Vampire cable

Pay-TV boxes really suck up the energy and spew CO2 emissions

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Here’s something to consider the next time you are channel surfing, or, say, watching Twilight while setting the digital video recorder for True Blood.

The true vampire in the room is the one sucking the lifeblood out of your pocketbook, and it’s sitting on top of the television set—that harmless-looking cable box.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has found that the small set-top boxes cost American consumers about $3 billion annually due to their high use of electricity. What’s really alarming, however, is that only $1 billion of that goes to the actual use of the boxes; the other two-thirds of the time, the boxes sit idle.

“It’s like having a computer with a hard drive that is always spinning on top of your television,” said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist with the NRDC. “The set-top box is running all the time, even when we are not watching television.”

With the use of these little-noticed boxes rapidly growing—an estimated 80 percent of American households has one—Horowitz and the NRDC decided this year to investigate how much energy they consumed. The NRDC—a nonprofit environmental advocacy group—and a partner, Ecos Consulting, assessed 58 different types of set-top boxes nationally, along with a few more efficient European models and up-and-coming streaming technology, such as Apple TV.

The NRDC’s study found that the American cable boxes burned up energy at a rapid rate. In 2010, America’s almost 160 million boxes burned through 27 billion kilowatt-hours, which is about equal to the output of nine coal-fired power plants, while generating 16 metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions. Additionally, DVR set-top boxes diverted energy around the clock, even in late hours when people typically sleep, and during the day, when people are typically at work.

“It’s hard to fathom that today’s set-top boxes continue to consume near-full levels of power when the box is [not in use],” Horowitz told the News & Review recently. “Due to their poor designs, U.S. set-top boxes consume a whopping $2 billion or [the equivalent output of] six large power plants worth of electricity when they are not in use.”

With this in mind, the NRDC is encouraging cable companies to adopt more energy-efficient models—devices that are already being introduced in Europe.

Noah Horowitz, NRDC senior scientist

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At the same time, the state of California, which already established the first state energy-efficiency standards for televisions in 2009, is now considering stricter standards for set-top boxes with DVR capability.

“They use a significant amount of electricity to run,” said Daniel Hamilton, a senior energy-efficiency planner for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. “Both the NRDC and the California Investor Owned Utilities recently proposed set-top boxes as one of the items for new and more stringent standards under California Title 20, which regulates the energy use of appliances and lighting.”

In the meantime, Hamilton recommends that individuals use a power strip or surge protector to make it easier to disconnect the device when it is not in use.

“With the boxes in standby or sleep mode for an average of 15-21 hours per day, turning off the power strip has the potential to save up to 75 percent of the electricity costs of the unit,” Hamilton explained. “When on a power strip with a television, gaming system and other common entertainment components, this can quickly lower monthly bills.”

Major cable-provider Comcast also said it was on top of the issue. Spokesman Bryan Byrd told the News & Review that in the future, 100 percent of its boxes will be EnergyStar-compliant and more energy-efficient.

“We’re actively working with our partners to create integrated systems on a chip that require less power to operate,” Byrd said, while adding that Comcast is also planning to move more features, such as program guides, to cloud computing. “This could help simplify what functions the box would need to be able to support, which in turn could help reduce the amount of energy needed to operate it.”

Until that happens, there is always one old-school option so long as you don’t mind not having True Blood waiting for you when you get home. Consider it the energy equivalent of garlic—simply unplug.