That big-screen HDTV might not be the biggest energy draw in your family room. Look at what it’s connected to instead.
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, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The NRDC study, Reducing the National Energy Consumption of Set-Top Boxes, also found that new HD DVR set-top boxes consume about 40 percent more electricity than their basic set-top box counterparts. Overall, set-top boxes cost Americans $3 billion a year—$2 billion of which is spent while the devices 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. That often means 30 to 50 watts being used, 24/7.
“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 and are responsible for 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. The NRDC says these devices squander the equivalent annual energy output of six coal burning power plants (500 MW).
A typical household with one DVR and one basic set-top box uses approximately the same annual electricity use of one new refrigerator, says the NRDC. “Hitting the on/off button merely dims the clock or display and does not significantly reduce the amount of power used,” the NRDC’s press release states.
The most efficient U.S. HD DVRs tested were AT&T’s IPTV boxes, drawing approximately 18 watts when operating (on mode) and 12 watts in a light sleep state. Streaming devices like Apple TV also faired well, while satellite HD DVR set-top boxes tended to use more energy than their cable-based counterparts.
“What’s strange about this market is when you sign up for cable service, the question is whether you want a cable box or DVR,” says Horowitz. “You’re basically stuck with the box they give you.
“At a minimum, consumers deserve boxes that automatically go to sleep when they’re not working and [still have] the ability to wake up to watch a show.”
The NRDC says Europe is starting to see low-power “deep sleep” features for set-top boxes. Deep sleep is also a part of new Energy Star specifications going into effect this year.
Energy Star for Set-Tops
Starting this month, more energy-efficient set-top boxes, including devices like standalone DVRs and IP-based products like Apple TV, will be certified to the new Energy Star 3.0 specification, which officially goes into effect in September. According to Katharine Kaplan of Energy Star, the 3.0 spec represents about a 40 percent improvement in energy consumption from the 2.1 specification. Kaplan says that if all cable boxes were switched to Energy Star 3.0-certified products in the United States, it would represent energy savings of $1.8 billion.
The 3.0 specifications, as well as more stringent 4.0 spec slated to go into effect in 2013, takes into account “deep sleep” energy consumption, which Energy Star hopes is 2 watts and under. “Sleep” modes in present Energy Star-certified set-top boxes only reduce consumption minimally, often from 25 watts or greater in on mode to about 16 watts in sleep mode, and is not often put to use.
The “deep sleep” feature isn’t being mandated however, in either the new Energy Star 3.0 or 2013’s 4.0 specification, due to concerns about users experiencing delays as the set-top boxes come out of sleep mode and ramp back up.
Nevertheless, Energy Star’s Kaplan sees manufacturers including the feature to meet overall power requirements for the Energy Star rating, and Energy Star is encouraging the inclusion of the feature with a credit program that Energy Star partners can take part in. Partners include Verizon, DirecTV, and AT&T, but not Comcast, the nations’ largest cable provider.
“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,” Kaplan says.
Energy Star is also encouraging 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.
Kaplan acknowledges that Energy Star is taking small steps in this area, and it’s tricky because this is not a market driven by consumers. The NRDC advises that anyone receiving new set-top boxes from TV service providers ask for Energy Star options. However, none of the major cable TV service providers—Comcast, Charter, Cox or Time Warner—appear on Energy Star’s list of partners.
“I think [cable companies] realize they need to do a better job here, and if they don’t do it people are going to shift from cable to satellite,” Horowitz says. “We see this as a call to action to the industry. A lot of energy is being wasted here, and there’s not much a consumer can do.”