If your home has a smart meter, here’s an experiment: Log in to your power company’s Web site, and see how much electricity you use during the hour from 3 to 4 a.m. daily.
You were asleep (we hope), and surely nothing major was running. Maybe the heat (but it’s best to set the thermostat down at night). And the fridge — but if it’s a newer one, it’s probably very energy efficient.
And yet nonetheless, you’ll likely find a significant amount of power being gobbled up. “You can start spotting a time, depending on the home, where you can just see the minimum power consumption, and it’s really surprising how much gets consumed during that period,” says Alan Meier, an expert on energy technologies at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who recommends the 3 a.m. strategy.
Meet the problem that energy researchers call MEL — the “miscellaneous electrical load.” Its name says it all: It refers to all the power use from miscellaneous electronics and other objects in your home that are not major appliances, lighting, or heating and cooling. Many of these additional devices spend most of their time in standby mode; others are wirelessly communicating all the time. They use a constant stream of power, even when you’re getting nothing out of them. Even when you’re sleeping.
The problem is not any one device — it’s all of them in combination. “A typical American home has forty products constantly drawing power,” says Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Web site Standby Power.
Examples range from your modem to your cable box, your microwave with its clock always lit up, and your LED lights which you can control from your phone — which always have to be able to receive a communication from you.
According to a recent paper in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, devices in standby mode alone consume 4 to 12 percent of the total power used by a home. With a national average monthly electricity bill of $ 107.28 (in 2012), the average cost might be roughly $4 to $13 per month, or between $48 and $156 per year.
A 2008 study put the number much higher for all kinds of miscellaneous electrical load — as high as 27 percent of home electricity use — and concluded that in 2006, this accounted for 10 percent of U.S. electricity use overall.
And the MEL problem is getting worse, for at least two separate reasons.
The first reason is actually kind of good news — major home appliances aren’t such power hogs any more. Many categories of in-home appliances, such as refrigerators, have gotten vastly more energy efficient over time:
These energy efficiency strides are a powerful achievement, but they also leave behind the “miscellaneous electrical load” as a category of energy use that is increasing — both overall, and especially in relation to other categories.
The second problem, explains Meier, is that we’ve got more and more consumer electronic devices, and they are performing more and more wireless communications that require them to be, in some sense, always “on.”
“A lot more devices have network connections, so that they’re constantly talking to the Internet in one way or another,” says Meier. The “Internet of Things,” it seems, has a substantial energy footprint.
This has happened despite the fact that so-called “energy vampires” — two-pronged chargers that tend not to get unplugged, and so draw power all night — are actually less of a problem these days. Energy wonks have been worried about their so-called “phantom load” for some time, and many manufacturers have accordingly taken strides to address it. For instance, recent research by Opower found that it only costs 47 cents per year to charge an iPhone 6.
So while there are still some energy vampires, the contributors to your home’s MEL are far broader, says Meier. They encompass anything from a home aquarium, to an automatic sprinkler system, to wireless speakers.
So what can we do about MEL? It’s tough because the problem is both additive — emerging from a large collection of different devices and objects — and highly individualized. In every home, the particular objects contributing to the total miscellaneous electrical load will be different. (Not everybody has a timed sprinkler system.)
Still, there are some ideas out there. In Energy Research and Social Science, Clemson University’s Joseph Burgett proposes a solution called a whole house switch, which can wirelessly turn off everything in your home — provided, that is, that you set up the home properly. For the switch to work, you also need a “disconnect” either at every power outlet, or connecting every appliance’s cord to the power outlet — so the switch can communicate with them all. That’s a lot of different disconnects.
Once all of this is set up, you can then flip a switch — the analogy is with turning your lights off when you leave home — and power down the house. Burgett’s paper finds that a whole house switch can knock out roughly 8 to 24 percent of miscellaneous electricity use, cutting overall energy use by about 1 to 4 percent.
Lawrence Berkeley’s Alan Meier sees more of a policy oriented solution — trying to change how manufacturers design so many of today’s consumer electronics. “The cheapest way is to go upstream and get the manufacturers to do as much of that as possible, because once you’ve bought it, you’re basically stuck,” he says.
On the technology side, meanwhile, the Department of Energy is fostering research on so-called “wide bandgap semiconductors,” which have the potential to make many electronic devices vastly more efficient by letting them “operate at much higher temperatures, voltages, and frequencies.”
The problem of MEL is a classic case of how the world can change so fast — in this case, through the proliferation of in-home communicating technologies — that energy efficiency gurus struggle to keep up. Until they do, you can monitor your electricity usage to determine how much of it is MEL — and then try to see how much you can actually manage to turn off.
UPDATE: Since this article put some emphasis on the role that consumer electronics play in the overall “miscellaneous electrical load,” it’s fair to note that the industry has made strides in recent years in increasing the energy efficiency of its products. For instance, a recent report from the Consumer Electronics Association found that in 2013, consumer electronic devices constituted 12 percent of overall home energy use — a decline from 13.2 percent in 2010. And this occurred even as the total number of consumer electronic devices in homes increased. The majority of the energy use, according to the study, came from televisions, computers, and set-top boxes.