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Why the Biggest Energy Suck in Your House May Have to do With Your TV

That little cable box sitting atop your television set is likely the largest single source of electrical waste in your entire household.
 
 
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Note to TV-loving couch potatoes: That little box sitting atop your television set that transforms a signal into your favorite show is likely the largest single source of electrical waste in your entire household. These so-called set-top boxes are bigger electrical suckers than new refrigerators. Who knew such a small box could be such a huge power drain?  

In the United States alone there are over 160 million set-top boxes perched inside entertainment centers and on television sets. That's one for every two people in the country or 80 percent of U.S. households. The problem is largely due to the fact that modern set-top boxes operate at near full power even when nobody is even watching or recording a program. A new study reports that consumers in this country alone spend over $2 billion in electricity per year to run these little machines. 

"The average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator and more than an average new flat-panel television," reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Ecos in a new report called Better Viewing, Lower Energy Bills, and Less Pollution. "Even more troubling, when not displaying or recording video content, U.S. boxes draw nearly as much power as they do when in use."  

To put it in perspective, U.S. set-top boxes require as much energy to operate as the annual electricity consumption of all the households in the state of Maryland. That's 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from boxes owned and installed by service providers like Comcast, Time Warner, DISH Network, Verizon, DirecTV and the like.  

High-def satellite and cable boxes are the biggest culprits, with streaming devices using far less energy, a 40 watt difference while in use. Critics point to the design and function of these set-top units, which are in a perpetual state of being powered whether your TV is on or not. Energy use derives from the way the hardware in these units function, how the software is designed and how the mammoth operating services that feed them work.  

Of course, set-top units are only one of many electrical gadgets that many rely on in our daily lives. The good news is that energy efficiency can fix the issue; indeed such techniques worked in the past to dramatically reduce energy consumption in American households. As Ted Nace points out in his book Climate Hope, per capita electricity usage in California was dramatically lowered compared to the rest of the U.S. as a result of state-mandated efficiency improvements of the 1970s.  

Up until the early 1970s California's electricity consumption patterns were similar to those of the rest of the country, but in 1973 something happened. California's electricity usage flat-lined and then began to dip instead of rise like most other states. It was dubbed the Rosenfeld Effect after Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's Art Rosenfeld, who was largely responsible for many of the efficiency innovations of the decade.  

The OPEC embargo of 1973 prompted Rosenfeld, who was a leading physicist behind the Manhattan Project, to bring together a host of experts on energy fields for a four-week meeting of the minds at Princeton University. During their brainstorming session, Rosenfeld was surprised to realize that two-thirds of the power used in the U.S. per year came from buildings alone.  

"We realized we had found one of the world's largest oil and gas fields. The energy was buried, in effect, in the buildings of our cities, the vehicles on our roads, and the machines in our factories," Rosenfeld reflected years later. "A few of us began to suspect that the knowledge we gained during that month would change our lives."

 
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