in some economies.

Yet containing these vampires is within our power. Standby power drains can be avoided by simply unplugging devices. Or installing a power strip and using its switch to cut all power to the appliance. The US Department of Energy also advises consumers to unplug battery chargers when the batteries are fully charged.

There is only limited awareness on standby power consumption in Sri Lanka. The Sustainable Energy Authority, on their website under energy saving tips, says: “Do not leave the TV set on standby power.”

Indeed, the TV set is the best point to start – it is now the most common consumer electronic item in Sri Lanka (80% of households owned one in 2010). That is around 3.6 million TV sets.

“Some published data show TV standby loss as high as 7 Watts, but recent measurements done by a student of mine showed it to be 1 Watt,” says Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya, an electrical engineer with over 20 years of experience in state energy institutions and electric utilities both in Sri Lanka and overseas.

Even if all our TV sets had the (lower estimate) standby power consumption of 1W each, that still adds up to 3.6 megaWatts of preventable power waste. Clearly, a significant enough loss to merit attention?

“Computer screens standing-by on screen-saver (mode) use a lot more power,” Dr Siyambalapitiya says. With 12.5% our households having personal computers, this too is a growing concern.

Manufacturers are also paying more attention to standby power. The new power packs draw only 100 milliWatts in standby mode. Another solution is the ‘smart’ electronic switch that cuts power when there is no load, and restores it immediately when required.

But many power-guzzling items will continue to be in our homes for years to come. So let’s keep a sharp eye on those ‘little red eyes’!

A 2008 video explaining standby power (for American households):

‘Things That go Blip in the Night’ is a 2001 technical paper that studied the problem and solutions

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Energy Conservation, Environment, Power & Energy, Sri Lanka, Television and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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