Vampires always available

I discovered a vampire at my house. Not a sexy Edward/Eric/Bill type, alas; mine was downright ugly and acted more like an Alaskan mosquito or a leech. I’m talking about an electricity vampire, a device that sucks power from the wall when it’s turned off. My big bad ugly one: the digital video recorder.

The problem with smart-programmable DVRs like mine is that they run all the time. Whether you are watching TV, whether it is recording, whether you have it turned on, the device is “on” and pulling somewhere between 25 and 45 watts of electricity from the wall.

My model is by no means unique: TiVos, cable versions, and satellite versions all behave this way. Lawrence Berkeley Lab has a wealth of data on the on/off power usage of many household devices, and the “set top box with DVR” data illustrates the problem: the machines use the same amount of power off as on.

The more I investigated, the angrier I got. I tried to find explanations or solutions on my provider’s online customer service. Nothing. I went to the online user forums for both my provider and others. I couldn’t possibly be the only person concerned about the energy use, could I? Yet here’s a sampling of what I found:

> The TiVo is designed to run 24×7 and that is what it does. Both tuners are always recording all the time, either scheduled recordings, suggestions or just the 1/2-hour buffer….Quit worrying and just enjoy the TiVolution.

And:

> Both the fan and the hard drive run 24/7, regardless of whether the DVR is On or Off (standby). Unplugging it at night is not advisable, because among other things it can take 24 hours or more for the guide data to re-populate after power is reapplied.

I was so surprised! Where’s the rage? No angry threads lambasting the providers for this blatant and unnecessary design flaw? People simply accept this nonsense that a DVR can’t be programmed to turn itself on to record programs and receive programming updates, then turn itself back off again? That it takes 24 hours to repopulate the programming guide? That a device which must record unrequested programs 24/7 is a positive contribution to society? Hello?

I then sent a polite but very direct complaint to my service provider, asking what I could do to reduce the energy consumption of my DVR, expressing my dissatisfaction at its “always on” status. I received the following reply:

> While there is no way to reduce the amount of electricity used without potentially damaging the equipment, we do offer some receivers that have been Energy Star certified…If you would like to obtain any specific models, we will need to refer you to a local retailer.

OK, I hereby compliment DirecTV for having Energy Star compliant DVRs as they are one of the few satellite or cable providers who do. I also commend them for trying to upsell me. That took some guts. The problem is, my DVR differs from my provider’s Energy Star DVRs only in its release date, not in its energy use (mine was delivered before the Energy Star DVR Guidelines were published, so could not be certified as compliant). I have a lot of respect for the EPA folks who run Energy Star. Unfortunately the current Set-Top Box + DVR guidelines don’t address the fundamental issue of 24/7 power use. A follow-on version, set to be effective in 2011, promises to be more aggressive.

In the meantime, I’ve taken my DVR’s energy use into my own hands, and have implemented a great solution. I’ll show it off in the next post.

Author Bio

erin

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  1. Liz B - December 1, 2009

    What about regular cable boxes with no DVR capabilities? I know the thing’s sucking out power I just don’t know how much compared to the DVRs. I’ve hated these things since the first one we “had” to get 4 years ago. Such a waste!!

  2. Erin Craig - December 1, 2009

    Liz – Regular non-DVR set-top boxes vary tremendously in their power use depending on what they do (satellite box, analog-to-digital converter, digital cable box, etc.) and their specifications. Many are in the 8 – 20 watt range but the Lawrence Berkeley website noted above found some significantly higher than that. Low-tech improvements include switchable power strips so you can cut the power to the box as well as your TV when you’re done watching; higher tech improvements such as our SmartStrips will shut down the box when you turn off your TV.

  3. Ken Miller - December 2, 2009

    We keep our TV, digital tuner, DVD player, VCR, power antenna etc all on one power strip and turn them all off when we’re not using them. It’s criminal how you can’t turn electronics off anymore, they just go into “standby” and have a light that stays on. Why a light that’s on, using energy, when the device is off?!

  4. Jake Brown - December 2, 2009

    I’ve tested two digital cable boxes from two different providers. Each uses about 15-20 watts of power, (off vs on).
    I ran into a problem with my cable digital box in that if I left it off for too long (several days) – I needed to call the cable company to ‘send a signal to my house’ so that it would work again. They didn’t offer a meaningful explanation of why that happens, and I haven’t looked into it.
    – Jake

  5. Mike A - December 2, 2009

    Anybody know if a newer TV with a cable card does a better job than the cable boxes?
    I’ve always been annoyed at the waste heat created and power consumed by my Tivo boxes – I suppose that we could put some pressure on them about this. Give them a new market niche?

  6. dan - December 2, 2009

    respect for anything / anyone that has anything to do with the epa? they’re about as worthless as the fda.

  7. Kathy - December 2, 2009

    I too was upset over the amount of electric my cable box was using (I do not have a DVR/TiVo) I began a few months ago turning off all my electronics dealing with the TV (everything is plugged into a power strip), within a month or so I saw a $11 reduction in my electric bill :)

  8. Eric - December 2, 2009

    These cable boxes are connected to the same cable used for high speed internet. There is no reason it should take 24 hours to download available programming. It shouldn’t take any longer than the time it takes the box to boot up. Major design flaw IMHO.

  9. Dave - December 2, 2009

    I have been enjoying on the air HDTV without the cost and hassle of cable TV. Still need a smart strip, but at least there’s no DVR running 24/7. Our household’s coax cable is only used for the broadband internet signal. What about the routers and WiFi home networks running 24/7 too?
    Regarding monthly fluctuations in electric bills: read your bill’s fine print. I thought I had a good handle on mine, with all the usage logged in a spreadsheet etc. But I have witnessed firsthand now how my meter is only actually read by the utility every other month. The other times it’s an estimated bill. Needless to say, it’s been way off so far since August when I got the home energy monitor meter hooked on there.
    Without smart metering it’s like shopping in a grocery store without any price tags on the shelves, and just a monthly estimated bill. There is almost no feedback to the consumer.
    Energy Star ratings are a good start, but I agree there is room for making them more aggressive. “Best in Class” sometimes doesn’t always mean very much in the product market.
    Bottom line: we’ve barely begun to tap the opportunities for conservation efficiency in household, let alone industrial and commercial energy use.

  10. Rob Lewis - December 2, 2009

    I subscribe to an electronic engineering trade magazine, and believe it or not, energy conservation is a very hot topic in this community; I’d venture to say that it’s the hottest topic (though often in the context of getting longer battery life from portable devices).
    Some time ago, they did an article on the design of high-efficiency power supplies for “always-on” devices, and they specifically cited “a popular DVR” as an example of really awful design, since it consumes 40 watts even when not working!
    I would say that change is in the air. But it takes a while for the newest energy-efficient chips to appear in consumer products.

  11. John - December 2, 2009

    Get over it! You need to pay for the convenience of having a DVR or Tivo. If you don’t want the power draw of a satellite box or a cable box, get an antenna and your signal over the airwaves.

  12. Erin Craig - December 2, 2009

    Money isn’t the issue here (though it costs money, too). There are lots of conveniences that use energy, of course, and I’m not suggesting there won’t be a cost, environmental and monetary, for such conveniences. What I am suggesting is that the amount of energy/money involved here is considerably more than needed to give me the convenience and pleasure I’m looking for, and that the device makers would make me much, much happier as a consumer if they realized that I value efficiency as well.

  13. Erin Craig - December 2, 2009

    The 24-hour comment came from the DirecTV forum. DirecTV boxes aren’t hooked up to broadband by default and are often 1-way data streams (from the satellite to your box). So programming data doesn’t necessarily update itself when you turn on the device but rather whenever the programming data is next “sent” by the satellite. But this isn’t an excuse, it’s a design challenge and there are myriad solutions possible.

  14. Jonathan Hunt - December 2, 2009

    For those techie enough to maintain it, some of the home built DVRs like MythTV can be configured to leverage PC power management combined with Wake-on-LAN technology to wake them up when you want to use it remotely or schedule a recording via the web.
    At least the open source community is willing to try and solve the problem:
    http://www.mythtv.org/wiki/ACPI_Wakeup
    Happy Greening!
    Jon
    p.s. I have not been able to implement this on my own MythTV because my BIOS is too old

  15. Chad - December 2, 2009

    I think you’re nuts! Clearly you don’t “get” DVR or really leverage it to your entertainment satisfaction otherwise you would understand why it needs to be “always on”. I’m not happy about the amount of power my DVRs consume but I understand why they can’t be turned off.
    The focus needs to be on more efficient power supplies and lower power consuming components within them. Also, I’m pretty sure that all DVR boxes (not including PCs) are based on various forms of Linux, which doesn’t really have power management (Linux PCs excluded).
    And don’t forget that “being green” is a realatively new phenomenon among the masses of people. Green technology is even younger. DVRs have been around longer so it is going to take a while to trickle the technology in. Focus your energy on the manufacturer (Motorola, Tivo, etc) not the vendor (cable) and maybe change will come sooner.

  16. Rob Lewis - December 2, 2009

    A related issue is the “zombie” power draw of unoccupied houses, which IIRC on average draw 60 watts even with nobody living in them and everything nominally turned off.
    Things like garage door openers, heating & cooling systems, appliance clocks, etc. add up.

  17. Liz B - December 2, 2009

    Anyone have an idea if there’s any “harm” to the cable-box only device itself because of turning it off/on everyday? For instance at least turning it off while we sleep and definitely don’t need it on. Or even the modem?
    I realize the data loss is a bit of a pain but that doesn’t cause the box to have a shorter life span does it?

  18. Kelly Ward - December 2, 2009

    I work for a cable company- the digital boxes that we offer do get constant updates on programming from our server, and ours also need to a “hit” to be sent to the box to make it work if it is unplugged for awhile. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is anything that can be done to avoid that.

  19. Rich - December 2, 2009

    Money is the issue, not for the cost of the energy, but the cost of the DVR. This design is to accommodate the hardware and software that is picked for the DVR. The hardware and software cannot accommodate an automatic turn on and off feature when programs are going to record. The software, which runs off the hard drive, is needed to know what time programs are scheduled. Yes computers can have features that turn on and off, but DVR hardware is not as powerful as a desktop computer.
    If you want a DVR to do this, you will need to spend a lot more money and use a Home Theater PC, if it will work with your Cable or Sat service..

  20. Steve Snyder - December 2, 2009

    I bought a TIVO a couple of years ago and was also unhappy with the power consumption. TIVO has a standby mode which is worthless – maybe 1 or 2 watts less consumption. There is no reason for DVR’s to be consuming power 36-40 watts while not being actively used or recording. The TIVO is just a computer with timers. My laptop wakes up at night to perform various maintenance operations. There is no reason why a dvr couldn’t use such timers in a minimal power mode to wake up to record or grab programming data etc.
    Anyway, I just flip the switch on my TIVO when not in use or I know its not going to record something. If I had cable and were a TV junkie and wanted the device to constantly search for TV shows I might like, then maybe this wouldn’t be a good solution. But it works for me.
    And don’t listen to people who claim that shutting down the DVR will shorten the life. The only part I would worry about is the disk drive. When I did a calculation using the mtbf (mean time between failure) for disk drives and factored in the additional wear due to stopping and starting the disk drive, the average life would still be ~10 – 15 years. (Now in thinking about sustainability, maybe 10-15 year life is unacceptable but hey, that’s another discussion.)

  21. Don - December 2, 2009

    I add my voice to those who darn the torpedoes and unplug their entire entertainment center at night. The cable box and Tivo alone save me a good 30-40W, and my ancient 1980’s Technics receiver, probably that much again.
    Only once have I left it off so long that I had to call the cable company; I make it a point to turn it on an hour or two at night to let the Tivo update and the cable box get its marching orders (and yes, watch some TV!)
    Yes, that should all be automatic. Waking up on a timer / LAN activity is built into a lot of cheap controller chips already. The problem: builders of the products DON’T PAY for their operation (thank you, artificial separation of up-front and life-cycle costs). If we resolve that issue, through either legislation or consumer demand, a lot of better choices will be made by manufacturers in the future.

  22. Rafael - December 2, 2009

    I think the real issue at hand is that as consumers, we have the right to demand more from our product and service providers.
    I think you’re right in stipulating that if we don’t like it we should turn the DVR off and terminate the service, that would certainly send a clear message to the cable providers. Some people are willing to do that some are not, but calling people crazy for wanting this to change does nothing.
    Yes, this trend has certainly accelerated in recent years as our impact on the world’s climate has become so obvious that only people with their heads in the sand seem to disagree, but the green movement was very strong in the 60s and 70s, prompted by our first photos of the Earth from space and the the 1979 Energy Crisis, respectively.
    That we as Americans (maybe all humans) have a rediculously short memory span is part of the problem, the other is one of convenience. So while giving up the wonders of the DVR might be a hard sell for many, myself included, I would love to have other more sustainable options.
    I currently have my cable box / DVR plugged into a smart strip, that’s a start, but I am going to look into the linux altenative mentioned above…
    It’s important to note that younger, post-baby boomer generations want convenience and social responsibility. We want to have our cake and eat it too. And we can! The technology is there. It just needs to be implemented.
    A huge part of the problem is that cable companies have virtual monopolies over their markets. That needs to change. What is more American that competition? Bring in green cable companies and just watch as consumers flock to them.
    Many companies are now looking at double bottom lines (triple in some cases, but I won’t get into that), profit and environmental impact. Companies world wide are finding that making their operations and products more efficient reduces their operating costs (while increasing their profits) and more importantly increases consumer perceptions of the company as a trusted company. You can’t buy that kind of advertising.

  23. Steve - December 2, 2009

    So how long can you leave a newer TV or DVR unplugged before it forgets what channels are available to it (we have air TV, not cable)? I’ve thought about switching off at the power strip, but always figured the TV would lose the local channels that are set up…

  24. Creative Greenius - December 2, 2009

    I, like millions of other intelligent consumers have no intention of “getting over it.” We’ll use our power and force in the marketplace to make change happen and it will be those sellers who don’t understand our power who will have to “get over it.”
    We are not sheep, or helpless and we will not be denied. We are consumers in a consumer dependent economy and we hold the power to make or break any seller who doesn’t get their act together.
    We turn our FIOS TV DVR off every night we’re not recording something – which is most nights – and we’ve never had a problem with the program guide or any other function.

  25. Katherine - December 3, 2009

    I suggest that the solution is political. By that I mean lobbying for change, particularly in California works very well. Witness the new requirement in California for more energy efficient flat screen TVs. As the worlds 8th largest economy, if we require it, industry follows. The legislative change in refrigerator design in the 1970’s revolutionized the way these appliances were built and stopped dead the need for nuclear power plants in California. Companies don’t change just because it’s the right thing to do. Hit them in their ability to sell products at all, get’s their attention.

  26. Lindsay Donaldson - December 3, 2009

    We have our whole entertainment system on a power strip that we turn off when not in use, but we don’t have our cable box connected to it. Every time we’d turn on the tv and cable after having the whole sys turned off, we’d lose all our programmed channels. Does anyone know a way around this? God forbid my husband lose his “favorites”! :)

  27. Joe - December 3, 2009

    There are other, probably more efficient (how much I’m not sure) DVRs than Tivo. Magnavox and Philips are the two out there now, but Panasonic, Polaroid, and others did make themuntil recently. You can find them used/refurbished on ebay for $200-$300. They don’t use the Tivo information, and don’t require any type of subscription. You just program them as you would any VCR. Yes, they have something always running, or they wouldn’t wake up for timer settings, but they aren’t always recording, connecting to a service, etc. The newer ones include a digital tuner, but those that don’t work well with a converter box. They’ll also work fine with cable or satellite, but I use mine with OTA broadcasts (that’s a conscious decision–I don’t want to pay for cable or satellite service, just to have access to more channels that are mostly not stuff I’m interested in).

  28. brian kusler - December 3, 2009

    To the OP: Have you tried completely turning off the Suggestions Feature, and then putting the unit into Standby mode when you’re done watching a show? I’m curious if that helps, since the former would prevent unwanted shows from being recorded at all hours and the latter would prevent it from recording the live TV buffer. Just a thought…

  29. Gill - December 4, 2009

    FYI only. Our ATT uverse box is energy star compliant. It was one of the reasons I dumped directv…I didn’t know they had an energy star option.

  30. Alex - December 6, 2009

    Can you even get TV over the airwaves any more? I thought that all of the networks had gone digital, but that may have been delayed again.

  31. Erin Craig - December 7, 2009

    As noted by some good folks below, most electonics components are designed with a certain service life, the “mean time between failures”. Ironically for this conversation, mtbf is usually defined relative to operating hours, not calendar days or on/off cycles. And indeed many components will last longer in calendar time if you turn them off when you aren’t using them.

  32. Ben - December 12, 2009

    I commend you for bringing up this issue, Erin, but I also think you need to put it in perspective…
    A watt of continuous usage, on most people’s electricity bill, will equate to about $1 per year. So if that DVR is pulling 40 watts, it’s going to cost you about $40 per year to run it. Now how much is your electric bill for the year? What percent of your electric bill does the DVR represent? And how much time are you spending fussing over it, as opposed to, say, a refrigerator, dehumidifier, coffee maker or electric stove, any of which are likely to contribute much more to your bill (and your ecological footprint)? What about your furnace and AC — have you already sealed all your air leaks?
    And how much are you paying for the satellite TV service? That’s the real cost here. I’m guessing you’re paying at least $50 a MONTH. So the DVR’s power consumption is about 6% of what you’re paying for the service. You’d save money and energy by watching your shows on Hulu, and ditching both the DVR and the service provider.
    I agree that saving energy and money is a noble cause. But the DVR manufacturer is correct that being on all the time is how the device is supposed to work. The “energy vampires'” sin is that they are noticeable and don’t give the impression of providing useful services, unlike coffee makers and such that use far more power.

  33. Rob Lewis - December 12, 2009

    There’s an old saying: “Every dollar spends the same.” Knocking $200 off the price of a house you’re selling to close the deal might seem like a trivial concession, but paying $300 for a car repair that should have been $100 is likely to be seen as an outrage. Yet the net economic effect on your spendable cash is the same (you’re $200 poorer).
    The same principle holds true for electricity use: it’s just as worthwhile to save 40 watts by sealing a crack around a door as it is to save the same watts by unplugging a DVR. The power company (and your electric bill) can’t tell the difference.
    That said, IMO it’s not just about dollars and cents. Some things should be done because they’re the right thing to do.

  34. Ben - December 13, 2009

    Rob’s reasoning assumes that your time is worth nothing. If your time were worth something, then $40/year saved by 5 minutes of caulking that lasts for decades would be worth more than $40/year saved by unplugging and replugging a gadget every day. If you think otherwise, there’s a guy working an assembly line who’d like to switch jobs with you.
    The whole premise of a DVR is that your time is worth something: it is available 24/7 to record shows so that you can watch them when it’s convenient for you rather than when it’s convenient for the networks. If you don’t value your time, then what are you doing with a DVR?
    Could the DVR operate more efficiently? Probably. But my point is that you probably have other ways to save energy and money that are far easier and more effective.