Power Naps for Energy Efficiency

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, June 28, 2007

It's amazing what kind of items can be advertised as "green" these days: a grocery-delivery service, a projection HDTV and a home-automation system, to name a few recently pitched to me.

"Green" is an exceedingly vague description. But it need not be. There's a simpler way to approach this issue: Do you like giving money to your electric company without getting any benefit in return?

You don't? Good, then let's talk efficiency.

In the electronics industry, this is the easiest environmental issue to grasp. Arguments over the toxic ingredients in a gadget turn on factors well outside your control -- and with effects that often land far from home. But every digital device leaves its mark on your electric bill.

This isn't a new problem, but the consequences of unchecked electrical demand, from spending billions of dollars on new power lines to global warming, have become more painful lately. As our homes continue to overflow with electronic devices, it could only get worse.

This is also a fixable situation that could be given a little more effort from the companies that are so eager to flaunt their environmental credentials.

They could start by making it easier to use a computer's sleep mode, the simplest way to cut its electrical consumption.

A computer will draw about the same level of current whether it's off (but still plugged in) or asleep. So if you just let the machine drift off when it's not in use, then wake it up as needed, you can reduce its power consumption to a tenth or even a thirtieth of normal, depending on whether it's a laptop or desktop. That will also silence the whine of its cooling fans.

Unfortunately, sleep mode continues to be one of the least reliable features in computing.

Sometimes a confusing menu or poorly chosen default settings are to blame. A Dell laptop I use, for example, offers 14 power-management schemes, almost none of which put the computer to sleep automatically when plugged in.

In other cases, the sleep mode just doesn't work as promised. My Dell consistently takes too long to wake up, sometimes needing several minutes to revive itself. An HP desktop running Windows Vista, meanwhile, wakes up fine but has trouble going to sleep. Even an iMac desktop recently had trouble snoozing, though Apple's computers usually sleep and awaken reliably.

To get your computer into the habit of taking regular naps, check its power-saving options. In Windows, open the Control Panel, go to the Performance and Maintenance category and open Power Options. In Mac OS X, open System Preferences from the Apple-icon menu and select Energy Saver. And don't forget to make sure your screen saver isn't preventing the monitor from shutting off.

Another part of the power problem, which has no easy remedy, are devices that waste electricity whether on or off because of poor design or construction.

Older electronics tend to be the worst in this aspect, but even new products can waste power for no reason. I saw examples of both in tests with a power meter loaned by an official at the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program office. This program identifies products that have passed efficiency tests. It is about to be expanded to cover many more computing and electronics accessories.

For instance, an old cathode-ray-tube TV used 7 watts even when off, and a new Dish Network digital video recorder used about 30 watts on or off. The EPA's figures show that some desktop computers can draw as much as 212 watts -- more than some big-screen, flat-panel TVs -- while others with slightly less powerful components need only half as much current.

Much of the blame has to be directed at an old problem in the electronics business: Vendors' instincts to use the cheapest commodity parts.

My desk at work is an unplanned exhibit of this. It's littered with nearly identical black power adapters for a variety of devices, most of which don't feature the make or model of the product they're supposed to charge.

If a company can't even be bothered to put its name on a power brick, is it going to waste much time looking for the most efficient model available? Probably not.

This is what economists call an "externality" and non-economists call "somebody else's problem." That is, the manufacturer isn't stuck paying the costs of its inefficient design.

Fixing either of these problems wouldn't make an individual household that much richer over one year, nor would it eliminate the usefulness of other energy-conservation measures, like replacing incandescent lights with far thriftier compact-fluorescent bulbs.

Just getting a single computer to sleep properly may only save enough to buy a six-pack over 12 months. But over a few years, you would have some real money.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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