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Money Sucking Vampires Emanating From Your TV: Beware of Cable, Satellite and DVR Boxes

Noah Horowitz

Posted June 14, 2011 in Curbing Pollution

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This week the cable TV industry is having their big annual meeting in Chicago. The meeting includes three days worth of in-depth technical sessions and it looks like not a single one covers the energy use or environmental impact of the ubiquitous set-top box (otherwise known as a cable, satellite or DVR box) that the cable companies install in your home when you sign up for their service. This is a pity as the set-top boxes in the field today act like vampires by sucking up huge amounts of electricity all night long even though the user has turned off their box. A fact to get your blood boiling (vampire inspired pun intended) and interested in reading further:  Due to outdated designs, today’s cable and satellite set-top boxes consume a whopping $2 billion per year of electricity when they are turned “off”. 

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to highlight the findings of a report NRDC released today on the energy use of the set-top boxes including the DVRs installed by the cable, satellite and telephone companies that enable you to access pay-TV.  NRDC and its consultant Ecos recently went into the field and monitored the power used by basic set-top boxes and DVRs that were connected to a wide range of service providers including Time Warner, Comcast, Dish Network, Direct TV, AT&T and Verizon.

The biggest finding from our field work was that the only way to really turn these boxes off is to unplug them -- not an attractive option. For almost all the boxes we tested, hitting the power button simply dims the clock or display. For a typical DVR, instead of consuming 30 Watts when on, the box used 29 Watts, only the difference of one Watt.  When you add it all up, this means it’s costing our nation $2 billion per year in electric bills to power devices when we are NOT using them. That’s money and energy we simply don’t have to spare these days.

Here are some of the key findings of our research:

  • More than 80% of US home subscribe to some form of pay-TV.  There are more than 160 million set-top boxes installed in US homes, or roughly one box for every two Americans.
  • On a national level set-top boxes are consuming 27 billion kilowatt-watt hours per year.  That’s equivalent to the annual electricity use of the entire state of Maryland.
  • It takes the equivalent of nine coal burning power plants (500 MW) to operate these devices. 

For those of you that are more visually oriented, take a look:

NRDC Set-Top Boxes In Use & Not in Use Graphic.jpg

To put set-top box energy use into perspective for the average consumer, we developed the bar chart shown below. Some of the things to note:

  • Many DVRs consume more electricity each year than the big screen TV they are connected to.
  • A household with one DVR and one basic HD set top box uses roughly 450 kwh/yr or the equivalent annual electricity use of one new ENERGY STAR qualified refrigerator.

NRDC Set-Top Boxes  Other Appliances.JPG

So now that we’ve identified the problem, what can we do about it?  The challenge is finding a way to have box go into a significantly lower power state when not in use AND maintain network connection, security and be able to resume functionality in short order. 

But solutions already exist. In Europe they’re making progress. For example, Sky TV now has three power levels on its DVR boxes: 

–        22.5W On

–        13.2W Sleep

–        0.65W Deep Sleep

They’re programmed to auto power down at 11 p.m. to 0.65 Watts – but for those who tape late night shows, the boxes wake-up automatically to record programs. Sky’s boxes also wake-up every ½ hour to check for new program recording requests entered by subscribers using smart phones. 

If we switched to better boxes, we could dramatically cut our energy costs. We hope these findings help inform US service providers and settop box manufacturers and lead them to develop and deploy more efficient boxes.  

And for consumers, help is on the way. You can call your pay-TV service provider and request a set-top box that meets ENERGY STAR Version 4.0.  That means you’ll have the most efficient box on the market, keeping the vampires on your screen, not next to it.

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Comments

Spencer LaneJun 15 2011 09:37 AM

Wow! I have been aware of Vampire power, aka, Phantom Loads, for a while. For example, the charging unit for a cell phone continues to draw power when in an outlet but not connected to a phone.

I was aware of cableboxes and DVRs as Phantom Loads but did not know to what level they "sucked."

Thanks for the information, Noah.

On a side note. I will have a blog of my own soon and this is a topic I will use to educate my readers.

Joe HutskoJun 15 2011 11:05 AM

Good coverage, and also what I cover in my book Green Gadgets For Dummies for folks who want a complete guide to all things green gadget and tech. You can read more about the book or buy it at http://greengadgetsfordummies.com

Green Living EcoJun 15 2011 11:13 AM

Great post. It is pretty amazing to see how much electricity is wasted by set-top boxes. We blogged about cutting cable and show how it was costing us $40 every year just to power our set-top boxes and was producing hundreds of pounds of carbon emissions.

TonyJun 15 2011 03:46 PM

The easiest thing to do is to hook these things up to a power strip, and when you go to bed or leave the house, flip the switch off. Turn it on when you want to watch TV again.

If you work eight hours a day five times a week and your commute totals one hour per day, that's 45 hours where you're not wasting energy. Add in six to eight hours a day seven days a week for sleep, and that's another 42 to 56 hours a week.

Just by simply flipping on and off a switch, you'd save power for 97 to 111 hours a week.

If this is too much work for people, we are doomed as a country.

Tanner JesselJun 15 2011 10:01 PM

I have one that has a remote. It's super convenient just to hit the remote & turn everything on the strip off. Not really a solution for people who want to TiVo things, I guess.

DouglasJun 16 2011 10:56 AM

Governmental regulations in the US have made progress, but more needs to be done. Remember the older "chargers" that were warm to the touch? I understand those have been eliminated due to "dreaded gov't regulations"...More work needs to be done

GorgonJun 17 2011 05:45 PM

more government regulations are the problem, not the answer. Industry will come up with a better solution when in competition and consumers buy energy saving appliances. I don't like high power bills, but all the government regulations make things worse.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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