Power strips, thermostats, Web can help drop energy cost

2010-08-29T00:00:00Z Power strips, thermostats, Web can help drop energy costJonathan S. Paul New York Times Arizona Daily Star
August 29, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A number of products to help you track and manage your energy consumption.

Here's a sampling:

VAMPIRES AMONG US

Vampire power may sound like a radical movement of "Twilight" fans, but it is far more mundane. The open secret is this: The things you turn off, like televisions, DVD players, cable boxes? They're not really "off." Many devices have to maintain a trickle of electricity (indicated by those little red LEDs that glow) to receive a signal from a remote control or display a digital clock.

This has been more an offense to people's principles than to their finances. Until recently, the only way to ensure that these things were truly power-free was to take direct, manual action, like unplugging the TV from the wall or turning off a power strip's switch.

The less motivated but still guilt-ridden can get the same result by buying a "smart" power strip.

Belkin, the tech-accessory maker, has a smart strip called the Conserve AV that retails for about $30. When you turn off your TV, the strip knows to shut off power to other devices that are plugged into it as well.

Another handy device from Belkin, the Conserve Insight (also about $30, available in September), measures the energy draw of plug-in appliances. It allows you to identify the worst offenders and estimate their cost, in dollars, kilowatts or pounds of carbon dioxide.

CLIMATE CONTROL

The best tool for getting energy use under control may be one that many people already have - a programmable thermostat.

The energy spent on heating and cooling generally far outweighs the energy used by consumer electronics, appliances or lighting. What's more, there's a real opportunity for savings because people often do not take full advantage of their digital thermostats.

"It's just a pain to program them," said Seth Frader-Thompson, the chief executive of EnergyHub, a startup company that is designing an easy-to-use thermostat and energy control system. "The interfaces are really obtuse."

Frader-Thompson estimates that about 80 percent of Americans do not use the settings. "It's just like the 12 o'clock blinking on the VCR," he said.

In fact, because a thermostat's effectiveness is entirely dependent on how it is installed and set up, Energy Star stopped rating them in 2009. The government program estimates that a properly programmed thermostat can save an average of $180 annually.

The first step is to find the manual and set aside 15 minutes for programming. (If you no longer have the manual, search for an electronic copy online, using the model number.)

The next step is setting comfortable morning and evening temperatures and day and sleep temperatures, to keep the heating and air-conditioning systems from working too hard. Energy Star's recommended settings, listed on its website (energystar.gov), are a good starting point.

For those who do not have a programmable thermostat, upgrading to one (which costs about $50) can be an easy do-it-yourself project or a quick job for an electrician, who may also help you with the setup. When choosing a model, keep in mind that simplicity is crucial, but make sure it has modes for weekends and weekdays.

ONLINE INSIGHTS

Another way to get control of your energy use is to squeeze more information out of your utility bill. Several free websites may show your usage history more clearly than your bill. Earth Aid (earthaid.net) synchronizes with your utilities' accounts and shows your electricity, gas and water use in colorful graphs; it also compares your usage with that of any neighbors who are members.

Google's PowerMeter (google.com/powermeter) site and Microsoft's Hohm (microsoft-hohm.com) offer a similar free service, with number-crunching graphs and efficiency recommendations. Earth Aid's service, however, connects with more than 200 power, gas and water companies - far more than its competitors.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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