Study: Cable Boxes Use More Power Than Refrigerators

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Hate the cable company? Now you have something new to complain about. Turns out that not only is your cable bill too high, your set-top boxes are power pigs.

According to a recent report (PDF) by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the cable TV boxes in your home may use more electricity than your refrigerator.

The average energy consumption of a typical household setup – one high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) and one high-definition set-top box – is 446 kilowatt hours/year. A 21-cubic-foot Energy Star top-freezer refrigerator, on the other hand, uses 415 kilowatt hours/year.

And it gets worse. Even if you never turn them on, it’s not going to matter much, because set-top boxes use nearly as much electricity whether they’re on as off. How much is it costing us as a nation?

From an article on the NDRC site:

“In 2010, the electricity required to operate all U.S. set-top boxes was equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, resulted in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and cost households more than $3 billion.”

What can you do?

Unlike other household appliances, we don’t get to choose the set-top boxes the cable company provides.  But there are at least three consumer solutions:

  1. Power strip: As we said in last summer’s 13 Cool Tips for Lower Energy Bills, plug your TVs, cable boxes, DVDs, video games, etc. into a power strip and use the power strip as an on/off switch. If you’ve tried this with your cable boxes, however, you already know the problems. First, powering down your cable box means it can’t record shows in your absence. It also means waiting for the channel guide to reestablish itself on power-up – a process that often takes minutes, not seconds.
  2. Get a centralized system: You may have seen ads for newer systems that allow you to record shows in one room and watch them in another. These multi-room systems use one master DVR with “client” set-top boxes in other rooms receiving signals from the master. As compared with traditional set-ups, these use a lot less energy. The NDRC study compared two systems, each with three TVs. The first used the traditional one HD-DVR and two HD receivers. The second used one HD-DVR, and two “client” receivers. Result? The traditional configuration used 617 kilowatt hours/year. The second used 179.
  3. Kiss cable goodbye. Streaming technology like Netflix and Hulu use a lot less power than set-top boxes. Combine that with getting traditional channels over the air with a digital antenna, and you may find that you can do away with cable entirely. For more, check out one of the most popular stories we’ve ever done: You don’t have to pay for cable TV.

What can the cable companies do?

Obviously, they can use more-efficient set-top boxes. In March of 2011, the EPA released Energy Star requirements for cable set-top boxes. Starting in September, new boxes have to use at least 40 percent less energy than their predecessors in order to be labeled as Energy Star-compliant.

So what cable and satellite companies can – and should – do is to require the suppliers of this type of equipment to meet Energy Star requirements. Then they need to get the more efficient boxes out to consumers ASAP.

Stacy Johnson

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