Is a "smart" plug strip really a cost-effective way to save money on electricity?
One part of the MSN News app that I don't particularly care for is their "Technology" section. It seems to be a combination of advertisements for new gadgets as well as an attempt to spread underlying paranoia among the populace. If you read this section regularly, you think your cell phone and computer is under attack at any given moment from your neighbor's Wi-Fi. Or that someone's going to unlock your car with a tennis ball. It seems to be mostly a bullshit "Technology" section written by people who know nothing about technology, but love good scare stories because they are click-bait.
The latest scare story on that site involves parasitic power losses. The article implies but does not actually say that the power consumed by small wall-pack transformers and other devices are eating up your energy bill and will cost you thousands of dollars a year. Not only is this a current article (from USA Today) but a subject they visited last year as well.
Their solution, of course, is that you buy things and a number of name-brand power strips and other devices are touted from $15 to $39.95, as the solution to this so-called problem. The idea is that these power strips will turn off over time or turn off remotely and thus save you all of this electricity.
The fact that the power strips are mentioned by brand name and model number along with price and places where to buy them makes me suspicious this is nothing more than an advertisement provided by the company. In fact the entire "Technology" section seems like one giant advertisement for one product or another.
But this raises the question, is it worth spending $10 or $20 or even $30 on power strip to turn off a wall-pack transformer when you're not using it? What is the payback on these things and is the hassle really worth it?
Because let's face it, it's going to be a pain in the ass if you have to remember to turn on your time-delay power strip every time you want to charge your cell phone. Not only that how long would it take for you to recoup the cost of your $15 to $40 power strip at $0.10 per kilowatt-hour?
The answer is, a pretty long time. Depending on which site you look at, the numbers vary, but this article from Slate, at least appears to cite from authority and isn't selling us anything:
According to measurements from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the average cell phone draws 3.68 watts of power from the outlet while it's charging and 2.24 watts when charged. Let's take the worst-case scenario and assume that you're over-juicing a charged battery for the entire night. Leave the average phone plugged in for eight unnecessary hours, and it'll use about 0.018 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Do that every night for a week, and the figure rises to 0.13 kWh; every night for a year, and you're looking at a grand total of 6.5 kWh of electricity.
That means for a year's usage, and that's while charging, not merely being idle, the total energy cost, at 10 cents per kWh, will be about 65 cents a year.
Now, if you add up all the wall-pack transformers in your household, that might turn into a few dollars. I have them for my land-line (actually VoIP) phones, the VoIP box, the router, my computer speakers, various cell phone chargers, and so on and so forth. We may be looking at ten dollars worth of electricity a year here, folks!
Uh, that means to just break even on this deal, it would take nearly four years to recoup the cost of a $39.95 "smart" power strip that shuts down after a predetermined amount of time. Oh, but wait, some of the time, these wall-pack transformers are actually charging things or being useful. So the payback isn't $10 a year, but more like $5 a year. So now we are talking about eight years.
Worse yet, we'd have to buy a separate "smart" plug strip for each room in the house that has these "parasitic" losses. So now we are looking at $120 in plug strips, or a payback of 24 years or more.
But wait, it gets worse. You have to actively remember to reset these plug strips when you use them, so there is a hassle factor. So in addition to not saving any money there is a horrendous convenience factor.
So what is the point of this article? To sell plug strips to the masses. The make, model, and price of the plug strip - along with a photo of it - is prominently featured in the article. The author lumps together parasitic losses from cell phones with those of higher-power appliances such as computers and television sets, which combined might use $10 to $50 or more of electricity a year in "Standby" mode - depending on how many computers, printers, and televisions you have in your home. Even then, the payback is sort of sketchy. Again, you'd have to buy a plug strip for each room in the house you have one of these devices. That could be three or more.
Problem is, are you going to live with a timed or remote controlled power strip on your computer or television? Do you want the television or computer shutting off in the middle of use? Are you going to remember to shut it off? Are you going to be happy with rebooting your computer or TV with each use? I didn't think so. The convenience factor is why these devices have a standby mode in the first place. Sure, they draw some power when not being used. No, it isn't that much power, and the cost savings would take years to realize and the hassle just isn't worth it.
If you think your electric bill is too high, consider some real cost-savings. The big energy draws are your air conditioner, hot water heater (if electric), refrigerator, washer, and dryer and other major appliances. Learning to live with ambient temperatures more is one simple way to save on electricity. We know some folks here on the island who leave their thermostat set at 70 degrees, year-round. Their electric bills average over $400 a month. We try to open doors and windows and experience ambient conditions - saving the heat pump for the coldest days in winter and hottest days in summer. Our electric bill averages $150 a month. Big savings based on behavior alone.
Insulating your home, installing energy-efficient windows, and the like are also ways to cut this major energy hog in your life. Your cell-phone charger? He ain't the culprit. However, the number of articles about charging cell-phones on the MSN "Technology" page do reflect a paranoia people have about their phones. They are addicted to them and worry about them - after all, the cell phone is their life! Am I charging my phone too much? Too little? It is OK to leave it plugged in? How long will my battery last? "Are you making these 10 cell phone charging mistakes? Click here to find out!"
It is more cargo cult bullshit, I'm afraid.
In addition to cutting use of the A/C, there are other ways to save on energy. Move to a smaller house. Have a smaller refrigerator - instead of a huge one and a spare in the garage. This doesn't mean, however, that throwing away your existing working refrigerator and buying a smaller one is a swell idea. The media loves to report that the best way to reduce consumption is to consume more. Every time there is an "energy crises" the media suggests it is a swell idea to dump your gas-hog car and buy a "fuel sipper" as if saving a hundred or two a month on gas justifies spending $500 a month on car payments. A better idea is just to not buy a gas-hog car in the first place, and thus be ready when the next gas price spike comes - and it will come, eventually. They always do.
And if you slow down and improve your driving habits, you'd be surprised how much your gas mileage will improve.
It is funny, but this kind of article illustrates how people perceive things when they don't understand basic engineering. The air conditioner is rattling along all day long, and the "consumer" is obsessed that his cell phone charger is costing him too much money. It is about the same with finances. Yes, it is important to plug "parasitic" leaks in your budget. Spending $5 a day at a coffee shop may not sound like much, but it adds up over time.
On the other hand, if you just bought a $70,000 SUV and are paying $1000 a month in car payments and another $400 a month in insurance because of your crappy driving habits, maybe the Starbucks isn't the real issue. Plugging leaks in your rowboat is important, if you want to stay afloat without having to bail (i.e., not have to work). On the other hand, if your boat is already at the bottom of the ocean, well, plugging that pencil-sized leak is sort of too little, too late.
And how do we end up at the bottom of the ocean? Reading articles like this one on MSN "Technology". This sort of "journalism" is little more than advert - and gives people a set of poor normative cues - concentrating on the obscenely trivial without thinking about the bigger picture. Oh, and selling us products at the same time.