My monthly rent payment includes heat and electricity, a luxury I'm still getting used to at the new apartment I moved into this summer. I have to admit that when someone else pays my bills, I become less vigilant about energy efficiency around the house. Where I used to be neurotic about turning off or unplugging power strips when their attached electronics were not in use, I'm now guilty of leaving them off but plugged in — therefore sucking so-called "phantom loads" — for days at a time.
But every once in a while, I remember that it's not just for my wallet, or to reduce my personal carbon footprint, that I'm supposed to be saving energy. I'm also trying to set an example for my peers, and oh yeah, I do write this column about sustainability, and don't like to be a massive hypocrite. I've written before about my efforts to reduce electricity use in my home (see "Tracking Kilowatts," August 8, 2007). Now, with the help of the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC), I can narrow my focus to find out which items drain the most kilowatts; perhaps knowing just how much electricity I'm wasting will make me more conscious of my energy use around the house — even if I'm not paying for it directly.
Efficiency Maine, a PUC program aimed at lowering residential, business, and governmental energy use, kicked off an initiative this month to help Mainers see the energy impact of ordinary home appliances. The campaign comes in the form of remote-control-sized monitors that can be checked out of the library, then plugged into wall sockets to ascertain how much electricity is sucked up by an individual item. For example, the Kill-A-Watt monitor tells me that my hair dryer, for the five minutes it runs every morning, sucks up about 0.05 kilowatt-hours — the measure Central Maine Power uses when calculating my electric bills. (A kilowatt-hour (kWh) equals 1000 watts per hour, or the amount of electricity used by 10 100-watt light bulbs in one hour.) Multiply that by 0.17 (Maine's average cost per kWh), and then by 30 days, and I find out that my hair dryer costs me (or, more accurately, my landlord) approximately one quarter per month. Ouch!
My air purifier, on the other hand — which I bought specifically to "green up" the air in my apartment — uses 0.06 kWh every hour. I use it for approximately 12-15 hours a day (I turn it on when I get home, and leave it on while I sleep), which means it costs more than $20 per month.
My editor gave the Kill-A-Watt device a test run as well. He turned up good supporting evidence for the surge protectors that claim to reduce phantom loads by recognizing when a trigger device (usually the main part of a computer) goes to sleep or shutting down, and automatically shuts down all peripherals (printer, speakers, external hard drive) at the same time.
"I learned that when our computers are asleep, the Smart Strips that we have actually do their thing — the sleeping computer, with attached hard drive (whose power auto-shuts-off when the computer sleeps) and the printer in sleep mode (but not auto-off), used 0.00 kW per hour," he reports.
Efficiency Maine supplied 660 kits to 280 Maine libraries, which means that more than 30,000 Mainers could access the kits over the course of a year, according to PUC spokesman Fred Bever. Included in the Kill-A-Watt boxes are instructions (duh), and tips on how to reduce electricity use around the home.
Deirdre Fulton can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.