Thursday, October 15, 2009

Banish Vampires To Reduce Global Warming

There’s something with tiny little teeth sucking on your electrical wires. The blood it draws isn’t just electrical current. It’s your money, a few cents at a time. It’s also your future, because while it’s trying to drain your bank account, it’s also heating the atmosphere and indirectly belching greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. What kind of a hideous creature could do this? One that’s a parasite on the equipment that you want and need for your business and home. It’s the dreaded electronic vampire!

Well, it should be dreaded. Sadly, it generally isn’t. If this was the type of vampire that lurched from behind a curtain and bit you in the neck, you’d quake in fear at its mere mention. But this vampire is more insidious. It hides inside perfectly acceptable electrical devices and does its biting behind your back. The damage isn’t a couple of bloody punctures from an attack that’s over in minutes. It’s a steady sip, sip, sipping of your precious resources. But the result is eventually the same as if you were attacked. You wake up and your whole world has changed.

So where do these electronic vampires live and how do you spot them?

That’s the tough part. These vampires are something like body snatchers, only for things that use electricity. They’re buried inside. You’ll know they’re around, though, because they leave indications. The first indication is a glowing light. Does anything you plug-in have a small red or green light that never goes off? Suspect a vampire inside. Is there any other visual indication of activity when you turn the equipment off? This might be an LCD display that still shows information, particularly a digital clock. It could be the sound of a fan running or the click-click-click of a hard drive being accessed. It could be a case that’s slightly warm to the touch. All of these are sure-fire indicators of a vampire inside.

One certain tip-off to vampire circuitry is a remote control. The remote runs on batteries and is likely not drawing any power until you push a button. But the device that it controls has to be awake to see the invisible beam of the remote. Even if the front panel is completely dark, there’s something hooked to an infrared detector or UHF receiver that continuously draws power on the odd chance that someone is going to push a remote button soon.

The new wireless network devices are power vampires. WiFi b/g/n is a power-intensive technology. That’s why smartphone and laptop computer manuals suggest you turn off WiFi access when you aren’t using it so your battery will last longer.

The truth is that the power switch is rarely a power switch anymore. It’s a stand-by switch. All you are doing when you turn off a computer, a television set, a printer, or even a coffee pot is switching the device from the high power to the low power consumption mode. A true power switch physically breaks the electrical circuit so that no electrons can flow.

The whole vampire power problem got started because people got antsy waiting for their vacuum tube television sets to warm up. They wanted instant-on. The only way to do that is to keep the picture tube filament on and up to temperature. It’s just like leaving a light bulb on all the time in a closet where you don’t see it. It’s still on, drawing power and producing heat.

Back in the vacuum tube days, there was no concern over continuous power draw in TVs nor any mention of global warming. But now we know better and more things than ever are drawing vampire power. Just how significant is it? Studies suggest that standby power draw can range from around 5% to over 25% of total energy consumption. Think about it. If we banished the vampires completely, homes and businesses would cut their monthly expenses by a significant amount and numerous coal-fueled power stations could be switched off with no adverse affect.

The effect of eliminating vampire standby power is even more significant. Every device that uses power generates heat. There may be no measurable effect on warming the entire atmosphere directly, but all that heat has to be dealt with indoors. That means extra air conditioning load in the summer that leads to more electrical draw and more demand on coal-fired electric generators.

If you are wondering just how much you are losing to the vampires, a good way to find out is to use a device like the Kill A Watt energy usage monitor. Plug it into the wall, plug your computer or other device into the monitor and read the meter when you have your device in both the ON and STANDBY modes. Add up the standby draw from all the devices you are powering and be prepared for a shocking total. Sometimes you can just look at the power specifications for the equipment in question. The manufacture will often unabashedly quote standby power even when it is 30 or 60 watts for a device that only draws a few hundred watts at full power.

How can you take action? Since the problem is distributed, you need to actually turn off anything that plugs into the wall that isn’t currently being used. That means a wall switch that controls the outlet or a power strip with a switch. You need surge protector power strips anyway to protect your valuable equipment. Keep the switch readily accessible and turn it off overnight or when you know you won’t need the equipment for awhile. It will come alive from a complete power shutdown soon enough when you return. Be sure to unplug those modular “wall wart” power supplies that are used to power smaller equipment and charge mobile devices like cell phones and MP3 players. That little black transformer is a tiny vampire in itself.

Some manufacturers are becoming more sensitive to the standby power problem. My laser printer has a sleep mode, but it also has a mechanical power off rocker switch. I’ve taken to turning the power off when I’m done for the day and only back on when it is next needed. During the day it goes into sleep mode, which is at least some power savings. Other companies are offering ultra low power modes of 1 watt or less when on standby. It’s not perfect, but it is a good compromise when you have something that really needs to be instantly available or if you’re not good at remembering to flick the power switch.

Just remember that every vampire banished is one more that won’t be biting your wallet or infecting us all with more global warming. If you find the prospect of global warming disturbing, there are many more great posts to read as part of Today’s (October 15, 2009) Blog Action Day 2009 - Climate Change.

You may also be interested in reading our other posts this week related to climate change and technology. They are:

Monday: Blog Action Day For A Less Toasty Tomorrow.

Tuesday: The Green Energy Fairy Tale Is Real.

Wednesday: Every Home And Business Is A Battery.

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