Your cable box is an extreme energy hog

A new study estimates that U.S. consumers spent $2 billion a year to power set-top boxes that are sitting idle.

Worried about high utility bills? Your cable or satellite box may be to blame. And if your box is a digital video recorder, that's even worse.

The National Resources Defense Council (NDRC) and Ecos, an energy-management consulting firm estimate that U.S. consumers spent $2 billion a year to power set-top boxes that are sitting idle. And many U.S. homes now have multiple set-top devices, including DVRs that consume about 40% more energy per year than non-DVR boxes.

More than 80% of American households subscribe to a pay TV service that uses a set-top box to deliver video entertainment. Some 160 million of these boxes are currently in use, and they're one of the biggest energy-wasters in your home, according to a recent study by the NDRC and Ecos.

The problem with the average set-top box is that it operates at full power most of the time, even you're not watching or recording a TV show. And that translates into a massive waste of energy and money.

The environment costs are staggering as well. In the U.S. last year, set-top boxes consumer about 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which matches the annual output of nine 500 MW coal-fired power plants, the study estimates. And the energy needed to power all U.S. set-tops equals the annual household electricity use of the state of Maryland, resulting in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Greener Options

Nearly all set-top boxes are owned and installed by pay-TV service providers, including cable and satellite companies such as Comcast, DISH Network, DirecTV, Verizon and AT&T. As a result, most consumers can't select a greener device to replace their current energy-waster.

There's hope for the future, though, particularly if service providers switch to more efficient devices, a move that could cut the energy use of the installed base of boxes by 30 to 50% by 2020, the study estimates.

Energy-efficient boxes, for instance, could automatically power down or enter a sleep mode when not in use, such as during daytime work hours or in the middle of the night.

Reducing the number of set-top devices in the home would help too. Rather than having one box per TV, a "whole-home solution" that uses a main device to store video content, or using several low-power thin client boxes, could cut electricity use as well.

The growing popularity of Internet video-streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, may also help. The most efficient streaming device is Apple TV, which draws a miserly 3 watts in On mode, and only 1 watt in Sleep mode, the study found.

More TVs are incorporating streaming capabilities too, a development that eliminates the need for a standalone box like Apple TV or Roku. However, low-power streaming boxes and Internet-ready TVs won't replace the traditional DVR in the near future, the study says.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci ) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com .

This story, "Your cable box is an extreme energy hog" was originally published by PCWorld.

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