Power-Sucking Cable Boxes Will Use Less Energy

Are those ubiquitous cable boxes energy efficient or not?

I’ve called my cable TV company asking that question. Although they say "yes, they are efficient," there’s no indication of Energy Star on the cable box.

Wondering days should be over thanks to a voluntary agreement signed by the cable TV industry, equipment manufacturers, the US Department of Energy and environmental groups – Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP).

Cable Box

In 2011, the cable industry agreed to move to energy efficient cable boxes – Energy Star 3.0. They are now installed in the majority of homes, saving about $450 million in energy costs last year. But that only applied to standard cable boxes, not high definition and DVRs – which use much more energy.

And now, the entire industry has signed on – satellite TV, phone companies and manufacturers.

After a year-long negotiation, the entire industry also committed make the amount of energy they consume available to the public. 

Starting next year, cable and satellite companies will post on their websites how much energy each set-top box uses. "For the first time, customers will be able to identify the more efficient models, and just as importantly those that consume much higher amounts of energy.  We hope increased availability of this information will lead to healthy competition between service providers, who will then demand more efficient designs from suppliers," says Noah Horowitz, senior scientist and Director of the Center for Energy Efficiency at NRDC, which produced the report that led to the agreement ("Reducing the National Energy Consumption of Set-Top Boxes").

Each year, the Steering Committee – which has industry and environmental group members – will list set-up box models, the energy they use, and how much that adds up to nationally. The annual report will also detail how well the new boxes are performing based on an independent audit of boxes in a sampling of homes.

More Efficient Boxes: At least 90% of the boxes service providers buy each year must meet Energy Star 3.0 standards as of 2014. Three years later, they will have to meet more stringent standards. A "light sleep" function will power down the device when the unit isn’t in use and a prototype that allows "deep sleep" will be tested next year. 

Installed in almost 90 million US homes, there are about 230 million cable boxes (also called "set-up" boxes) consuming about $3 billion worth of electricity a year, and mostly when the TV is shut off (phantom power). More efficient boxes would cut that consumption by two-thirds – the electricity produced by three power plants. 

DVR’s use 40% more energy than regular boxes. Combined with a HD box, these components consume more energy than a refrigerator, the most energy-consumptive appliance in peoples’ homes. Satellite companies have agreed to install "whole home" DVRs where just one unit is needed to play recorded programs throughout the home. Cable companies haven’t yet made that commitment.

Participating companies: Comcast, DIRECTV, DISH Network, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, Cox, Charter, Cablevision, Bright House Networks and CenturyLink; and manufacturers Cisco, ARRIS (including Motorola), and EchoStar Technologies.

Read NRDC’s report:

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