Vampire staked by gadget

Written by erin


As recently reported, I had a rabid vampire at my house: my set-top box and DVR combination. It is designed to be “on” all the time, so it consumes as much energy when I’m not using it as when I am. This lack of a true “sleep” mode is my main beef with the combo device, so I set out to fix it.

My quest led me to a trusted energy efficiency gadget, the outlet timer, a device that switches an outlet’s power on and off at pre-set times. I last purchased one of these about 15 years ago for holiday lights. Wow, have they changed since then!

The basic purpose of the device – to switch an outlet and hence everything plugged into it on and off at pre-set times – has not changed. Now, however, they are electronic and programmable. The one I chose allows for up to 28 different on/off events, each of which can be programmed by time and by weekday/weekend day, day of the week, and other parameters. It also includes an override button, a battery backup to keep the timer running in case of power failure, two device plugs, and a compact design that doesn’t cover up the second wall outlet.

Given my family’s TV patterns, I programmed the timer to switch on my DVR’s power on at 2pm and off at 11:45pm Monday through Friday. Saturday morning, it comes on at 10am and stays on through Sunday night at 11:45pm. (I decided to keep it on throughout Saturday night just in case there’s a magic programming update or software download that happens only in the wee hours.)

I’m happy to report it’s working great. I’ve cut my DVR’s energy use in half and haven’t had any mishaps whatsoever.

To be sure, this solution removes some of my DVR’s functionality. Specifically:

* I can’t make ad hoc recordings in the middle of the night or early on weekdays without performing a manual device override. Also, if the DVR “discovers” a show it’s supposed to record, it will only do so if the power is on at recording time.
* If the DVR’s power is off and we decide to watch a program, there is a five-minute delay while the box repowers itself, finds the satellite, and runs diagnostics. Our small kitchen TV, however, is available for such “emergencies.”
* Upon repowering, my DVR’s memory buffer is empty, so there is no opportunity to rewind if I power it up off-cycle.
* If I remotely program my DVR with a phone or computer while the DVR is off, the remote software will tell me my recording has been scheduled, but this is not the case. Remote programming only works when the DVR’s power is on.

I am completely happy with these compromises. Still, my provider could do a much better job including the capabilities I want than I’ve achieved here.

Most people acquire programmable DVRs as part of a service package, either from their TV signal provider (cable/satellite) or from an independent programming service (TiVo). Often as not, the devices which come with the service package are ordered sight (and specs) unseen. So it’s critically important that informed consumers let their providers know that vampires don’t belong in our living rooms and bedrooms. Let yours know. I hope they take notice.

You May Also Like…


  1. Ralph Wheeler

    My solution is to have 100% renewal electrical power and to leave the DVR on all the time. I do record events in the middle of the night so this is convenient. My utility company, Palo Alto City Utilities, has a convenient option to get all my electrical power from renewal sources for a surcharge. They have talked of doing the same for biogas but have not been able to secure a biogas source so far. When they do I will get all my household energy from renewable sources. I have a clean diesel car and when second generation biodiesel is available, I will get my transportation energy from renewal sources as well.

  2. Woody

    I get my electricity through the same type of plan as yours, Ralph, but it should be made clear that the power companies don’t actually send us electricity from renewable sources under this plan. They just take the surcharge money we give them & use it to fund renewable energy production somewhere on the grid. It’s sort of the same thing, but it’s best to be be clear about these things when some are looking for opportunities to discredit such efforts.

  3. Eric

    I don’t have a DVR, so just put the TV (which actually is Energy Star) and the rest of the entertainment system on a power strip where I can access the switch and turn it on when we use it.
    The only thing I’ve often wondered is if there is any damage that is inflicted on the devices by shutting the power off– does it send a spike of energy (I’d assume not) when I turn the switch? We have a amplified set of bunny ears (~3years old) that have a LED to indicate that it was on, and about a year ago the LED went out, even though the antenna still appears to be working (I thought LEDs never burned out). It’s anecdotal but made me wonder if it was the powerstrip.
    Any thoughts?
    My only qualm with biodiesel: as an asthma researcher I’ll just say that burnning biodiesel (most biofuels or biomass in fact) produces a large the amount of particulate matter. It doesn’t burn very clean (even if it is a “clean diesel”). For a crude example, think about how cleanly a pile of leaves burns vs say gasoline or ethanol. Is the particulate matter worse than using nonrenewable? From a respiratory health standpoint, YES! Global warming, probably not.

  4. MOnica Reinagel

    But isn’t the programmable timer itself an energy vampire (albeit using less power than the DVR?)

  5. Doug Thomas

    One other thing to consider is surge protector warranties. I know that may sound silly, but we had a storm not too long ago and the Wii didn’t come back on immediately (apparently there is some failsafe wait period). But during the time that I thought it was broke due to a failure in the surge protector, I read the “fine print” and it stated that the company would only provide warranty if the surge protector was plugged directly into the way. At the time, the protector in question was plugged into another protector. Minor point, but one that invalidated the warranty. As it turned out, the Wii was fine.
    My point is this: if you do use a surge protector for your electronics, and I assume most people do, should something go wrong that necessitates making a claim, make sure that the timer is not between your surge protector and the wall when the claim is made (wink, nudge).

  6. Harry Houck

    Another downside. Powering up devices puts more wear and tear on them due to thermal changes. When did incandescent light bulbs burn out? When powered on.

  7. Dave

    Woody, isn’t that the same concept as used by TerraPass with their carbon offsets?
    If everyone offset their carbon emissions by buying only renewable energy or buying carbon offsets, energy consumption would be less of an issue (though still important since generatng electricity still has other environmental footprints).

  8. Patrick

    Eric, I don’t know how much you watch your tv, myself way much more than I would like to admit. And I don’t know what kind of television you have, but FYI, I tried the power strip with my fancy, slim, energy star, HD, ect, ect tv. We plugged a killawatt into it after turning on the power strip and found it used way more power than it is supposed to.
    If you have a newer tv, one of the things some of them do is update a channel guide that somehow comes through the airwaves. So evertime I turned it on I had to go into the TV setup menu and turn that function off, it seems to suck up about 70 watts of power until you do this, because it loses it’s memory. So that is a downside to using the old power strip on new tech.

  9. disdaniel

    Harry H., please burn your incandescent bulbs out and replace them with CFLs–the planet (and your pocket-book) will love you for it.
    And your thesis is a bunch of horse-pucky. Or else outdoor lighting would burn out faster than indoor lighting (more thermal changes outdoors than it).
    Surely draining extra energy while “off” doesn’t extend the life of a device.

  10. Tom Harrison

    The timer uses less than 1 watt. Depending on models, DVRs (especially the Motorola ones favored by the big cable companies) can draw 150W to 200W).
    In vampire speak, the timer is a mosquito, the DVR is Count Dracula.

  11. Brian

    An A for the effort. But to be a bit of a downer, this is totally splitting hairs as far as global warming is concerned.
    We switched to all CFL’s and even replaced a CFL with an LCD lightbulb at the cost that is justified by a 17 year payoff. Big deal, it’s just a way to feel a little less guilty while Polar Bears continue to drown. Maybe my eye sight will be a bit worse trying to read technical materials under them and I’ll have to get new glasses… and then it’s a wash.
    The real issue is how getting new ductwork and geo-thermal heating installed in my house will cost us $50K – equity money we simply do not have access to because our house is now worth less than we bought it for. Same goes for other renewable solutions like solar and wind. Sure, there’s gov’t rebates. But the cash-flow has to exist in the first place. I’d do it right now if we had the money. Therein lies the rub.
    Another important issue is how projects like Cape Wind have gone close to a decade fighting NIMBYists who somehow have been able to raise over 8 million and hire 4 lobbyist firms to try and kill the project. This would be a tangible solution that would supply 3/4 of the Cape’s ACTUAL power needs.
    Carbon offsets are such a great idea but if there’s no REAL places to put renewable projects where they can make a difference in high demand areas, then you’re only helping to pad the pockets of FOR-profit orgs like Terrapass.
    So I’m forced to do what everyone else does and stay with fossil fuels by switching to a “high efficiency” boiler and save MAYBE 100/month in utility bills if I’m lucky.
    Maybe Terrapass could start funding home-owners who want to upgrade their homes to the latest and greatest green technologies but can’t because of the ridiculous expense.

  12. Anonymous

    please beware of biodiesel in the new clean diesel VW cars. biodiesel works fine in 2007 or prior VW’s, but will trash the engine of the new clean diesels.

  13. Anonymous

    Second generation biodiesel is not commercially available yet but will be the equivalent to petro diesel except cleaner. It will work with any diesel engine.

  14. Brian from ME

    Hey Brian, et al,
    Be sure that you investigate tightening up your home’s shell before your replace the boiler. Chances are you can save far more, for far less investment, here first – then change out to an even smaller boiler for even greater efficiency. Check out MASSAVE for help in this regard.
    Brian R.
    Maine Certified Home Energy Auditor & Weatherization Technician

  15. Steve Snyder

    Have you considered an air source heat pump? I had a cold climate heat pump by Hallowell ( installed a few years ago and really like it. Its good to 30 below 0 – conventional air source heat pumps are limited to around 30 degrees.
    I am in portland, oregon so it doesn’t get so cold here in the winter – although its been cold recently by portland standards -12 degrees last night.
    Anyway, an air source heat pump will cost a lot less than 50K.

  16. Paul

    Shutting off the power to your DVR like that will cause its hard drive to fail earlier. Power loss is stressful on the disk heads. I hate that my DVR is on all the time too… But having to replace the hard drive more frequently could end up costing more resources than turning it off saves.

  17. Dave

    Consumer grade drives are designed to be turned on/off on a daily basis.
    In fact, some consumer grade drives do not recommend that you use them 24/7 as they can fail sooner!

  18. Tom Harrison

    Brian —
    There’s a middle ground between a “deep energy retrofit” and switching to CFL or LED lighting, but your point is certainly valid: the costs required to make substantial savings can seem daunting.
    We have been making gradual, concerted efforts to understand our household energy usage (our entire footprint) and try to fix the ones we can afford to over time. I have trying to keep track of these changes on my blog, Five Percent — Conserve a Little Energy, now in my fifth year.
    The costs have been remarkably low, even for one of the most significant efforts we undertook. Indeed, I would be surprised if we had not already paid for all but the most recent investments.
    We have reduced our electrical use by more than half, so when I get a bill for $100 each month, I know I have saved myself $100. For us, electricity was the right place to start because we live in the Northeast US where rates are high.
    We have made other changes that have now paid for themselves elsewhere, so costs are lower in a lot of areas.
    With a little extra cash in our pockets, last Spring we had an energy audit on our house, and during the summer we hired a contractor to do air sealing and fix missing insulation. We were able to take advantage of a 75% rebate on this work, which, counting everything cost us about $750 … which we had because we are saving money elsewhere.
    And the preliminary results of the air sealing, and insulation efforts appear to have reduced our demand for heating by about 25% (numbers are still early, might be higher). If this follows, we expect to save about $500 over the year from our efforts. So a major household improvement was paid for by smaller improvements, and will pay for itself in less than a couple years.
    We started with CFLs.

  19. P-Dub

    Thanks for your attention to a matter that needs improvement in the energy efficiency area. I do have a suggestion that is far superior to your advice. I found the best way to save energy on these vampire energy devices is to get rid of them (recycle them if there is way). Instead of watching life on a flashing screen, go outside and make life happen. Spend time with friends and family away from the TV. Ride a bike or go for a walk with a neighbor. If it’s cold, play some games or read a book. I have found out that the quality of my life has an inverse relationship with the amount of TV I watch. When I fill my life with these activities, I don’t long to watch the latest episode of CSI or 24. Just a thought.

  20. Shawn LeMons

    Tom H and Brian R are on the money. As a Certified Building Analyst in Colorado, I have helped our company complete 2500 home audits in 2009, with 5000 expected in 2010. Awareness is the first step. But more importantly, many people are making the improvements. We encourage them to start with the “low hanging fruit” (lighting, proper settings, etc.) and cost effective building envelope improvements (usually insulation and air sealing). These are the basics which usually enable downsizing when replacing or installing mechanical systems.
    I empathize with “splitting hairs Brian” and hope he has addressed the basics before spending $50K. But I have yet to spend more than $150 bucks on any particular improvement, with the exception of my fridge which needed to be replaced anyway. I’ve been able to cut my usage about 40% in 2 years. However, I still haven’t invested in mechanical systems because 1) I haven’t done attic insulation yet and 2) my current systems are still working and my usage is relatively low – 3000 annual kWh expected in 2009 including electric furnace! And yes, we have most of the electrical creature comforts of a modern home. But I must admit we don’t have a DVR, by choice. Probably my greatest improvement so far is a TED energy monitor. Real-time feedback creates awareness and better decision making. I believe the DVR and cable box mfrs would make some reasonable changes if more people had in-home energy monitors.
    In the mean time, I tell my energy audit clients not to worry about solving every problem today, but learn about and make the best decisions you can along the way. And when it’s a longer-term decision, make the extra effort.