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Watch out for phantom power users

By Alice LaPierre
Tuesday August 07, 2001

Deregulation. Price caps. Energy fuel shortages. And pundits pointing fingers in all directions.  

Most Californians now realize that the fastest way out of the immediate energy crisis (because the crisis the world experienced in the 1970s never really went away) is for each of us to conserve energy.  

Energy-efficient products, from light bulbs to weatherstripping is making a difference in the amount of energy consumed, but there is a hidden phantom stealing watts at your expense that you aren’t even aware of. 

It’s called “phantom power” – power you don’t necessarily know that your home or business is using. According to the researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, Americans spend nearly $1 billion dollars each year to run their TVs and VCRs when these products are switched off.  

Switched off? Most televisions, stereos, VCRs and other appliances that work with a remote never really turn off when your hit the “off” button – they remain in a standby mode. That’s why they are able to turn back on again with the remote. See LBNL’s webpage, for more information. If there is a glowing LED (light-emitting diode) on your TV or stereo or other appliance after you switch it off, it is still drawing power, making your meter turn.  

As a result, there is a slow drain of electricity from each of these appliances, and it doesn’t stop there. 

Take a look around your home at what you have plugged in right now. Electric toothbrush that’s recharging? Cellphone recharging? Coffeemaker, microwave, stove, dishwasher, all with built-in clocks? While each appliance may only draw five to twenty watts, the cumulative effect of these appliances can cost $5 – $12 a month at current electricity rates. That means you could be just tossing away nearly $144 dollars of your money every year.  

The quickest way to take control of your immediate electricity use is to plug the larger appliances such as the TV and VCR into a power strip with a kill switch, and turn them off using the switch, rather than just the remote.  

Using the switch on the power strip severs the power to the appliance, and prevents the slow trickle of wasted energy. Power strips can be purchased for under $5 each; most homes have one or two of them lying around anyway. 

The next best thing you can do is to de-gadetize your home – put away the seldom-used appliances with the built-in clocks. Consider NOT using the electric can opener, popcorn maker, rice cooker, sandwich maker, and all those other gadgets that perform functions that you can do manually or using a conventional appliance.  

As major appliances need replacing, look for the most energy-efficient products available. The EnergyStar logo ( will indicate that the product has passed a government efficiency test. Generally these products don’t cost much more than the less-efficient ones, and will result in lifetime savings.  

Companies are developing high-efficiency transistors and other technologies to help reduce these phantom power losses. Some very new products offer standby power supply technology that use only 1/4 and 1/2 watt standby power. (See for more information.) Reducing your phantom power losses will mean more of your money stays in your wallet. 


Alice LaPierre is an energy analyst for the city’s Energy Office. Her column appears as a public service the first and third Tuesday of the month.