Whether you’re in the market for home theater products, computers or appliances, in these energy-conscious times you should start your search with Energy Star–rated models. Energy Star is a U.S.-government backed program that identifies energy-efficient products, from appliances to lighting to consumer electronics. And we’re going to see more and more home electronics meeting Energy Star requirements—including more efficient HDTVs.
The Energy Star program is voluntary for manufacturers, but as demand increases for energy-efficient products, more manufacturers will want to meet that demand. As a result, our electronics will consume less and less energy, be responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions and save us all money. “More and more consumers are recognizing the need for energy efficiency,” says Katharine Kaplan, product manager of the Energy Star program for the Environmental Protection Agency. “And we’re seeing the potential for regulation, which really makes [manufacturers] interested in coming to the table.”
Qualified products often bear Energy Star’s logo on them or are similarly marked. Many TVs, audio/video receivers, DVD and CD players, computers, and even a few powered speakers and audio amplifiers now meet Energy Star requirements. To be Energy Star compliant, TVs and audio/video components must consume 1 watt of power or less in standby mode, or what most of us know as off. Energy Star says that qualified TVs, for example, consume about 30 percent less power than other TVs.
Yes, many consumer electronics still draw power when turned off. Anything with a digital clock or a remote control will still use a small amount of current for the clock or to stay ready to receive signals from a remote control. Manufacturers of some components like DVD players also opt to keep some circuits powered when the unit is switched off. The electricity consumed by these power “vampires” can add up to as much as 10 percent to your electric bill.
This year, Energy Star is expanding its program for TVs to include requirements for power consumption in the active, or on, mode. As of this writing, the specifications allowed for separate power-consumption rates for standard definition (480 lines) and high definition (720 and 1080 lines), and with more lenient requirements for HDTV sets of 680 square inches in total screen area and over (40 inches diagonally and larger) and sets with screens of 1,068 square inches (50 inches and larger). However, no allowances were made for different display technologies, such as LCD and plasma. As a result, power-hungry plasma-based TVs would have to meet the energy-use levels of many LCDs. For example, a 50-inch plasma would have to use 318 watts and a 42-inch plasma use 208 watts to qualify as an Energy Star product. Many plasmas of these sizes consume 300 to 500 watts of electricity.
Energy Star says that about 27 percent of today’s TV products would qualify as Energy Star rated under this proposal, and that 71 percent of manufacturers currently have products that would meet the new requirements. The expanded requirements are due to go into effect in November, so we may see new TVs meeting the new Energy Star levels by the year’s end. A second tier of more requirements that qualify only 25 percent of existing products will go into effect in September 2010, so you can expect more stringent standards then.
Some environmentalists don’t think Energy Star goes far enough in setting voluntary benchmarks, but Kaplan sees it differently. “We think you should get an energy-efficient product that doesn’t sacrifice the features and functions that you want,” she says.
You can expect to see even more energy-efficient electronics in the future. Energy Star is looking to make always-on set-top boxes like cable and satellite TV receivers 30 percent to 60 percent more energy efficient. An always-on cable box, for example, can use as much as 30 watts continuously, 24/7. Kaplan says that you should be able to power down these devices when they’re not in use. “Some power management features in the box can be easily and reasonably put into place,” she says. Look for set-top boxes available in the next year or so to be able to go into a sleep mode that uses less energy but still allows them to receive updates and service patches. The challenge may be getting the cable and satellite companies to distribute more energy-efficient devices.
What else is Energy Star up to? We’ll see revised specifications for external power supplies for electronics like laptop computers, monitors and printers and new specs for everything from LED lighting to residential water heaters. Energy Star even has a home-certification program for new houses that meet energy-efficiency standards.
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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