A Practical Guide to Fighting Phantom Loads (plus Vocab Lesson 2)

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“Phantom loads” (aka Vampire loads) have been getting a lot of press in the green world lately. In this post I’ll discuss what they are and whether they are worth your attention. To get straight to the point, for most folks they are not worth much attention. There are some free and painless things we can do though to reduce phantom loads and save a little energy. And every little bit helps right?*

A phantom load is the power consumed by appliances that are plugged in but doing nothing useful. I’m talking about the 10-15 W your television uses when it is turned off and the 2-4 W consumed by your cell phone charger when it is not attached to or charging a cell phone. These little loads all add up. The phantom load of a typical American home is between 5-10% of total home consumption. I know that sounds like a lot. So, let’s break it down.

Typical American home electricity consumption per month is around 1500 kwh (about $150). If 10% were phantom loads, that would be 150 kwh (or about $15 per month). 150 kwh is the same as 210 Watts of phantom load running 24/7. If you’re lost, please review my previous post about kilowatts and kilowatt hours or just skip to the end. Based on measurements around some of our test homes, the largest sources of phantom loads tend to be in entertainment systems and home offices. Other phantom loads are scattered in tiny energy burning pieces around your home.

At VisibleEnergy we’re all about the easy steps that make a big difference. So, here are the easiest and most cost -effective phantom load fighting options we’ve found.

1- Unplug the stuff you never use! In my house I just found a radio plugged in that was using 16 W ($1.15 per month… that’s enough for 4 gum balls 😉 ) to sit there. I have not used it in months. This tip generally applies to things that have digital clocks, lights or displays that are always on, remote controls, or AC/DC converters, those little black boxes that plug into the wall (pictured on right). Things like lamps and fans can stay plugged in because they don’t have phantom loads.

2- Creatively use those holiday light timers. If you have a large phantom load like a TV, sound system or cable box that you only use during certain hours, put a $3 timer on it (pictured left) that will kill the power to it during the unlikely use part of the day. For instance, we never watch TV between 2AM-7AM nor from 10AM-4PM. If I put my entertainment system on a timer that cuts it off during those hours, I’ll save 200 kwh ($20) in a year. Beware, those little timers do use 2 W themselves, so don’t use this solution for small phantom loads.

3- Centralize your portable device chargers on one power strip (surge protector) and turn it off when you’re not charging anything. Each one of those little AC/DC converters is sucking up 2-4 W when it is doing nothing for you. So, create a charging station. Whenever you plug the cell phone in to be recharged, make sure you flip the surge protector on. When nothing is being charged, flip the surge protector off. 6 chargers on one surge protector could save you another 25 W of phantom load (that’s like $1.75 / month… 7 more gum balls!)

4- Plug the seldom used office appliances into a common power strip and only turn it on when needed. If you seldom use your fax machine, scanner, or copier plug it into a power strip and keep the strip turned off. Some of these appliance might use up to 20 W.

5- If you hate convenience, get crazy and unplug the TV. Your entertainment center could be sucking more than 50 W. Warning: If you unplug your Tivo it will not record! If you unplug your TV, the remote control will not turn it on! 50 W costs about $3.60 per month. I’m willing to pay that to avoid inconvenience. At least consider unplugging this stuff (or turning off the power strip) when you go on vacation.

Do not buy a fancy phantom load-fighting surge protector unless you have a really good reason! These things cost about $50, introduce one more remote control into your life and are only slightly more convenient than a regular surge protector.

* Before you tackle phantom loads, please please please heed my CFL advice.

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