Exorcising phantom power


You’re responsible about conserving energy. You turn off the television when you’re not watching it and the lights when you leave a room. But don’t feel too smug. Your home electronics may be working against your green instincts.

Many of today’s appliances draw considerable electricity — known as phantom power or standby power — even when you’ve shut them down. The typical American home has dozens of these devices, and they increase the average household electric bill by 5% to 10%.

In some cases this power provides value to consumers. For example, a microwave oven might power the kitchen’s only clock, and a cordless phone needs to stand ready to receive a phone call. But such examples are the exception. Most phantom power is simply to make life a bit more convenient. Your television, say, may come on more quickly than it otherwise would, and it remains ready, even when off, to respond to a remote control. This sort of standby power could be eliminated without losing functionality, and doing so could reduce electricity usage nationwide by 4% or more.


Eliminating standby power might mean you have to wait extra seconds for your television to come to life, but it would also save you money. And the costs of phantom power can be significant. For example, the converter box for cable or satellite TV is likely to cost you hundreds of dollars over its lifetime.

Consumers can take steps to exorcise some phantom power, and it’s worth the effort. If you have a television or VCR, say, in a rarely used guest room, unplug it. Also consider plugging your television and its related devices into a power strip, and flipping it off at night or when you go on vacation. And unplug chargers when they’re not being used to charge a device.

But exorcising phantom power can’t be entirely left up to consumers. For one thing, they have no way of knowing which devices draw the most power. Few consumers would knowingly choose devices that will cost them hundreds of dollars when turned off, but manufacturers aren’t required to alert consumers to how much standby power a device consumes. This leaves appliance companies free to design devices that waste lots of electricity.

Consumers need access to more information, and there are models for providing that. Today’s refrigerators, for example, are required by law to come with energy ratings that tell purchasers how much power they are likely to use. Consumers can use those estimates to choose between one brand and another, which has given manufacturers a strong incentive to design energy-efficient refrigerators. Similarly, if manufacturers were required to list how much phantom power a device is likely to draw, consumers could make better-informed decisions, which would in turn put pressure on manufacturers to address the issue.

But even a labeling system for phantom power can only go so far. With some devices — cable converter boxes, for example — consumers don’t necessarily have a choice. In such cases, the companies supplying the devices should be required to inform consumers about the expected costs of phantom power when they order service. If consumers could compare power usage before choosing, say, between cable and satellite TV, providers would have incentives to distribute energy-efficient boxes.

A number of other countries have gone even further and now regulate standby power. The European Commission has limited new appliances to drawing no more than 1 watt of power in standby mode, and South Korea requires warning labels on devices that draw substantial phantom power. It’s time for the United States to catch up with the pack.


David I. Levine is a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. For more on phantom power, see