June 27, 2011

Set-top Cable Boxes Are Worst Energy Hog In Your Home

A new study from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finds that your set-top boxes are the single largest electricity guzzler in American homes, with some home entertainment systems devouring more power than a refrigerator and even some central AC systems.

According to NRDC figures, there are more than 160 million set-top boxes currently in use across the country, and that number is steadily rising. In 2010, these units ate up nearly 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, or 168 kilowatt-hours per set-top box. That number is enough energy to power the entire state of Maryland for an entire year, costing consumers a staggering $3 billion annually.

In one example: the study found that one HD DVR and one HD cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours per year, roughly 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator. And what"Ëœs even worse, is that these units consume energy 24 hours per day, even when they are not in active use.

"People in the energy efficiency community worry a lot about these boxes, since they will make it more difficult to lower home energy use," John Wilson, a former member of the California Energy Commission who is now with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation, told the New York Times. "Companies say it can't be done or it's too expensive. But in my experience, neither one is true. It can be done, and it often doesn't cost much, if anything."

The NRDC claims the main issue is that set-top boxes are designed to draw full power even when they're not actually being actively used. That equals out to $2 billion wasted annually to power these devices needlessly.

"Better designed pay-TV set-top boxes could reduce the energy use of the installed base of boxes by 30 percent to 50 percent by 2020," said the NRDC.

NRDC's proposed solutions include moving to a single-set-top-box system that controls all TV sets in the household, as well as incorporating more efficient features into set-top boxes so that they draw less energy when not in use.

Similar devices in some European countries can automatically go into standby mode when not in use, cutting power use by half. They can also go into "deep sleep" mode, which can reduce energy consumption nearly 95 percent.

British set-top box maker Pace sells such boxes to American providers, who do not take advantage of the reduced energy options because of concerns that the lowest energy states could disrupt service. Cable companies say customers would not tolerate the time it takes to reboot a system once it has gone into sleep mode, or has been shut down.

"The issue of having more efficient equipment is of interest to us," said Justin Venech, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. Although, "when we purchase the equipment, functionality and cost are the primary considerations," he told the New York Times.

Efficiency experts, however, say that technical fixes could eliminate, or at least minimize, the wait time and inconvenience. Low-energy European boxes reboot from deep sleep in one or two minutes.

"I don't want to use the word "Ëœlazy,' but they have had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them," Alan Meier, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, referring to the technical industry in the United States, told the New York Times.

The Environmental Protection Agency has established Energy Star standards for set-top boxes and has plans to significantly tighten them in 2013, said Ann Bailey, director of Energy Star product labeling, in an email to the New York Times.

Energy efficiency is a function of hardware, software, cable networks and how customers use the services, said Robert Turner, an engineer at Pace. Sometimes energy efficiency can be improved by remotely adjusting software over a cable. In this way, Pace reduced the energy consumption of some of its older boxes by half, added Turner.

Cable providers and box manufacturers do not feel consumer pressure to improve efficiency, mainly because customers are generally unaware their set-top boxes are the root cause of their high energy bills.

Set-top boxes can increase electricity bills by as little as a few dollars per month to well over $10 for a home with multiple devices.

Cisco Systems, one of the largest manufacturers of set-top boxes, told NY Times in an email that they would offer new models this year that would cut consumption by 25 percent "through reduced power used in "Ëœon' and standby states." But those devices will not feature a "deep sleep" or fully "off" setting.

Cisco cautioned, however, that taking advantage of this potential energy savings would mainly depend on "how it is operated by the service provider." Cable providers will have to decide whether the boxes can automatically go into standby mode, and whether customers will be able to adjust their own settings.

For most cable providers, an ever-ready cable box is more convenient so they can do system maintenance and send download information to boxes when needed, usually at night.

The biggest challenge in reducing energy use is maintaining the rapid response time expected of home entertainment systems. "People are used to the idea that computers take some time to boot up," said Turner, "but they expect the TV to turn on instantly."

"NRDC's investigation and modeling of the energy consumption of pay-TV set-top boxes under business-as-usual and more energy-efficient scenarios revealed a startling fact: unless the industry deploys more energy efficient designs, the electric bill to power these devices will increase by a staggering $3.5 billion per year by 2020," says the NRDC.

You can read the full report at http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/settopboxes.pdf.