Thursday Mar 05, 2009

Vampires, Kill-A-Watt and the Costs of Working Remote

First; sorry for the prolonged absence from postings to my blog - had my head down on a very large project in Canada. We just completed our first release and I have a tiny bit of breathing room. More on that later….

With energy costs skyrocketing and the economy crumbling, people are scrambling to find ways to save money. One topic in the news lately is the talk of vampire sucking devices – I didn’t say it was a new topic, just in the news a lot lately.

There is a device on the market called the “Kill-A-Watt”. There are others, but this one was relatively cheap (around $50, but I was able to find one sub $40). One nice feature is that you can plug in your local KWH rate and get results in actual dollars per year (or month, day, hour, etc). That feature is really handy. It saves time and gets you to the pertinent information at hand. Namely: what is this device costing you per year.

Let me say up front that I used the device differently than the manufacturer suggested. They suggest you plug in a device and let it run for a long period of time. So, for a TV, you would let it run for several weeks or months. It would average out the time a TV is on vs the time it is off. The approach I used was to monitor the device for a much shorter period of time (typically 1 hr) in a steady state mode, eg: either on or off. I then created a spreadsheet whereby I entered the amount of time I though the device spent in the particular mode. Their approach might be more accurate, but mine let me fiddle with the numbers – and made the experiment more fun - if not faster.

Below is a list of all the devices I tested, along with the following attributes:

  • Name: self explanatory
  • 24x365 Cost: that is the cost if the device was left in this mode all year.  This isn't really very useful, but gives you a holistic view of what a device costs.  Think of it as the same as the "unit" price that many food stores now supply alongside the retail price.
  • % time in mode: the true percentage of time I _think_ this device remains in this mode.  This is probably the biggest area for error in this experiment.  The numbers you see here are subject to change as I hone in on what the true percentage actually is.
  • Actual Yearly Cost: the yearly cost \* the percentage of the time the device is on.  This is the actual out-of-pocket cost for this particular device as used in my house. Your mileage might vary. 
  • Unplug: If “y” then this is a device we could consider unplugging (or switching off) when not in use. More on this later.

Measurement Results:

Item Device Name Mode 24x365 cost % time in mode actual yearly cost Unplug or shut off when not using
1 Treo Cell Phone Charger - standby off 0.00 0.750 0.000 y
2 Basement Nightlight on 0.00 1.000 0.000 y
3 Downstairs VCR - on on 26.70 0.005 0.134 y
4 Office TV Tuner - on on 48.60 0.010 0.486 y
5 Hair Iron on 123.00 0.004 0.492 y
6 Gameboy Charger - undocked on 1.56 0.500 0.780
7 Sanyo Cell Phone Charger - charging on 3.85 0.250 0.963
8 Old 24" TV - on on 109.00 0.010 1.090 y
9 Sanyo Cell Phone Charger - standby off 1.56 0.750 1.170 y
10 Plasma Nightlight on 1.20 1.000 1.200 y
11 32" Flat Screen TV - off off 1.56 0.900 1.404 y
12 electric pencil sharpener on 1.56 1.000 1.560
13 Belkin Power Strip/USB Charger on 1.56 1.000 1.560 y
14 wii - off off 3.13 0.500 1.565
15 24 inch external LCD Monitor on 3.13 0.500 1.565 y
16 Gameboy Charger - docked on 3.13 0.500 1.565
17 Under Cabinet Kitchen Radio on 7.84 0.200 1.568
18 Rechargable Flashlight on 1.76 1.000 1.760 y
19 Upstairs DVR - off off 4.70 0.500 2.350 y
20 Treo Cell Phone Charger - charging on 10.97 0.250 2.743 y
21 Downstairs DVD - off off 3.13 0.990 3.099 y
22 Office TV Tuner - off off 3.13 0.990 3.099 y
23 P-Touch Label Printer on 3.13 1.000 3.130 y
24 13W CFL on 21.95 0.200 4.390
25 Wireless Headphone/Charger on 4.70 1.000 4.700 y
26 Kitchen MacBook on 5.75 1.000 5.750 y
27 Downstairs VCR - off off 6.27 0.995 6.239 y
28 Wireless Print Server on 6.27 1.000 6.270 y
29 USB Hub on 6.27 1.000 6.270 y
30 HP 3050 Printer on 7.84 1.000 7.840 y
31 Dell Laptop (printserver) on 10.97 1.000 10.970 y
32 Downstairs DVR - on on 37.63 0.300 11.289 y
33 Downstairs DVD - on on 12.53 0.917 11.486 y
34 32" Flat Screen TV - on on 119.70 0.100 11.970 y
35 Upstairs VCR - off off 25.01 0.500 12.505 y
36 Digital Picture Frame on 12.54 1.000 12.540 y
37 Upstairs VCR - on on 26.65 0.500 13.325
38 wii - on on 28.12 0.500 14.060
39 HP Photosmart 4250 on 15.68 1.000 15.680
40 Old 24" TV - off off 17.40 1.000 17.400
41 32" tube TV - off off 21.94 0.800 17.552
42 Upstairs DVR - on on 36.06 0.500 18.030 y
43 Downstairs DVR - off off 26.90 0.700 18.830
44 Xerox Phaser 3200 on 25.08 1.000 25.080
45 60W Light Buld on 102.50 0.300 30.750
46 32" tube TV - on on 156.80 0.200 31.360
47 Hair Dryer on 2315.00 0.014 32.410 y
48 Internet Camera on 32.91 1.000 32.910
49 Cable Modem/Wireless Router on 37.63 1.000 37.630 y
50 MacBook Pro on 39.20 1.000 39.200 y
51 IBM Laptop on 47.04 1.000 47.040 y
52 100W Light Bulb on 157.00 0.300 47.100
53 Refrigerator on 101.00 1.000 101.000
54 Office Track Lighting on 344.00 0.330 113.520


  • For devices like the wii, printers, DVDs, VCRs, etc – “on” means the device is ready to go, but no one is using it. Sadly, a state many devices in my house share.
  • For devices like the wii, printers, DVDs, VCRs, etc – “off” means that the device has been “told” to shut off, but internally they are still alive and sucking power.
  • Some devices like the wii, DVDs, VCRs, etc it is hard to gauge how often the device is actually “off” vs “on”, but unused. For those devices, I assumed a 50/50 split – this is where the manufacture’s recommendation that you monitor the device for a long, long time pays off, but that would have extended my test for many months.

The two charts below list the items in cost order:

Things Not Measured

  • Anything permanently wired into the house was not measured. This includes the pool heater, dishwasher, boiler, hot water heater,etc

  • Anything used very very seldom. Eg: garage door opener, pencil sharpener while in use, etc

  •  Anything I was too lazy to move or crawl behind.


The key factor to this analysis is the percentage of time in a state I associated with each device. The results are only as good as the value I plugged into this cell. That said; because I used a spreadsheet, I have the opportunity to change this value anytime I want. If you think my percentage values are not realistic, please submit your best guess – along with a reason why your SWAG is better than mine ;-)

Interesting Discoveries:

Lighting: I have 58 incandescent lights in my house. Note: I measured both 65W and 100W incandescent light bulbs. In fairness; I have a mix of 65W, 75W, and 100W bulbs in my house. That said; lets assume I only have 65W bulbs throughout my house - thus allowing for an apples-to-apples comparison to a 13W CLF.  If I swap every incandescent bulb for a CLF I would save $1520 annually.  That's assuming that my estimate of the lights being on 30% of the time is accurate - which I am starting to wonder about.  Even if the number is 15%, that's still a significant savings.  Also keep in mind that, 65W, is on the low side.  For the record; I’ve been doing this for a while and can attest that it is not practical to convert all lights to CLF, more on that later.

Lighting Costs: for the amount of money I spend a year on lighting, I could almost power a single blow dryer on the high heat setting 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  I didn't say it was a particularly useful discovery.

Home Office: My out-of-pocket electrical costs to run my Sun home office is approximately $375. That includes all the equipment I leave on 24x7 + the dollars for lighting 8-10 hours a day 5 days a week.

Saving Money: If we were disciplined enough to actually turn off or unplug all the devices we are not using, we would save around $320 a year. This does not include the devices that it does not make sense to unplug (eg: TV, DVR, etc)

New Treo Charger: My brand new Treo replacement charger must be Energy Star 5 compliant because, when not charging the phone, it uses zero (zip) electricity.  This was the first device I tried to measure and I thought my Kill-A-Watt was broken.  It's a fact; I ran a test for days and, unloaded, it used no electricity.  I believe it is using some current, but not enough for the Kill-A-Watt to register. 


For all the talk about vampire sapping electronic devices, the cost savings one can achieve by unplugging unused devices is just not worth the effort. Granted, if every American did it, it would be huge for the country. On an individual basis; it’s just not worth the effort. We have started unplugging the “more convenient” devices (like the seldom used pencil sharpener and electronic picture frame), but that will net us less than $100 per year. In the long run, I suspect we will end up forgetting to unplug them.

Over the years I’ve heard people complain that:

working from home is good (great IMHO) and all, but the company does save HUGE bucks in not having to pay for office space, heat, and electricity for “my” needs. Instead “I” do.

While this is true (especially the working from home being great) and the office space cost is probably very high, it turns out that the home office electrical costs are fairly low. If it costs me $400 a year for the privilege of working at home – that aint bad. Plus, I could do a lot to bring these costs down. Things like shutting off the printers when not needed and switching from my halogen track lighting to CLF.  In fact; I have moved some of my devices to a separate power strip that I now routinely turn off.  Word of advice: watch the stand issue laser printer that Sun supplies (manufacture's name intentionally withheld).  It aint cheap to run 24x7.

Where you can save BIG bucks is by switching to CFL in general. That’s huge and easy. I’ve been doing this conversion for the pas 2 years – as lights burn out. I have about 80% CLF in my house (and no real plans to tackle the remaining 20%) There are down sides to CLF, but the savings is measurable and large. Even taking into account the 65W vs 100W and the 30% usage time issues, you are still talking of saving well over a $1000 per year savings.

Downsides to CLFs

There are hidden costs and issues with converting to CLF. First they are more expensive to purchase, but, in theory, last longer.  Some bulbs give off odd hues. Some are slow to warm. There are other issues, like: you can’t use a dinner switch with a standard CLF – and, going from “off” to “on” fast with a dinner doesn’t cut it. So, you either have to swap out the dimmer for a 2 pole switch ($) or purchase dimmable CLFs ($$$). I’ve done both as needed. Also note that newer CLF compatible dimmer switches do not dim as low as older switches.  So, if you are going for that romantic, low light effect, forgetaboutit.  If you try to use an older dimmer switch, the bulb will flicker noticeably while on the low setting.

There are some devices where it just looks plain’ol stupid to put in a CLF. Some of our ceiling fans take 3 small bulbs. Using CLFs screams high-tech red-neck! Same with bathroom fixtures. Basically; anytime the bulb is exposed in an otherwise finished environment, the resulting look is not-so-good. Exposed CLFs in the basement or garage is just me.

Final Suggestion

If you have any older slow-to-warm CLFs, put it in your bathrooms.  During the night, when your eyes are adjusted to the dark, the slow-to-warms are perfect.  They slowly get brighter - allowing your eyes to adjust accordingly. 




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