March 27, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 33°F


Commentary: Vampire appliances drain energy when powered off

Most American homes have almost two-dozen “vampire” appliances that consume energy daily — even when they are turned off. These appliances, which are not really off, but in standby mode, cost more than $1 billion per year in energy expenses. They continuously use power so their features still work when switched off, With vampire appliances in many homes, the extra energy costs add up quickly.

Joseph Laquatra

According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, standby power needs of appliances vary greatly. One television evaluated by the LBNL used only 0.7 watts of standby power to maintain convenience features, while another consumed 14 watts for the same function. Because standby power consumption can be traced to power transformers within the appliance, energy efficiency levels of the transformers themselves differ.

The average cost of electricity in New York state is 13.9 cents per kilowatt hour. At this rate, an energy-consuming TV uses more than $14 per year while in standby mode. An energy-efficient TV on the other hand, uses only 69 cents worth of electricity per year.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report showed the amount of electricity vampire appliances consume in a year equals the annual output of 12 power plants. To minimize vampire appliances’ energy consumption, homeowners should plug the appliances into smart power strips that turn them off when they enter standby mode. When purchasing new appliances, consumers should look for those with Energy Star labels, which use 30 percent less energy than standard appliances and 50 percent less energy when operating in standby mode. Using less energy saves money and lowers carbon dioxide emissions.

Sophomore Rebecca Guldner surfs the Internet while at her desk in Hilliard Hall. Though turned off, her lamp, printer and iPod dock consume energy — Rachel Orlow/The Ithacan

To limit our carbon footprints, we must stop using incandescent light bulbs and switch to compact fluorescent lamps. CFLs use about one-fifth of the amount of electricity as incandescent bulbs do. Some media reports have exaggerated the health risks of mercury vapor contained in CFLs, which amounts to between three and five milligrams per lamp. Eco-friendly CFLs contain as little as one milligram. If more people used CFLs, coal-fired power plants would emit less elemental mercury into the atmosphere.

After elemental mercury in the air is deposited in different bodies of water, aquatic microorganisms bio-transform it to methylmercury — a more toxic form of mercury consumed when eating fish. When in the human body, methylmercury mimics essential amino acid methionine, which prevents fat build-up in the arteries. This allows it to move through the body and pass through the blood-brain barrier into the placenta. Fetal exposure to methylmercury results in irreversible nervous system damage and neurodevelopmental toxicity. Adults and children can also experience neurodevelopmental problems from methylmercury exposure.

For financial and environmental reasons, everyone can take simple steps to reduce their energy use. Homeowners can take bigger steps, such as having home energy assessments. The Green Jobs–Green New York program usually offers these assessments to homeowners at little to no cost. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority also provides financial incentives for those who improve their homes’ level of energy efficiency. So why not take the opportunity? Doing so may not only save you unwanted energy expenses, but will also spare the environment from rapid degradation.

Joseph Laquatra  is a professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell. Email him at