What’s on & using energy in your house while you’re not even there?

Your house is full of devices that never actually turn off – even when you’re gone or asleep. opens in a new window Do you know how much energy they’re using or money they’re costing?

I began researching this topic shortly after Christmas, when I signed up for cable and DVR service after months of going without. I noticed my utility bill increased, nothing out of this world, but still a notable difference, and since I am quite conscious of my energy use, I knew not much had changed. (Disclaimer: many things can contribute to an increase in your utility bills, including things outside of your control such as the weather and number of days in a billing cycle.) I did some research as previously mentioned, and found out some very interesting things, while also stopping to think about what else was using energy while I’m not even home to enjoy it.


First, let’s talk DVRs and cable boxes. The thing I most recently learned is that a DVR, that wonderful device that let’s you record all of your shows so you can watch them later without commercials, (something as a marketing professional I should despise) is constantly on and recording opens in a new window, even if you haven’t told it to. That’s why you can turn on the television on the middle of a show and rewind to the beginning without missing a beat. Your device was essentially thinking one step ahead of you, and recording the show before you even turned your system on. Great when you realize you’ve missed half of the evening news, not so great for your energy bill.

The basic rule of thumb is that anything that has a pilot or indicator light on, or feels warm to the touch is using energy, even after you’ve turned that device, appliance, or electronic off. We call that vampire energy. The Department of Energy says vampire energy, also called phantom loads, can add 10% or more to your energy bill per year opens in a new window. Not too surprising when you think of all of the devices in your home that you leave plugged in all of the time. It’s not uncommon to have computers, laptops, and/or tablets, phone chargers, WiFi, cable boxes, game consoles, in addition to appliances like toasters, blenders, and coffee pots plugged in all of the time.

Being conscious about unplugging is one way to combat the issue. Using a power strip is another. I have actually started flipping the switch to my power strip that controls my television, WiFi, and cable/DVR box off every night before bed, leaving it off until I return home from work the next day. The reality is that option is not convenient or viable for everyone. Someone may like to watch the news in the morning (something I wish I had time for), need their WiFi on to check emails, or use the timer feature on the coffee pot so you wake up to the smell of coffee brewing (who doesn’t love that!?). To be honest, it’s not much of a hassle or inconvenience to me, but I do have to remember to do it every night, which I haven’t quite perfected, and I have to wait a good 5 minutes after turning the TV back on for the ‘guide’ feature to fully load. Those are the downfalls, which I can live with.

Things you’re already doing to save while you’re gone:

  • Adjusting the thermostat. Or you’ve programmed it to do so.
  • Shutting off all lights. Leaving only a nightlight on if you need a light for safety/security.

Here’s more you can do to save::

  1. Take inventory. Late at night when the lights are all off, (yes, they should all be off now) and the kids are in bed. Walk through your home and count how many pilot lights you can see glowing. If you notice something plugged in that does not have a light, check to see if the plug feels warm, another indicator that it’s pulling energy.
  2. See which of these locations would be a good spot for a power strip, or a smart strip opens in a new window (check back, buying guide coming soon).
  3. Try using an outlet timer for something like a laptop, tablet, or phone that you plug in to charge overnight, or forget to unplug once it’s charged. opens in a new windowThe outlet timer will allow you to only charge that device for a set amount of time before cutting off the power supply. Note: this can also benefit the battery life of your device. There are many kinds of these available, shop around to see what would work best for you.outlet timer cathroom
  4. Decrease idle time. Don’t leave your TV or game console on pause for a significant amount of time. It uses the same amount of energy as if it was actively in use.
  5. Stream more efficiently. It is much more energy efficient to stream movies, videos, or TV shows on a laptop or tablet than a game console.  279 Hours of media are consumed by the average american per month.
  6. Decide what conveniences you can/cannot live without. For example, I can wait the 5 minutes for the TV guide, DVR recordings, and WiFi to load, I cannot (okay, don’t want to) go without waking up to the smell of coffee brewing–hey, we’re all human.coffee

Posted by: Brenna Reed. Brenna is the Sustainability Educator for the City of Columbia, is coordinating the City’s competitive efforts in the Georgetown University Energy Prize opens in a new window, and loves hazelnut lattes!