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Energy-Leaking Appliances Are Never Really 'Off'

Your house "leaks" electricity: The cordless drill in the basement. The television set, computer printer, garage-door opener. Even an electric toothbrush wastes energy while it sits doing nothing.

The leakage from any one appliance is usually negligible. But lump together all your house's electronic devices and the waste begins to add up. For example:

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* The average American home "leaks" an estimated 5 percent of its electricity or about $50 a year.

* It's a huge energy drain nationally. We use an estimated 5 billion watts annually - the output of five standard power plants - to power electronics while they're turned off.

* TVs and VCRs alone cost Americans $1 billion a year in electric bills while not in use. The energy used creates so much greenhouse gas, it's as if we put an extra 2 million cars on the road and asked them to drive in circles.

Unfortunately, there's little consumers can do. When you turn off modern appliances, you're really not turning them off at all. You're putting them on standby.

"Vampires, I call them," says Arthur Rosenfeld, senior adviser to the Office of Energy Efficiency at the US Energy Department. "What's absolutely flabbergasting [is that] you're probably drawing like 50 watts continuously at 3 in the morning" for appliances that are off.

Of course, there are reasons electronic appliances stay on standby. Your TV set has to be ready to receive the "on" signal from the remote control. A dishwasher has internal memory timers. Some of these timers and sensors can actually save energy. The problem is that many manufacturers until recently paid no attention to the energy used during standby mode.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for example, found a compact audio system that drew 23 watts when it was on and a whopping 20 watts when it was off. A receiver for a satellite-TV system, which drew 17.5 watts when it was on, continued to use 17 watts when it was off. In some cases, the only reason the off button is there "is to give you the illusion of control," says Steve Greenberg, energy management engineer at the Berkeley, Calif., lab.

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You could unplug your appliances when not in use. But last month the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department launched a more feasible alternative: a voluntary Energy Star program for TVs and VCRs. Under the agreement, manufacturers get to display the federal Energy Star label on TVs that consume no more than 3 watts of power and VCRs that use no more than 4 watts when on standby.

So far 12 major manufacturers from around the world have released some 150 products based on the new standard. "By the holiday season of this year, there should be quite a number of qualified products out there," says Stephan Sylvan, manager of the Energy Star home-electronics program. You can get the list of approved products by calling Energy Star (888-STAR-YES) or viewing its Web site (

Researchers call the program an important first step. "Once industry starts down this path, they're going to notice that it makes sense for many reasons," says Alan Meier, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley. Dr. Meier is pushing for a more stringent 1 watt standard for all electronic devices on standby.

His research suggests that with some thoughtful reengineering, electronic appliances can keep all their fancy features, while the nation plugs its energy leaks, saves money, and cleans up the environment.

* Send comments to or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at

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