August 15, 2022

Atop TV Sets, a Power Drain Runs Nonstop

There are 160 million so-called set-top boxes in the United States, one for every two people, and that number is rising. Many homes now have one or more basic cable boxes as well as add-on DVRs, or digital video recorders, which use 40 percent more power than the set-top box.

One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found.

These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

“People in the energy efficiency community worry a lot about these boxes, since they will make it more difficult to lower home energy use,” said John Wilson, a former member of the California Energy Commission who is now with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation. “Companies say it can’t be done or it’s too expensive. But in my experience, neither one is true. It can be done, and it often doesn’t cost much, if anything.”

The perpetually “powered on” state is largely a function of design and programming choices made by electronics companies and cable and Internet providers, which are related to the way cable networks function in the United States. Fixes exist, but they are not currently being mandated or deployed in the United States, critics say.

Similar devices in some European countries, for example, can automatically go into standby mode when not in use, cutting power drawn by half. They can also go into an optional “deep sleep,” which can reduce energy consumption by about 95 percent compared with when the machine is active.

One British company, Pace, sells such boxes to American providers, who do not take advantage of the reduced energy options because of worries that the lowest energy states could disrupt service. Cable companies say customers will not tolerate the time it takes to reboot the system once the system has been shut down or put to sleep.

“The issue of having more efficient equipment is of interest to us,” said Justin Venech, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. But, he added, “when we purchase the equipment, functionality and cost are the primary considerations.”

But energy efficiency experts say that technical fixes could eliminate or minimize the waiting time and inconvenience, some at little expense. Low-energy European systems reboot from deep sleep in one to two minutes.

Alan Meier, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said of the industry in the United States, “I don’t want to use the word ‘lazy,’ but they have had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has established Energy Star standards for set-top boxes and has plans to tighten them significantly by 2013, said Ann Bailey, director of Energy Star product labeling, in an e-mail. The voluntary seal indicates products that use energy efficiently. But today, there are many boxes on the list of products that meet the Energy Star standard that do not offer an automatic standby or sleep mode.

“If you hit the on/off button it only dims the clock, it doesn’t significantly reduce power use,” said Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the natural resources council.

Energy efficiency is a function of hardware, software, the cable network and how a customer uses the service, said Robert Turner, an engineer at Pace, which makes set-top boxes that can operate using less power while not in active use.

Sometimes energy efficiency can be vastly improved by remotely adjusting software over a cable, Mr. Turner said. In this way, Pace reduced the energy consumption of some of its older boxes by half.

Cable boxes are not designed to be turned completely off, and even when in deep sleep mode, it takes time to reconnect and “talk” with their cable or satellite network, though that time is highly variable depending on the technology.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=7d2c401a30265269a89332e5c0b0ed66

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