THERE'S MORE TO the cost of running a tech-infused household than the sum of a wireless subscription and triple-play cable package.
Electronics account for 15% of the average household's annual energy bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Considering that the average family is expected to shell out $2,350 for electricity and natural gas this year, that's about $352.50 that goes toward powering everything from a television to a cellphone charger. Of that amount, standby power energy consumed by devices when they're plugged in but not in use represents as much as 75%, or roughly $264.
Even though today's gadgets are designed to use less energy than they once did, we own far more of them than in the past, points out Maria Vargas, a spokeswoman for the government-backed program, Energy Star. (In 2001, electronics accounted for just 7% of the average consumers' $2,000 annual energy bill, or $140.) We also keep our gadgets active for longer periods of time consumers who switch to cheaper Internet-based phone service, for example, must keep their computers at full power all the time in order to receive calls.
While the simplest solution is to unplug everything, new technology is making it easier to be energy efficient without giving up the gadget addiction. Here are four ways to cut your gadgets' energy consumption:
Invest in power strips
A tried-and-true energy saver is to plug all of your electronics into one power strip that you can switch off when leaving the house or going to bed. However, this method is only as good as your power strip. Swap that ancient connector for a newer model ($10 and up), which is bound to be more energy efficient, advises Martin LaMonica, senior writer at electronics review site CNET. Consider investing in one of the latest "smart" power strips for a particularly energy-guzzling area, like an entertainment center or home office. "The strip is smart enough to know that when you shut the TV off, it should shut off all the peripherals as well," he says. The catch: these cutting-edge devices are pricey. One LaMonica likes, the Power Cost Controller Power Strip, is $100 at ComputerGear.com.
Consider smart-home upgrades
Automating every electric device in your home can easily costs thousands of dollars, so read our column
Reconfigure gadget settings
Browse the product manuals of your favorite gadgets to find their energy-saving settings. Most laptop computers, for example, offer several ways to conserve energy. A click of the mouse to switch these settings saves at least $50 annually, estimates LaMonica. Reap even more savings by installing Edison PC Power Management software. Made by software maker Verdiem, this free software allows you to select different energy-efficiency settings for work time and non-work time, and even change preferences to save more energy when the computer is in a sleep state. Verdiem anticipates that users will realize an average annual savings of $36.50.
Buy energy-efficient models
Energy Star labels aren't just for dishwashers and air conditioners. These labels can also be found on everything from TVs to printers, says Vargas. Such devices consume less power, both when in use and on standby. (An Energy Star-certified external power adaptor for MP3 players, digital cameras or laptops, for example, uses 30% less energy than conventional models.) Even if there's no Energy Star version, compare a model's energy consumption against that of its competitors, she suggests. A smartphone with up to 5 hours of talk time and 8 days of standby time, for example, will need less charging than one with 4 hours of talk time and 6 days of standby, respectively.
Steer clear of solar-powered gear
The photosensitive cells on solar-powered chargers soak up, at best, 15% of available sunlight, says Kaplan. "I wouldn't rely on these things, not for daily use," he says. Odds are good you'll still need to charge your gadgets via a wall socket anyway, making it tough to recoup the pricey purchase price of the solar charger in terms of the energy you save. That said, solar-powered gear does come in handy if you're prone to forgetting to charge your portable electronics. "They're great if you're on the run and almost out of juice," he says. "Stick it on your windowsill for a half hour, and you have enough power to get you home."