TV Cable Boxes Waste Billions Worth of Electricity

Digital video recorders (DVRs), cable and other pay-TV boxes use more electricity than an efficient refrigerator, the most energy intensive appliance in peoples’ homes.

And they cost more when the TV is turned off than when it’s turned on!

Also known as set-top boxes, these devices squander the equivalent annual energy output of six coal burning power plants (500 MW) because they are not equipped to power down when not being used. 

The total energy costs for consumers is $3 billion a year — $1 billion to operate when in active use and an additional $2 billion while inactive but still running at near full power.

"Set-top boxes are the ultimate home energy vampires, silently sucking significant amounts of energy and money when nobody’s using them," says Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the organization that produced the report. "The consumer, who pays the electric bill, deserves technologies without hidden costs. At a time when everyone is trying to cut waste from our budgets and electric grid, service providers shouldn’t saddle their subscribers with boxes that unnecessarily squeeze their wallets."

The NRDC study, "Reducing the National Energy Consumption of Set-Top Boxes," also found that today’s average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more electricity annually than the new flat panel TV to which it’s typically connected and about 40% more than its basic set-top box counterpart. In contrast, cell phones, which also work on a subscriber basis with a need for secure connections, are able to use extremely low levels of power when not in use – primarily to preserve battery life.

There are approximately 160 million set-top boxes installed in US homes, or the equivalent of one box for every two Americans. They consume as much electricity each year as that consumed by the entire state of Maryland and are responsible for 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

National set-top box electricity use is growing as more people shift from basic boxes to DVRs, which provide a convenient way to record and playback shows. A typical household with one DVR and one basic set-top box uses approximately the same annual electricity use of one new refrigerator. These devices still run at near full power when the consumer is neither watching nor recording a show. Hitting the on/off button merely dims the clock or display and does not significantly reduce the amount of power used.

Dramatic energy savings can be readily achieved by having set-top boxes automatically go into a low power mode when people are neither watching nor recording a show. This functionality is beginning to appear in boxes used in Europe.

To achieve this in the US, pay-TV service providers such as Comcast, Time Warner, Direct TV, Dish and the phone companies could work with manufacturers to develop and deploy more energy efficient devices.

The US EPA has created ENERGY STAR 4.0 for set-up boxes. Cable TV subscribers can request their pay-TV service provider (e.g. their cable or satellite company) supply them with set-top boxes that are ENERGY STAR certified.

"We’ve improved the efficiency of all sorts of electronics – from TVs to video game consoles," says Horowitz. "It’s just as possible to improve the efficiency of our DVRs and other pay TV boxes. But they’re not going to build a better mousetrap unless we, the consumers, demand it."

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