Is a 'Phantom' Stealing Your Electricity?

by Gary Foreman

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Dear Dollar Stretcher,
In an article about ways to lower your electrical bills, the author mentioned going through your home and locating "phantom loads". Those are appliances that you may be leaving plugged in even though you aren't using them at the moment and which are just sitting there using electricity unnecessarily. The idea was to eliminate as many of these "phantom loads'" as realistically possible. And the author listed the phantoms as: answering machines, electric razors, modems, microwave ovens, TV's. The author said these were just a few of the phantom loads you might find around your home. I've already dealt with the five the author listed here, but I would like to know where I might find a list that has all "phantoms" found in homes. Thank you so much!

Now that's an interesting question. In fact, let's not only try to find as many phantom loads as possible, but let's also try to get an idea of how much it's costing us in electricity (and dollars!).

The problem began in the 1970s. Until then when you turned an appliance off, it was really off. But the advent of remote controls TV's and stereos needed to be ready to heed the press of the remote 'on' button. And that meant that they, too, used a tiny amount of power. Then came the VCR with a digital timer. It used a little current to remember what time it was.

Before long these features were a part of many different appliances. Today any household appliance that has a clock, timer, memory or remote is consuming electricity even if it's turned off.

How can Jackie find them all? Well, she probably won't find a complete list anywhere. That's because so many different appliances offer features that create a phantom load. There are ways to identify which appliances are guilty. One way is to look for the features mentioned in the last paragraph. Another way is to think about which appliances you need to reset or reprogram after a power outage.

Now that we understand what's going on, let's see if we can't figure out what it's costing us. One energy consultant, Michael Lamb, found that his TV used about 100 kilowatt hours a year due to phantom load. In most areas electricity runs between $.06 and $.09 per kWh, so that TV would add about $6 to $9 per year to the electric bill even if it was never turned on. That's not a huge amount, but compare it to a frost-free 16 cubic foot refrigerator that consumes about 700 kWh in a year. Clearly you get more for your money with the refrigerator.

Lincoln Electric Systems estimated the following annual costs for phantom loads: 19" color TV $6.65; TV cable box $0.83; stereo receiver $1.83; microwave oven $1.38; phone answering machine $1.95; personal computer $0.75. For most of us not a significant cost.

But, there's more to it than how much you add to your electric bill. One study estimated that the phantom load from TV's alone was equal to the output of a Chernobyl sized power plant. Granted, that might not be the plant we'd want to generate the electricity, but the point is obvious. When you add up the phantom loads in everyone's home it does consume a significant amount of electricity.

Ok, so how can you control it? Plug the TV or other appliance into a switchable outlet. Choose an outlet that's controlled by a wall switch or get a power strip that has an on/off switch. But remember that when you turn on your TV it might need to relearn which channels are available in your area. And that could take 30 seconds or so. You also won't be able to turn on the TV using your remote. The remote will work fine after the TV is on, but not until then.

Is it worth it? You'll need to decide that for yourself. Some of us are very grateful that the coffeemaker remembers when we get up and already has the coffee brewed. Others will prefer to save the money and environment. But now that you have some facts, you can make a decision that right for your situation. Thanks to Jackie for leading us into this fascinating area.

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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