Vampire electronics return from the dead to suck juice

November 9, 2007

Vampire Costume for iPod

“Vampire electronics” rise from the news grave in Time Magazine’s Nov 12 print edition. Is it some weird connection between Kirsty Swanson’s 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer role and her fight against a voltage-eating monster 2006’s The Black Hole?

No, it’s all about … “Unused appliances, like cell-phone chargers and coffeemakers, that quietly suck up electricity when left plugged into sockets. Constant consumers, they spike electric bills and put more strain on the nation’s power grid.”

The news content has been drained by time (see more), but at least it’s reminded me to switch my mobile charger off.

CONTEXT An estimated 5% of U.S. electricity – or $4 billion a year – is wasted by appliances on standby mode, and the Department of Energy says that figure could rise to 20% by 2010.

USAGE California legislators passed the Vampire Slayers Act, which will detail how much energy certain appliances can use. Legislation aside, individuals can easily cut down on their energy consumption by investing in government-backed Energy Star appliances or new technologies that closely monitor their home’s energy use. In the meantime, simply switching off power-strip cords every night will make a huge difference.

Source: Briefing – LEXICON – vampire electronics (Nov. 02, 2007).

The story has an odd history, covered in dust.

The California Vampire Slayer Act of 2006 was widely reported when it passed through California’s Assembly on May 30th, 2006. It was intendedto “[r]equire[s] a manufacturer of an appliance sold in California to place a power content label on the products that shows the energy consumption and its annual operations costs when the appliance is turn[ed] (sic) on, turned off, or is in standby mode.”

But searching the California State Senate’s Bill Information for both 2005 and 2007 sessions, for Bill number AB 1970, indicates that it became inactive – not so much undead, as unborn – on November 30th, 2006.

Science Buddies asked, How Many Power-Hungry VAMPIRES Exist in Your Home? and presented a project to build a home-made Vampire Watt Meter. Unfortunately they didn’t quite get the project right – so don’t do it unless you’re willing to get your teeth stuck into the project.

In the UK, Times Online reported that TV standby buttons will be outlawed (July 12, 2006). Whatever happened to that?

More recently, blogger Wheatsheaf offers Ontario’s incoming Energy Minister, Gerry Phillips, a suggestion for the Ontario Vampire Slayer Act (which he calls Buffy’s Law for short).

So, a serious issue disappears into obscurity.


2 Responses to “Vampire electronics return from the dead to suck juice”

  1. Peter Manson Says:

    Ah, the old standby button debate. The big confusion is that all the numbers quoted on this tend to be a simplistic cost of on-standby against completely disconnected. A real debate should include the total costs, but I’ve yet to see that, certainly in public media.

    I should first of all state my position – I tend to leave things on standby, but that’s just habit rather than any strong conviction. What I’d like to see is a clear debate so I can make my mind up, but everything published seems to be one-sided rather than a balanced debate, so I’m hoping someone can validate/quantify/eliminate the following benefits of standby:
    Less time to shut down and start up – now that amount of time may seem insignificant, but the whole anti-standby movement is based on taking lots of tiny amounts of power used and adding them together, so the pro-standbys should be allowed to do the same. If I were to turn everything off at the wall rather than put on standby, I reckon that would take about a minute extra a day. Apply that to everyone in Europe and USA and thats about a millennium of time wasted every day, or about half a million people’s entire time wasted every day.

    On a purely practical matter, the anti-movement compare Standby vs Off. Now there has long been a related debate to do with lights, with some people claiming that its cheaper to leave lights on rather than switch them off for short periods, as they draw more current during their first few seconds. I believe that debate has been settled, as the extra current is quite small, only equivalent to a few seconds of being on (the original idea of this is at least 40 years old to my knowledge, and might have been true with older lights). The basic principal remains that most pieces of equipment use more power during start-up (and some during shut-down) and this should be figured into deciding if Off is better than Standby.

    Related to the previous point is the impact on lifetime of turning equipment on and off. At one time (a long time ago) it was clear – MTBF – components tended to last a certain amount of time under operation and then fail. This is no longer the case – components under continuous operation can last effectively forever, but start-up and shut-down does cause strain, and can severely shorten life. Few of these components are individually fixable or replaceable – one failure often means most of the workings are replaced as a single unit, or the product is binned and replaced. That cost is large, both financially and environmentally, and may well be as much as the savings from not using standby. (I honestly don’t know, the simple financial cost of replacing a sophisticated consumer electronic appliance is in the hundreds to thousands of dollars, which certainly seems a lot more than the saving in running cost of turning it off at night, but how often this would cause failures I couldn’t even ballpark).

    Power costs nothing to consume (in environmental terms) – it costs to PRODUCE. The power generation companies have to have the capacity to cope with full possible load at peak times, and even at quiet times they need to keep most of the power stations running at full speed ready to supply. Most of the issue around Stand-by is that appliances are not turned off at night, but as the general load at night is lower there is actually plenty of spare power then – so having appliances on standby wouldn’t decrease the need for power stations to be running, and therefore wouldn’t decrease enviromental impacts of these. The only difference would be to consumer bills, but then the power companies would still be running their plants as much, but getting less money, so the rates they charge would have to go up, so any reduction in consumer bills would be very short lived.

  2. infomancie Says:

    I agree with the overall points about the complexity of deciding the issue in general: On vs. Standby vs. Off, although one may now add another state, Sleep, between Standby and Off.

    Adding up the minutes-to-switch doesn’t work, I think, because there doesn’t seem to be anything those minutes could be otherwise used for in isolation or collectively, unlike the minutes of un-/consumed power.

    Power not used during off-peak periods is stored for use elsewhen, so it isn’t really “spare”, no? So,… It can be exported, and imported when needed. If there is a large number (whatever that might mean) of devices on standby during off-peak periods, this raises the overall amount of power consumed. A thousand DVD players might make little difference, but 100,000 might. (I’m not claiming these as accurate figures, just as ones indicating possible magnitudes.)

    I think, for a mobile charger, switching off *seems* like a good thing. It’s a transformer and converts electricity to heat even when plugged in and not charging. So whatever it’s doing is wasted compared to the amount of time it’s actually used for charging. If I had them there would now follow useful statistics on power consumption, charger attrition, environmental cost, etc. And, as you say, that’s exactly the sort of information we do need.

    Something that is clear from what you write is that the answers *change*, depending on many factors. Working out what the effect of those changes is so we can be given a simple switch off / stand-by / don’t bother message is tough.

    An complicating factor of change is that we discover new impacts: does a device release toxic substances in hitherto unrecognised or undetectable forms being one of them.

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