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“Wall Warts” and Tech Reincarnation

Being mindful of how old and new tech use power is important

Ah, the Digital Age. We have gadgets galore, the ability to manage our homes in new and innovative ways, brilliant images and captivating sounds of modern entertainment options—and, of course, the internet.

Clearly, digital devices reign supreme. Yet these cool new capabilities come with a couple of pitfalls: vampire loads and the issue of “technology reincarnation.”

During the digital age, electricity use has continued to increase. Computer prices have plummeted, allowing many homes to have multiple computers. Families now have multiple televisions. Everyone in the family needs a cellphone. Gaming consoles and set-top cable/satellite boxes satisfy our desire for entertainment.

Wall Warts

Major appliances aside, most digital devices do not use 120-volt power, which is the standard voltage of a home outlet. They use a lot less. Manufacturers make it impossible to plug your brand-new smartphone directly into an outlet, which would lead to a fried device and lots of tears. This is why low-voltage devices come with power adapters. These “wall warts,” as some term them, take the 120-volt electricity supplied by your cooperative and convert it to about 5 volts.

Unfortunately, most folks leave their adapters plugged in to make recharging easier. The problem with this approach is that the seemingly innocuous wall wart uses power even when it isn’t charging a device.

This invisible energy consumption is often called “vampire load.” Studies show that 5–10 percent of the average American home’s energy use is from vampire loads. The only way to stop this is to unplug the power adapter when it is not in use, or to employ smart power strips. These look like a typical power strip but with a twist—only one socket gets power all the time. When the device or appliance connected to it turns on and starts using power, the remaining sockets receive power, too. This is perfect for entertainment systems, computer setups and a variety of other situations.

Tech Reincarnation

Technological advances have steadily increased energy efficiency and reduced prices. Unfortunately, when consumers replace obsolete products, the tendency is to go bigger or continue to use the old tech. This is the second issue: technology reincarnation.

For example, flat-screen TV prices have plummeted as technology has evolved—and so has the amount of electricity they use. Consumers wander into the big box store and are dazzled by walls of giant, brilliant televisions. What you used to pay for a paltry 32-inch model now might net you a 50-inch giant.

But if you spring for the bigger TV, your energy bill won’t benefit from the increased energy efficiency of the newer technology. The bigger model uses as much juice as the older, smaller TV, which likely ends up in another room, reincarnated in another setting—and still using power.

Another example is the refrigerator. These are the showpieces of the evolution of smart appliances. Many new models include touchscreens and cameras, and they communicate over the internet; they probably even keep food cold and make ice! Yet what often happens is that the old refrigerator ends up in the basement or garage, reincarnated as a dedicated beverage unit or overflow, and more than doubling the energy usage of the new fridge.

Here is some advice to help you avoid—or at least reduce—the effects of vampire loads and technology reincarnation: Invest in smart power strips or make a point to use outlets where you can conveniently unplug power adapters when not in use. Don’t oversize your replacement appliances and entertainment gear unless family needs dictate the larger capacities. Recycle the replaced appliances and equipment to halt technology reincarnation. You will enjoy the digital age for a lot less.