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Phantom Electric Usage

by Gary Foreman

I've heard about phantom electric usage. If I have a lamp plugged into a wall switch is it using any electricity if the light switch is not in the on position? What about things like can openers or toasters?

It's estimated that about 10% of all residential energy usage is due to phantom loads. But getting a handle on what appliances are contributing to that usage isn't easy. It's a rare salesperson or manufacturer website that will say how much electricity is consumed by an appliance when it's turned 'off'.

Identifying appliances that use phantom power is a little easier. Look for items that:

- have a stand-by mode or use a remote control
- items with clocks or 'memories'
- batter recharges (for you cell phone, laptop, etc)

Unless they have unusual features can openers, toasters or electric lamps do not consumer electric while they are turned off.

Phantom electric use is not all bad. You're happy when you touch a button on the remote and your TV comes on. Or when your alarm clock remembers what time you want it to wake you. Most phantom electric uses came about because appliance companies were trying to create features that consumers would like. And, in all fairness, quite often that's just what they did. They added a very small amount to the cost of running an appliance, but gave it extra features that we enjoy.

But, suppose that you really want to cut your electric bill to the bone. What can you do to reduce the amount of phantom electricity used? The solution begins with an awareness of how you use each appliance that consumes power even while it's resting. Start by deciding how important the phantom functions are.

For some items you'll be happy to pay for the extra electricity. You probably don't want to reset both the clock and the alarm each night when you go to bed. Same thing with your phone answering machine. Reprogramming would be inconvenient.

Other items don't lose valuable data and can be removed from their power source when you're not using them. DVD players are a good example. You want it to respond to the remote when you're using it. But, it doesn't need to be waiting for a remote signal if you're away from home. Cutting off power to a DVD player when you're not using it makes sense.

Battery chargers are another good candidate for unplugging. If you recharge your cell phone, PDA and laptop while you sleep use a switchable power strip for the chargers. Flip the power to 'off' when you get up and back 'on' again when the day is over.

These strips are your best friend if you want to reduce phantom electric usage. Instead of fumbling behind a bookcase to unplug an appliance, a power strip makes it easy to put an on/off switch in a convenient location.

Items like TV's will require a little thought and experimentation to find the best solution for your use. If all of your settings are lost when power is interrupted you may decide that saving a little electricity isn't worth it. On the other hand if all you lose is the ability to use the remote, then cutting the juice could be a good solution. And, don't forget about TV's and other devices in rooms that rarely get used, like spare bedrooms.

Wherever possible use power management features to your advantage. Computers, monitors and TV's typically will give you options to turn the device off or change to 'standy-by mode' under conditions you set. It takes only a moment to program these features. The savings are automatic.

Finally, be realistic about your expectations. It's unlikely that you'll be able to eliminate all phantom electric usage. And, phantom usage is not the biggest electric user in your home. Typically that honor goes to your heating/air conditioning system.

So you'll want to eliminate unnecessary uses of electricity. But, don't be consumed with phantom electric consumption and ignore other actions that could save you more.

Gary Foreman is the editor of The Dollar website  and newsletters. Click here for more information about how to lower electric bills.


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