Measuring the impact of our appliances

Have you ever wondered how much electricity your appliances and gadgets actually use? You may not have had reason to, but if you’ve ever seriously tried to reduce your energy usage, it can become something of an obsession – especially if you have a real-time energy monitor. You can find yourself hunting around the house, looking for the culprit that’s still drawing power when you think you’ve got everything switched off.

You can discount the fridge, which you want on constantly. Otherwise things should be off if they’re not being used, in theory, although the more you look the more you see. In my house the heating is electronic, so the boiler and its control panel draw small amounts of power 24 hours a day. The broadband router is on all the time and, ironically, the energy meter. We also have cordless phones which need to be plugged in. If I’d thought about this I’d have got a simpler phone that’s powered through the phone line.

And that’s a running theme with our gadgets, that the more advanced they are the power they tend to consume. Sometimes it’s things that never used to be electronic at all, like digital picture frames, that are a whole new sources of energy use. Or it’s simple things like radios and alarm clocks want to be plugged in now, when they used to be battery operated. Or it’s bigger and better – a flat-screen TV can use five times as much power as a cathode ray model. More and more things have timers and displays that you don’t want to mess up by switching them off, such as televisions and set-top boxes. Anything that is ready to be used at a moment’s notice, computer printers for example, is using power all day for the few minutes it is actually used.

It’s important to keep some perspective of course. Our gadgets account for about 15% of the UK’s electricity consumption. A bit of ironing or hair drying will use more in five minutes than all those little timers and chargers put together. And as David MacKay points out in his book Renewable Energy Without the Hot Air, “all the energy saved in switching off your phone charger for one day is used up in one second of car-driving.”

Nevertheless, a little thought and investigation is well worth it. Once you know that your laser printer is costing you £17 a year just to sit there, you might not resent the few seconds of warming up it’ll need if you just switch it on when you want to use it. When you replace appliances, remember to take energy use into consideration, especially on big items like fridge-freezers and washing machines.

To see how much your appliances and gadgets are using, you can look them up on Earthpill, an online database of energy usages. It’s collected over 1,500 readings of everyday appliances, and you can add your own readings if you’ve got them, or search for items you own. For a snapshot from one house, see David MacKay’s table here.

If you want to track your energy use over time and see how you’re doing, register with and start entering meter readings. You’ll be able to create graphs of your energy use over time. I’ve started doing this from the 1st of March, as part of a local competition. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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