8 Energy Savings Tips For Your Computer

It only takes a few small adjustments in your routine to build up some significant energy savings, and one of the best places to start is with your computer. With just a few little tweaks, you can save hundreds of dollars in computer energy use over its lifetime – and these tweaks can go almost entirely unnoticed by the user.

Here are eight great energy savings tips you can try on your own machine. Some of these tips work best for different setups and different types of machines – not all of them will apply to every system. Choose the ones that work for you and give them a whirl – you might just find yourself not noticing a different at all except for the lower energy bill.

1. Plug all equipment into a SmartStrip.
In most home situations, computers are used for a bit of web surfing, gaming, and other miscellaneous work in the evenings for a bit. This often requires the use of a lot of peripherals – everyone flips on their monitor, and most people turn on their printer, their speakers, and so forth. Then, at the end of the evening, they shut things down, but leave all of that other equipment on, sitting idle, just draining electricity. A printer and speakers left idle can easily drain 40 watts.

Thus, most home computer users are well-advised to install a SmartStrip for their home computer setup. A SmartStrip allows you to plug your computer into the “master” outlet and several other devices into the other slots on the strip. Then, whenever the computer is on, the other outlets receive energy – but when the computer is shut off, the power to the other devices is automatically shut off. Thus, when you turn off your computer in the evening, the power is cut to the monitor, the printers, the speakers, the internet router, and anything else that might be a piece of peripheral equipment.

Let’s say your internet router, your printer, and your speakers eat 50 watts just sitting there idle, and having a SmartStrip eliminates that usage an average of 10 hours a day (they’re not sitting on all day when you’re doing other stuff). Over the course of a year, that’s 182.5 kilowatt hours of energy not being used, and with electricity hovering around a dime per kilowatt hour, the strip can save you $18.25 a year, year in and year out.

2. Set up Windows so that it automatically shuts down every night.
Every other night or so, I used to leave my computer on after I went to bed and I wouldn’t notice it until the next evening after I got home from work. That is, until I told it to shut down automatically at two in the morning each night. Here’s how to do it on a Windows PC (it’s really easy):

1. Click Start, and then click Control Panel.
2. Click Performance and Maintenance, and then click Scheduled Tasks.
3. Double-click Add Scheduled Task. The Scheduled Task Wizard starts.
4. Click Next.
5. Under Click the program you want Windows to run, click Browse.
6. In the Select Program to Schedule dialog box, locate the C:\WINDOWS\System32 folder, locate and click the Shutdown.exe file, and then click Open.
7. Under Perform this task, specify a name for the task and how frequently you want this task to run, and then click Next.
8. Under Select the time and day you want this task to start, specify a start time and date for the task, and then click Next.
9. Type the user name and password to run this task under, and then click Next, and then click Finish.
10. In the Scheduled Tasks window, right click on your new task and choose Properties. Select the Settings tab, then check the box that says “Wake the computer to run this task,” then click OK.

That’s it. It’s done. So what do you get out of that? Let’s say your computer uses 80 watts per hour, and your monitor when receiving no signal eats 5 watts an hour (these are rough average estimates). So, every hour your computer is off when it would have just been sitting idle saves 75 watts or so. Now, let’s say that every other night, you forget to turn off your computer and you don’t notice it until you come home from work the next day. That’s about 20 hours of unused energy, or an average of 10 hours a day. Over a year, that’s 3650 hours unused – a lot of time.

Multiplying 3650 hours by 75 watts gets you a big number, about 273.75 kilowatt-hours. An average eletric bill charges about $0.10 per kilowatt-hour, so multiplying $0.10 by 273.75 gets you the amount of money you put right in your pocket just for doing this simple task once and forgetting about it. Thus, over a given year, this tactic can save you about $27.

Even better, this tactic combines very well with a SmartStrip as described in the first tip. If your computer automatically shuts down at 2 AM, so will everything else plugged into the SmartStrip.

3. Tinker with your computer’s energy settings.
Almost all modern computers (Windows XP and Vista and Mac OS X) have a control panel that allows you to set various energy saving options, such as how long before the computer and the display go to sleep during inactivity. Play with these settings and try to find the lowest numbers that are still convenient for your use.

For example, I set all of my settings to an hour (lower than what the defaults were) and found they didn’t bother me at all. So I kept lowering them. Now, my screen saver pops on after three minutes and everything else goes to sleep after five – I’ve found that if I’m away longer than that, I’m usually away for quite a while. A wiggle of the mouse wakes it up, so it’s no big deal.

This can save a ton of energy over the long haul. Let’s say the energy use of my system drops 60 watts when it goes into sleep mode. If these settings cause it to spend two more hours a day in sleep mode, that’s 43.8 kilowatt hours, an automatic savings of $4.38 in a year.

4. Use an efficient uninterruptible power supply, especially for computers you don’t turn off.
I almost never turn off my work computer. To protect it, I use a “green” uninterruptible power supply for it and most of the peripherals.

This has three benefits. First of all, a good universal power supply regulates the energy use of all of the devices plugged into it, minimizing the energy wasted from “switching” from device to device. Using a Kill-A-Watt energy tester, I found that the unit I use uses about five fewer watts than an ordinary power strip with the same devices plugged into it. That’s a non-stop around the clock savings of about 43.8 kilowatts per year, or $4.38.

Second, it also functions like a SmartStrip, with a master outlet and several slaves. I turn my workstation off only for long trips, and the power supply automatically cuts power to my monitor, my printer, my speakers, my external hard drive, and my internet router. All told, these devices use about 100 watts of energy on average, and the strip eliminates about seven days of use for these devices a year. This adds up to 16.8 kilowatt hours per year, or $1.68.

Third, since there’s a battery back-up inside the unit and also surge protection, I’m protected against power surges and short-term power losses. While this is difficult to calculate directly into dollars, if we experience two power losses per year and two significant surges and this device protects my equipment and keeps me from losing data, it’s well worth the investment.

5. Remove all unnecessary peripherals from home servers.
Our home has a shared file server that we all use. It was an older PC that got “recycled” into a new use, but later, when I checked it out with my Kill-A-Watt energy usage meter, I realized it was sucking down a lot of juice. When I investigated further, I realized that there were a lot of things inside the unit that weren’t really necessary.

Thus, I simply removed an old graphics accelerator card, an old DVD-R drive, and an old CD-RW drive from it and observed that the energy use of the unit went down about seven watts. Over the course of a year, since this machine would be in use nonstop, that choice eliminated 62 kilowatt hours of usage, saving me $6.20 per year. Since the server is on a monitor and keyboard switch and is only used for, well, file serving, I also don’t need that equipment for it, either.


6. Put your laptop charger (and other chargers) on a timer.
Around our house, you can find a handful of outlet timers that serve one purpose and one purpose alone – to make sure devices come on for only a portion of the day when they’re needed.

For me, I tend to use my laptop about once a week. The rest of the time, I usually leave it on the charger and forget about it, but that presents two separate problems. First, leaving it on the charger degrades the battery over time. Second, leaving the charger plugged into the wall – with that big old converter box on it – eats energy at a pretty rapid rate. It eats about 50 watts per hour, according to my measurements.

Thus, I just leave the laptop plugged into the charger all the time when not in use, but the charger is plugged into an outlet timer. That outlet timer comes on from midnight until two in the morning, just long enough to make sure the laptop refuels. If I need it on during the day for some reason, I just reach over to the outlet and touch a button – it then stays on until two in the morning and returns to that cycle.

That outlet timer is saving me a lot of money. I estimate that on an average day, it eliminates 15 hours of energy use by that charger, as I just tend to leave my chargers on the outlet for my convenience. At 50 watts, that adds up to a savings of 273.75 kilowatt hours per year, an annual cash savings of $27.38.

7. “Green” your equipment when you replace it – go for EnergyStar 4.0 compliant.
When it comes time to replace your equipment, spend a few bucks extra and make sure you get one that uses minimal energy. Do the research and look for equipment that’s EnergyStar 4.0 compliant, as those specifications are very tight on energy use. An EnergyStar 4.0 compliant computer uses about 25% of the energy that a non-EnergyStar machine could potentially use – that’s a huge savings if you’re using the computer over time, one that pays for the few extra dollars you might have to pay right off the bat.

One big point of savings is the move from a CRT to a flat panel. Many homes are slowly making this move, but with the low cost of flat panels and the huge energy savings, the move will save you money over the long run. The average 17″ CRT monitor uses 150 watts while awake and 30 watts while idle, while an IBM T series 17″ flat panel uses 50 watts while awake and 3.5 watts while asleep on average.

Let’s say, then, that on an average day, your monitor is awake five hours and asleep two hours. The flat panel will save you 553 watt-hours during that day. Over the course of a year, that’s 201.84 kilowatt hours, or a savings of $20.18. I calculated my own usage, and on an average day, my monitor is awake for nine hours and asleep for three. That adds up to 357.52 kilowatt hours over the year, or $35.75. Given the low price of smaller flat panel monitors, it doesn’t take long – just a few years – for the energy savings to pay for the switch.

8. Adjust your monitor’s brightness.
One subtle move you can make is adjusting your monitor’s brightness by playing with the levels until you find the minimal acceptable brightness for your work. The Saving Energy blog found that reducing a flat panel monitor’s brightness from 100 to 0 shaved 12 watts off of the energy use, with an almost identical reduction with CRT monitors.

My monitor, by default, had brightness set at 80, so I started playing around with it until I found a brightness level that worked for me – 25 (this took a lot of experimentation over a number of days). Assuming this relationship is correct, this saves me 7 watts per active hour of use. If I use my monitor nine hours a day with this new setting, I’m saving 23 kilowatt hours each year, or $2.30 per year, for an adjustment I’m completely comfortable with. Even a reduction in brightness of 8, which would save 1 watt, would save 3.285 kilowatt hours per year, or $0.33.

These really add up.
Using these adjustments (at least, the ones that applied best to my situation), I spent about $100 on equipment but shaved about $70 per year of electrical use off of my computer. Over five years, that’s a net gain of $250 – and it’s for changes I basically don’t notice.

How green is it? That $350 in energy savings represents 3,500 kilowatt-hours. Each kilowatt-hour, on average, produces about 2 pounds of CO2 (averaging the numbers I found from a pile of different sources). Thus, these moves not only saved me a net of $350, it also prevented three and a half tons of CO2 emissions. That’s change I can definitely appreciate.

Bonus Tip: Read a book.
For those of you who get most of your information online, why not take a night or two a week, leave the computer off, and instead read a book? You can check one out for free at your local library and there’s absolutely no energy use involved other than a light bulb over your head (which you’d likely have on anyway). There are so many amazing fiction and nonfiction works out there that there’s guaranteed to be something out there that will engross your mind. Take advantage of it. If you can’t think of anything else to read, try The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – it’s sublime, fun, and will make you think.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.