DVRs Biggest Power Drain in House?
If someone had given me ten guesses as to the biggest electricity hog in my house, I'd have never guessed it: The set-top box that houses my DirecTV signal and DVR.
If someone had given me ten guesses as to the biggest electricity hog in my house, I’d have never guessed it: The set-top box that houses my DirecTV signal and DVR. Oh: We have three.
NYT (“Atop TV Sets, a Power Drain That Runs Nonstop“):
Those little boxes that usher cable signals and digital recording capacity into televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many American homes, with some typical home entertainment configurations eating more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.
There are 160 million so-called set-top boxes in the United States, one for every two people, and that number is rising. Many homes now have one or more basic cable boxes as well as add-on DVRs, or digital video recorders, which use 40 percent more power than the set-top box.
One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found.
These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.
While surprising, it’s one of those odd quirks of life, right? Our monthly water bill is much lower than, say, our dog walker bill. Things don’t always consume resources in direct relation to their overall value. But, it turns out, it doesn’t have to be that way in this particular case.
“People in the energy efficiency community worry a lot about these boxes, since they will make it more difficult to lower home energy use,” said John Wilson, a former member of the California Energy Commission who is now with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation. “Companies say it can’t be done or it’s too expensive. But in my experience, neither one is true. It can be done, and it often doesn’t cost much, if anything.”
The perpetually “powered on” state is largely a function of design and programming choices made by electronics companies and cable and Internet providers, which are related to the way cable networks function in the United States. Fixes exist, but they are not currently being mandated or deployed in the United States, critics say.
Similar devices in some European countries, for example, can automatically go into standby mode when not in use, cutting power drawn by half. They can also go into an optional “deep sleep,” which can reduce energy consumption by about 95 percent compared with when the machine is active.
One British company, Pace, sells such boxes to American providers, who do not take advantage of the reduced energy options because of worries that the lowest energy states could disrupt service. Cable companies say customers will not tolerate the time it takes to reboot the system once the system has been shut down or put to sleep.
It depends on what it means for the devices to go into “deep sleep.” Presumably, the reason DVRs need to be “always on” isn’t to save a minute or two each time the customer turns on the television–although, frankly, that wait would in fact be annoying–but because the machine needs to be able to download scheduled programs and accept middle-of-the-night firmware updates.
Naturally, when a cheap solution exists that would redound to the general welfare but for which the market produces no independent demand, government intervention is the natural recourse. It appears that it’s happening, in the form of a nudge rather than a mandate:
Cable companies can become Energy Star “partners” if they agree to install or upgrade boxes so that 25 percent to 50 percent of the homes they serve have “energy star qualified” equipment. The E.P.A. merely encourages providers to use units that can automatically power down at least partly when not in use.
But as of Sept. 1, typical electricity consumption of Energy Star qualified products would drop to 97 kilowatt hours a year from an average of 138; and then by the middle of 2013, they must drop again to 29 kilowatt hours a year. Companies have fought the placement of the “Energy Star” seal on products and the new ambitious requirements, which may still be modified before enacted.
Mr. Wilson recalled that when he was on the California Energy Commission, he asked box makers why the hard drives were on all the time, using so much power. The answer: “Nobody asked us to use less.”
The biggest challenge in reducing energy use is maintaining the rapid response time now expected of home entertainment systems, Mr. Turner said. “People are used to the idea that computers take some time to boot up,” he said, “but they expect the TV to turn on instantly.”
A solution that saves substantial energy but offsets it with noticeable inconvenience will not go over well. One hopes there’s a technological solution to the latter.