Cable Boxes to Become More Energy Efficient
Cable industry to create set-top boxes that go to sleep to save on big energy wastes.
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November 21, 2011 by Steven Castle

Energy efficiency and ways to manage household energy is finally coming to cable set-top boxes, says the U.S. cable industry.

According to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), 90 percent of all new set-top boxes purchased and deployed by top cable operators will meet Energy Star 3.0 energy efficiency standards for set-top boxes.

The NCTA and CableLabs are forming an Energy Lab facility that will concentrate exclusively on improving energy efficiency. The Energy Lab is expected to be fully functional in the first quarter of 2012.

The initiative will promote the development, testing, and deployment of technologies that will enable cable subscribers to reduce and manage energy consumption in the home. It also will enable the manufacturing of devices that have “sleep” capabilities to reduce power consumption when subscribers are not actively watching television, says the NCTA.

Sleep and power-down modes for cable and set-top boxes have been promoted by Energy Star and other efficiency advocates. The current Energy Star 3.0 specification takes into account “deep sleep” energy consumption, which Energy Star hopes is 2 watts and under. The “deep sleep” feature isn’t mandated however, due to concerns about users experiencing delays as the set-top boxes come out of sleep mode and ramp back up.

“If every set-top box in the United States went into deep sleep for just four hours a day, it would result in savings of $350 million,” says Katharine Kaplan of the EPA’s Energy Star program.
The cable industry has come under fire for the energy use of its set-top boxes. Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported that the average new cable or satellite box with a high-definition digital video recorder (HD DVR) consumes more electricity annually than a new flat panel TV and more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator. That often means 30 to 50 watts being used, 24/7.

The NRDC study, Reducing the National Energy Consumption of Set-Top Boxes, found that new HD DVR set-top boxes consume about 40 percent more electricity than their basic set-top box counterparts and cost American consumers $3 billion a year—$2 billion of which is spent while the boxes are inactive but still running at near full power, as most do not yet enter low-power or “sleep” modes when they are not being used.

“Set-top boxes are the ultimate home energy vampires, silently sucking significant amounts of energy and money when nobody’s using them,” said Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the NRDC.
There are approximately 160 million set-top boxes installed in U.S. homes, or the equivalent of one box for every two Americans. According to the NRDC, these boxes consume as much electricity each year as that used by the entire state of Maryland.

The NCTA says the vast majority of the set-top boxes purchased by cable operators are Energy Star qualified. The organization says that in the first quarter of 2011, 95 percent of Comcast’s deployments and 100 percent of Time Warner Cable’s devices were Energy Star devices.

Energy Star also encourages the manufacture of more “thin clients” for multiroom needs, effectively replacing multiple set-top boxes with one with a DVR and several thin clients used in other locations throughout a house. “This allows all but one of the DVRs to be removed,” says Kaplan. She says the savings can be a meaningful 30 percent.

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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