Computer's energy costs

How much energy is being sucked up by the technology around your home? And what can you do about it?
 
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01 .Switch it off!

Laptop with bamboo and leaf

In brief

  • Modern video game systems consume more power than most household devices.
  • Some televisions can consume more energy than a small refrigerator.
  • Placing equipment into standby mode can significantly reduce energy usage.

While technology often makes our lives easier, its use in daily life has a clear impact on the world’s natural resources and environment. Studies show that many of us simply aren’t aware of just how much energy household electronics consume.

Computer manufacturers in particular are not required to reveal energy consumption information on product packaging, so consumers are largely left in the dark as to how much power many of these devices actually use.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it. There is much that can be done around your home and office to reduce energy usage, and save yourself some money in the process.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market. 

 
 

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lightbulb covered in grassA recent study by Winton Sustainable Research Strategies found that while most consumers do think about energy efficiency while purchasing electronic goods such as refrigerators, almost none of us consider energy efficiency when purchasing televisions or computers.

According to the report, this is largely due to consumers being unaware of just how much power these products can use. Many assume that because computer products are relatively small they don’t require a great deal of power, which is not always the case.

Indeed, the study also found that some televisions can actually consume more power than a small family-sized household refrigerator.

Another report commissioned by Punchline Energy found that computer power consumption exceeds many common whitegoods around the home, such as washing machines, dishwashers and clothes dryers.

The report also found that while computers do include power saving features, most Australians are currently not using them.

Toxic chemicals

Disposing of a computer once it has reached the end of its life can also be hazardous to the environment.

Last year, a report by Greenpeace found that while some of the world’s biggest electronic manufacturers have made steps to become more environmentally friendly, many still produce products using hazardous substances and lack efficient take back and product recycling schemes for old hardware.

According to Greenpeace these two issues are hand in hand, as products produced using harmful chemicals are in turn significantly more difficult to recycle.

Of concern to Greenpeace was the continued use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVC) in products, with companies encouraged to set phase-out dates for the use of such materials.

Some BFRs are difficult to break down when disposed of, and many have been found to impact on thyroid and hormone systems in humans. PVC, commonly used for insulation in wires and cables is not toxic, but its softening process results in a great deal of pollution and chemical production.

Burning PVC also releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Lead, usually used for soldering, can cause damage to the nervous system when children are exposed to it, while mercury, used in most flat-screen displays, can cause brain damage.

Sony Ericsson and Samsung were the top performers in the Greenpeace study, due to a commitment to discontinuing the use of harmful chemicals in manufacturing processes.

However, they only offer take back schemes in selected countries. Microsoft, Phillips and Nintendo were the lowest performing companies in the report, with Nintendo having no plan at all in place for the reduction of harmful materials in its products, or recycling schemes for discontinued products.

Energy labels

Energy rating labelEnergy labeling not only allows consumers to make better choices, but has also encouraged whitegood manufacturers to become more eco-friendly.

Energy labels were first introduced on selected whitegoods in 1986 for New South Wales and Victoria, and later rolled out nationwide — but so far not for computing goods.

The star rating labeling system not only allows consumers to easily spot energy efficient devices, but has also become an incentive for manufacturers to phase out energy hungry products in favour of those that are more environmentally friendly.

A report by ACNielsen last year found that 95% of consumers surveyed were in favour of a mandatory energy labelling system being introduced for computing equipment.

What is Energy Star?

Energy star logoEnergy Star is an internationally recognised standard that identifies energy efficient computer hardware. Energy Star compliant products have the ability to enter an energy saving ‘standby mode’, and can be identified by the Energy Star symbol on the product’s packaging.

This symbol may also be visible when you first turn on your computer. Many of the world’s leading manufacturers produce Energy Star compliant products, including Compaq, Apple, Sony, IBM, HP and Toshiba.

 

CHOICE Policy Point

Choice campaigning for you logoUnlike computers sold in Australia, whitegoods by law must carry energy efficiency labels detailing how much or little energy each product consumes. CHOICE believes that mandatory energy usage labels should be introduced for computer products sold in Australia as well, giving consumers a better idea of just how much power a potential purchase requires.

While many computers on the market surpass other types of household electronic equipment in terms of energy usage, low energy computers are also available. However, due to the lack of an energy labeling system, many consumers may not know about them.

CHOICE recently spoke to Australia’s biggest electronics manufacturers at a conference held at the Australian Greenhouse Office, urging companies to support an energy rating labeling system for computer equipment.

Since 1993, refrigerators in Australia have improved in energy efficiency by 4.6% every year, likely a result of pressure on manufacturers to create more environmentally friendly products. Labelling ensures poor energy performers are clearly identifiable by consumers.

A committee established by the Federal Government recently discussed implementing such an energy consumption labeling scheme for computers and monitors sold in Australia and New Zealand. The proposal was met with reluctance by industry representatives, but negotiations are continuing.

We conducted our own tests on several household electronic devices, revealing just how much energy each consumes. Several tests were conducted on each device, testing levels of power consumption under the following conditions:

  • Standby mode
    Turned on at the wall with the device itself switched off via remote control. This is usually indicated by an LED light on the device.
  • On but idle
    Turned on at the wall with the device turned on but not in use. This is indicated by the device clearly being on. It's sometimes called 'active standby'.
  • On and in use
    Turned on at the wall with the device switched on and in active use.
    We then calculated approximately how much energy was being used, in kilowatts, and how much such use would cost at 15 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). See the Power usage table for the results.

What we found

The device that consumed the most power in our test when in use was the PlayStation 3, closely followed by the Xbox 360 and Plasma TV. Even when idle (on, but no in use), these systems consumed the most power of the devices tested. Incredibly, the Playstation 3 consumed over 10 times as much power as the Nintendo Wii.

Our tests also found that leaving a PlayStation 3 on while not in use would cost almost $250 a year in electricity bills (charged at 15c per kWh). This alone is around five times more than it would take to run a refrigerator for the same yearly period.

Xbox 360The Xbox 360 was not far behind the PlayStation 3 in energy usage costs per year, serving as an important reminder to turn off videogame systems after use.

The Plasma TV set was also a power hungry device, consuming over four times more power than a traditional CRT analogue TV set. The average desktop PC (tested independently of its required monitor) was third on the list.

Interestingly, its Apple-equivalent, the iMac (an all-in-one computer that includes a built-in display), consumed two thirds as much power as the Windows-based PC, which was tested independently from a required external display. The LCD computer monitor tested was found to be far more energy efficient than it’s CRT predecessor. The CRT used more than double the power of the LCD display.

Using just the results from our test of common household devices (see Power usage) you can see that just leaving a desktop PC, LCD monitor, wireless router, plasma TV and DVD player switched on every day costs around $450 a year. Left in standby mode, these devices would cost around $15 for the same period, not to mention save on carbon emissions.

The table below shows energy usage for a number of different products.

Note, these products were chosen at random to give an idea of approx. energy usage. Other brands may produce different results.

Power usage table part 1

power usage table part 2

Table notes

[a] Off in standby mode - switched on at the wall socket but switched off at device.
[b] WiiConnect24 is a feature which allows the Wii to receive messages and e-mail while switched off/in standby mode.

If you want to make a difference and reduce your power usage, as well as save money in the process, there is much that you can do around the home.

Go paperless (as much as possible)

Many utility companies, banks, and internet service providers such as Telstra, Vodafone and iiNet offer the option to send billing statements via email, rather than wasting paper by sending physical bills in the mail. Services such as B-pay also allow you to pay for various household accounts electronically.

Reduce print waste

Ever printed a webpage only to have your printer come out with an almost blank page at the end, containing just a few lines of unnecessary text? Greenprint is a free program designed to counter this, removing blank pages before you print them out. Greenprint can be downloaded from printgreener.com and requires Windows 2000, XP or Vista to run.

Rechargeable batteries

Using regular throwaway batteries is not only harmful for the environment, but can also become quite costly if you use batteries regularly. Rechargeable batteries can be slightly more expensive than the alkaline variety, but can be charged and recharged up to 500 times, and reduce the amount of disposable batteries that end up as landfill.

Turn off devices when not in use

Put devices like TVs, amplifiers, DVD and CD players, game consoles, speakers, and other devices into standby mode when not in use or, better still, turn them off at the wall — as our testing showed, some devices in standby mode can still consume moderate amounts of power.

Multi-switch powerboards

Traditional powerboards are handy for those times when you are short on power outlets in a particular area (such as in a computer room!) however multi-switch powerboards include a switch for each outlet, allowing you to reduce energy usage by turning off individual devices.

Reuse and recycle printer cartridges

Instead of buying expensive new ink cartridges every few months, used cartridges can also be refilled at stores such as Cartridge World, saving you money while also reducing waste. If reusing cartridges isn’t your thing, used cartridges can be recycled by placing them into ‘Cartridges 4 Planet Ark’ collection boxes at participating Australia Post, Officeworks, Harvey Norman and Dick Smith Powerhouse stores. According to Planet Ark, four million printer cartridges have been diverted from landfill as a result of the program.

Rent instead of buy

Rather than buying a new computer outright every few years, renting a computer means that you can upgrade to the latest model more frequently, and allows your old computer to be re-used by someone else. Some rental outlets will even replace a computer if you encounter a hardware problem, eliminating the downtime of sending the computer in for service. Local rental services include microrentals.com.au, macrent.com.au and hireit.com, though prices vary.

Sell your old computer

Once your computer becomes obsolete, there are many alternatives to simply disposing of it. Selling old computers on eBay can fetch good results, as obsolete hardware may be worth much more than you think. Whether working or not, computers and the parts within can be of value to others, potentially providing you with some extra cash towards your next computer purchase.

Recycle

Old computers of little value can also be recycled instead of simply throwing them out, reducing the amount of waste disposed to landfill and allowing materials to be reused in other ways. Planet Ark and Sensis have established Recycling Near You (recyclingnearyou.com.au), a site that allows you to search for your closest computer recycling centre. However, recycling fees may apply. Some hardware manufacturers also offer recycling programs for obsolete computer equipment.

Video meetings

It might sound obvious, but using webcams to conduct virtual meetings instead of traveling to a meeting by car can help reduce fuel consumption. Videoconferencing is effective and fairly simple to set up, requiring just a webcam, instant messaging software and, of course, a computer. Many notebook computers also include built-in webcams.

Upgrade your monitor

Our tests found that bulky CRT monitors can consume over twice as much power as LCD displays. LCD displays may be a more costly up-front purchase, but can save you money in the long run. Reducing the brightness of your display can also help to reduce energy usage.

Enable energy-saving features

Enabling the power management settings on your computer reduces energy usage by putting your computer into a power saving ‘sleep mode’ after several minutes of inactivity. Both Windows and Macs offer easy to use power saving features, which are explained on the next page: Energy saving settings.

Here is how to activate PC and Mac energy-saving features.

Windows XP

To enable energy saving settings in Windows XP, right click the desktop, then Properties (or click Control Panel in the Start menu, then Display).

Now click the Screen Saver tab, and under 'Monitor power', click Power. Here you can choose to put your monitor or hard disk to sleep when idle for certain amount of time, and activate your computer 'standby mode'. Standby mode turns off your monitor and hard drive, consuming just a small amount of power in order to save your work into the internal memory (or RAM) of your computer.

Windows XP power options screenshot

Windows Vista

Energy settings are set up differently with Windows Vista. Right-click the desktop, then Personalization (or click Control Panel in the Start menu, then Classic View, then Personalization).

Now click Screen Saver, and then under 'Monitor power', click Change power settings. You can now select one of three preset power plans.

To view or alter the amount of time until Windows switches off your monitor or hard disk, click Change plan settings. To wake your computer, press any button on your keyboard.

Windows Vista power options screenshot

Mac

To access the energy saving settings on your Mac, click the Apple menu in the menu bar, then System Preferences, then Energy Saver.

Here you can decide to put your computer, display and hard disk to sleep after a period of inactivity.

For those using notebook Macs such as the MacBook, MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, a separate set of energy saving settings can also be applied when using your notebook battery, allowing you to conserve battery life by pushing energy saving settings even further.

Mac energy saver screenshot

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