The One Hour Project: Kill The Electricity Phantom

This post is part of The One Hour Project, in which you can spend just one hour to put your finances in a better place without a big lifestyle change, through frugality or other financial choices.

A week ago, one of the One Hour Projects suggested making your home more energy efficient. Those steps reduce the energy that the devices you already have are using, but there’s another major step you can take to reduce your energy use: eliminating phantom power usage.

What’s “phantom usage”? Whenever you leave a device plugged into a wall socket, it continues to constantly draw a small amount of energy, without cease. Usually, this is on the order of 1 to 5 watts, which means that it would take 200 to 1,000 hours for a single device to even use a single kilowatt hour, which costs $0.10.

Big deal, you think? Consider how many devices are plugged in all the time needlessly in your home. The toaster. The cell phone chargers. The power cord for your printer and scanner. All of the stuff on your entertainment center. Let’s say you can find fifteen such devices in your house, and they use an average of 3 watts. That’s 45 watts around the clock – more than a kilowatt hour each day. Three bucks, every single month, without fail, and that’s assuming your devices are minimally draining. For example, my laptop charger uses 30-40 watts all the time when it’s plugged in.

Ouch! How do I stop this? Here’s the plan.

First, regularly go through your home and unplug as much as is reasonable. Unplug the toaster, the cell phone charger, and so on. Any electrical devices that aren’t required to be on or extremely difficult to reach should be unplugged. I do this once every few days.

stripWhat about items that are hard to reach? I include the plugins for all the items in the entertainment center in this group, as I have no items there that must remain plugged in. I also include all my computer equipment in this group. For those, I get a SmartStrip LCG4. For about $40, this provides a power strip for a large number of devices. Even better, one of the devices serves as a full switch for it!

So, let’s say that I hook this up with my computer setup, plugging my printer and scanner and monitor and such all into it. Then, I include my tower as the “master” device. When I turn off my computer, the electricity is switched off to all of the devices, allowing no phantom drain. When I turn on my computer, the juice is restored to all devices. The same thing can be done for pieces of your entertainment center, using either your television or your surround sound as the master. It only takes a few months for this strip to pay for itself, but the setup might take some time.

If this seems like a bit much for you, a power strip with a switch on it provides the same effect. Flipping the switch not only powers off all of the devices, but it kills the phantom drain from the devices.

If you do nothing else, just take a minute or two once a week to unplug any devices in your house that don’t need to be plugged in, like a toaster or a cell phone charger or a laptop adapter that’s not in use. This will save you significant money that’s currently being eaten by the phantom monster.

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33 thoughts on “The One Hour Project: Kill The Electricity Phantom

  1. mgroves says:

    If you buy a switched power strip just to do this, you won’t recover that money for months, or even a year or more.

  2. FIRE Finance says:

    The SmartStrip with one device as the master is a neat idea!

  3. guinness416 says:

    Yeah, I’m definitely on the warpath in my home with this one. It’s really remarkable the savings you can achieve with this approach.

  4. tyler karaszewski says:

    Not all electric devices draw power simply from being plugged in. For example, the toaster cited in your example won’t draw power simply by being plugged in. Any devices with little glowing “standby” lights is obviously drawing some power. Many simple devices are not. Another example: lamps don’t draw power unless they’re switched on.

  5. bret says:

    “If this seems like a bit much for you, a power strip with a switch on it provides the same effect. Flipping the switch not only powers off all of the devices, but it kills the phantom drain from the devices.”

    but you still have a phantom drain from the strip, right?

  6. Amanda B. says:

    What if you have a TiVo (I don’t need a lecture about the evils of cable;), what needs to be plugged in to make sure I don’t miss House?

  7. bret says:

    Hi, Amanda.

    You need to leave your TiVo plugged-in at all times to not miss shows. You could unplug when you don’t want to use it and plug in when you do but that might be cumbersome. TiVo is a linux computer that needs to be booted and ‘on’ all the time to really work.

  8. JMS says:

    Amanda,

    I keep my TiVo plugged in and running at all times. Due to the nature of the device, unplugging it would not make sense. If you have a cable box, satellite box, or powered antenna connected to the TiVo, they need to stay on as well.

    However, I keep the rest of my entertainment center (TV, stereo, 2 VCRs, DVD player, CD changer, cassette deck, turntable) plugged into a power strip. I always try to remember to turn off the power strip before I go to bed. None of these things need to be powered on for your TiVo to record your shows.

  9. Ryan says:

    I’d recommend not turning off Tivo…my Time Warner DVR takes at least 5 minutes to load all of the data if power is completely removed. I would imagine Tivo is the same. Five minutes isn’t really THAT long obviously, but it’s very annoying when the power flickers.

  10. brent says:

    why not just turn it off at the wall? that’s the same as unplugging it right?

  11. Steven M says:

    Brent

    Are you in the UK or Europe? Most North American power outlets do not have one off switches that I see in the UK (or in my case, Singapore).

  12. vh says:

    In older houses, even US residential systems generally have at least one outlet per room that operates on a switch. In Arizona, the present code says you MUST have such a switch in each bedroom, presumably to protect you from breaking your little toes should you stumble into the room in the dark.

    I have the TV and a strip of puck lights atop the TV armoire plugged into the the outlet that works on the wall switch by the door. Very convenient! When you turn off the lights, you shut off the power to the tube.

  13. Trent says:

    Most power strips with switches do not have a phantom drain once the switch is flipped off.

  14. Mariette says:

    I’ve been doing this for years and it’s really helpful, not only in terms of my own electricity bill but also in terms of not wasting power and global resources. It may not be a whole lot, but it’s that much less electricity that the power companies need to generate on my behalf, especially as it’s not being used for anything anyway – much like if I were to let a dripping faucet keep leaking and not try to fix it.

  15. Marta says:

    I was just telling my coworkers about this this morning. While I don’t have a power strip, I have my entertainment system (TV, DVD, stereo) plugged in to an extension cord. I simply plug it in when I want to use it and unplug when I’m finished. I try desperately to remember to unplug my cell phone and laptop chargers as much as possible, too. I don’t want to pay for power I’m not using!!
    I wish we had the outlet wall switches like they have in Europe – makes a lot of economical and resource sense!

  16. That smartstrip is bloody brilliant, thanks for the tip. Even though I’m sure there’s a little phantom drain from the PC being plugged in acting as the ‘switch’ it makes it impossible to forget to turn off the rest of your gear.

    That smart strip would work well for laptop docking stations too. I have a laptop, but on it’s dock is an external monitor, powered USB hub, charger for wireless mouse and speakers. Undock the laptop, no phantom power, dock it again and boom, everything has power. What a wonderful idea!

  17. maxconfus says:

    although every little bit helps I believe the typical utility has 50% or more in the cost to cool/heat your house not the little gadgets that draw power; better to invest in attic and wall insulation.

  18. Louise says:

    I used to plug my TV, stereo, VCR/DVD, and game console into a power strip, but the frequent powering on/off of the TV blew it out. Now I’m hesitant to use this tactic with any of my electronics.

  19. justin says:

    How many TVs lose stored settings when the power is cut? I know mine does. I actually have a UPS for it.
    I also leave my TiVo and VCR plugged in. My alarm clock, etc. Many things have state that they keep when power is kept on.

    My server, I leave plugged in. My router, my cable modem. My UPSs, all plugged in.

    Convenience is definitely worth the small amount of money that could be saved.

  20. Steve says:

    Good advise, I saved £120($240) by switching off at the wall everything I didn’t need on overnight and during the day, I connect them up so this was only two switches to keep things simple.

    This wasn’t a change from standby to off, just from fully off on the device to totally unplugged. People forget that many devices consume power even in their own cold state, eg a PC uses 5W as it has the keep the MB powered , as the front switch connects to that. For that reason I don’t like those clever power strips, as you still loose that.

  21. Rich says:

    “Good advise, I saved £120($240) by switching off at the wall everything I didn’t need on overnight and during the day, I connect them up so this was only two switches to keep things simple.”

    Is that per Month or per Year?
    What is your KWH cost?

    I’m assuming per year, and that’s still seems very high considering you said everything was already off to start with.

  22. Donna says:

    Where did you buy the smart strip? Thanks.

  23. @Simpledollar: Thanks for the great review!

    @Donna: you can purchase a smartstrip at http://www.smartstrip.net, or alternatively you can follow the links on the hub site at http://www.bitsltd.net. There are also numerous vendors around, some of whom offer better prices than we do; a Google search can pull those up for you.

    Cheers

    Don Forrester
    Webmaster
    Bitsltd.net

  24. Oy, the comments script picked up my comma. The correct url is at http://www.smartstrip.net

    Cheers

    Don Forrester
    Webmaster
    Bitsltd.net

  25. Wink Jr. says:

    ANSI studies have shown that powering electronics on/off even once a day will increase the likelihood of them failing, due to the expansion of the circuitboards & electronics when on (and hot) and contraction when off (and cooled back to room temp) – by anywhere from 20-50%. Computers in particular that are turned on/off daily only live about half as long as leaving them on all the time. Hard drives are even worse, depending on brand.

    So you have to take into account that if you computer dies, not only the cost to replace it, but the time lost while it’s being replaced, and all the time spent reinstalling software, etc. plus possible data loss.

    Focusing too much on only actual costs like bills in the mail is short-sighted – replacing a computer, reinstalling software, buying software if you can’t reinstall it or need to upgrade because your version won’t run on a new operating system, cost of data loss, etc. etc. – it’s hard to put a number on, but frankly I’m happy that (knock on wood) the PII-450 Dell I bought for $40 used in 1999 is still working fine.

  26. steve says:

    It is my understanding thatthe ANSI studies you are either a) nonexistent or are way out of date.

    If you have a hard reference to the study though, i’m open minded and would love to read it.

    many people of the older generation (my dad, in his 70s) were trained not to turn electronic devices off, primarily because it was the switches that would fail and energy was wicked wicked cheap and they didn’t have a clue about global warming either.

    Even if thermal expansion were a factor, contemporary devices run much cooler than devices from the 50s and 60s.

    turning your stuff off and on is not going to make it die.

  27. ecf19 says:

    this is the biggest waste of time and effort for such a small amount of monetary savings

  28. Lisa says:

    An advantage to unplugging what you could – cut down the risk of starting electrical fires. Especially when you have umpteen electronics hooked up to a power strip.

  29. John says:

    Great article on what we can do in a hour. I am so enthusiatic about topic, I put up a page on using a smart strip after installing a few. It’s much better to have it do the work for you (unless you can just unplug).

  30. christine says:

    What if we have a cable box? When I switch everything off (at the power surge protector strip, or unplugging that strip), we lose all the cable settings.

    Is there a way to cut power to the cable box and TV – without having to call the cable company to reset it all again?

    Also – is it OK to leave toasters, microwaves, stoves and such plugged in? Is it not worth unplugging lamps?

    Thanks : )

  31. Jake says:

    Are you sure your math is correct?

    If you were to find fifteen such devices and the cost is $3/month – if you spend $40 for a power strip – then this would take 13 months to recoupe your cost of the power switch… but, chances are you will only have about half that many devices plugged into one strip – so the time to recoup is about 26 months…

    and, chances are, this assumes you have your devices unplugged ALL THE TIME to save the full $3/month – so the time will to breakeven will be even longer…

    My question is, if you use a regular cheap power strip on multiple appliances and use the stip’s on/off switch is there still a power drain? and if so is it less because it is a ‘single appliance’ if the strip on/off is set to off?

    Thanks

  32. Janilyn says:

    I have been experimenting with phantom power for about four months now. Immediately I saw a reduction in my power bill. That gave me incentive to really pay attention to whats plugged in and when. Now EVERYTHING that truly does not require power other than when it’s in use, is not plugged in. This month I paid the lowest bill for electricity I’ve had in TEN YEARS. It’s about the cheapest GREEN thing I’ve done. I’m working to tell family and friends and challenging them to do the same. Just how much power not used collectively would be interesting to know. I do have some groups, like the entertainment center, the computer group (printer, computer, fax & copier on power strips, but I even have the strip unplugged when not in use. From experience I’ve found it really is worth the small inconvenience for the savings realized.

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