What are energy vampires, and why should you fear them?

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By Terri Williams March 2nd, 2018
For business

Vampires don’t have to be like those popularized in books, movies, and TV shows to be harmful. In fact, most people have vampires in their homes. But not undead, fanged, bloodsuckers; these vampires such energy – and money out of your bank account.

Let’s explain: “A vampire is an informal term for an ‘external power supply,’” according to Alan Meier, adjunct professor of environmental science and policy in the Energy and Efficiency Institute at the University of California, Davis.

“This is the device that plugs into an outlet and converts AC power into DC power, which is required to operate most electronic devices,” Meier explains. “The name arose because they have two teeth and suck electricity.”

Most consumers believe they’re conserving electricity when they turn off these devices, which include TVs, desktop computers, laptops, and wall air-conditioners. “Most electronics have a ‘sleep’ mode, so that when we don’t use them, they shut down to save energy,” says Massood Tabib-Azar, USTAR professor in the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department at the University of Utah.

Although these devices are supposedly asleep when not in use, they turn on when users touch them. So, Tabib-Azar says they have to keep ‘watching’ to sense if someone wants to use them. “The amount of electric power they use to watch just in case is very small, but when you add up all of the devices in one home and multiply that by all the homes in a city and a state and across the nation, it becomes a staggering amount of wasted energy.”

He uses this example to explain it better: “Sometimes, when you go to sleep but you’re expecting someone or a phone call, you may wake up once in a while to check,” Tibab-Azar says. “Clearly you will not be fully rested in the morning because of the extra effort you spend to ‘watch’ while you are sleeping.”

Identifying energy vampires

Even if you turn the devices off completely, they might still be sucking energy. According to Meier, you can identify appliances and devices that draw power continuously if they:

  • Use a remote control
  • Have an external power supply
  • Have a digital display, LED status light, digital clock
  • Contain a battery charger
  • Have a soft-touch key pad

Duke Energy has an energy vampire calculator that can help you determine whether you’re losing energy through any of these devices:

  • Mobile charger (on, fully charged)
  • Computer display LCD (sleep)
  • Desktop computer including peripherals (on, idle)
  • Laptop computer (on, fully charged)
  • Laser printer (off)
  • DVR (on, not recording)
  • Digital cable box (on, TV off)
  • DVD, CD player (on, not playing)
  • MP3 player
  • Standby coffee makers



Ways to kill energy vampires

In the average home, energy vampires can add $200 a year in extra energy costs, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). The best way to kill your energy vampires is by unplugging appliances and devices that you don’t use on a frequent basis. For example, Meier recommends unplugging devices in your guest bedroom.

Power strips can also help you save money. If you place all of the items to be powered off on the same strip (for example, computer, computer screen, and printer), you can switch off the power to the strip. Meier recommends using power strips to control clusters, such as computer clusters, video clusters, and audio clusters.

For even more control over your home’s energy vampires, the NREL recommends using advanced power strips, like those with auto-shutoff timers.  Remote switch power strips are another convenient way to save energy and are often smartphone- and Wi-Fi-compatible. A master-controlled power strip turns off all peripherals when a main device is turned off (for example, turning off the TV would also turn off the printer, monitor, game console).

Meier believes that these smart power strips can help to save energy, but only if you think through your strategy for using them. If not, he says multiple power strips could not only become annoying to manage but would result in little-to-no energy savings.

If you don’t want to go through the trouble of plugging all your electronics and appliances into different power strips, then simply put your devices to sleep – it really does help. While they’re still consuming energy in sleep mode, it’s still more efficient than leaving them on full power.

Terri Williams is a freelance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, the Houston Chronicle, and U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.