Energy Vampires and Phantom Loads – Standby Power

What do vampires and cable TV boxes have common? They both suck energy (from people and power grids respectively). The electricity used by equipment and devices when they are switched off or in standby mode is commonly called standby power.

Energy Vampire - Cell Phone ChargerThe origin of the term energy vampire is shrouded in mystery but likely refers to an external power supply also known as an A/C adapter or charger. It is black, has two prongs (teeth), and sucks electricity at night.

An estimated 5-10% of residential energy is used for standby power.1 When all U.S. households are combined standby power represents a significant amount of energy, some which is wasted unnecessarily.

National Energy Action Month and Halloween both occur in October so this month seems an ideal time to tackle energy vampires and standby power. In this first of two posts, readers will learn about standby power and how to identify energy vampires. The second post will deal with ridding our households of energy vampires while saving a few bucks.

What is Standby Power?

The electricity used by equipment and devices when they are turned off, not in use, or in standby mode is called standby power, vampire power, phantom power, no-load power, or phantom load. Standby power purposes include:

  • Maintaining signal reception capability (for a remote control, telephone or network signal)
  • Monitoring temperature or other conditions
  • Enabling a device to switch on quickly
  • Powering an internal clock (e.g. to adjust a thermostat based on time of day)
  • Battery charging
  • Continuous display (time, status)

In some cases standby power is necessary for equipment to function properly, in others it provides convenience for users, and sometimes it is just wasted. Let’s look at a few examples.

Almost all refrigerators draw electricity continuously. The compressor cycles on and off to maintain the temperature set by the user. When the compressor is off, electricity is used by the thermostat to sense when to turn the compressor on again. This is a case of necessary standby power.

TV with Remote ControlAmericans can be an impatient lot who expect devices to turn on instantly with no warm up period. A cable TV box uses standby power to enable it to receive a signal and turn on the TV within seconds whenever a user pushes the on button on the remote control. Standby power is consumed 24 / 7 for user convenience.

Then there are the external power supplies we plug into a wall outlet to charge our electronic gadgets like cell phones. Once the device is charged, the power supply may continue to draw electricity until it is unplugged from the wall. This is an example of unnecessarily wasted electricity.

Which Equipment and Electronics Consume Standby Power?

A typical American household contain 40 items that constantly draw electricity whether they are in use or not.2

Equipment and electronics that consume continuous electricity include devices with external power supplies, remote controls, soft button control panels, always on displays, or that charge batteries. Standby power usage varies and some newer equipment may draw little or no standby power. The list below provides examples of possible energy vampires.

Appliances: microwave, range, oven, refrigerator, washer, dryer, air conditioner, dishwasher.

Home Office with Computer, Monitor, and PrinterElectronics: TV, set-top box, DVD player, desk top computer, printer, scanner, tablet computer, monitor, lap top computer, router, server, copier, cell phone, game console, digital camera, cordless telephone, telephone answering machine, speakers, audio system.

Small Appliances, Tools, and Other Devices: cordless power tool, coffee maker, garage door opener, alarm clock, electric razor, thermostat.

What is the Environmental Impact of Standby Power?

One way standby power impacts our environment is through waste. Producing power uses resources from making the generating equipment to transmitting the electricity. Allowing devices to use power unnecessarily wastes the resources that went into producing it.

Power PlantA major impact of standby power is the pollution and greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning power plants that generate electricity for our homes. In 2011, 68% of U.S. electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels (1% petroleum, 25% natural gas, 42% coal).3 Standby power accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours (KWHs) of U.S. electricity consumption and more than $10 billion in annual energy costs. 4

Let’s put this in perspective.

The average U.S. household uses 11,280 KWHs of electricity a year.5 Generally 4 people constitute an average household used for such calculations, so each person accounts for 2,820 KWHs. Our 100 billion KWHs of standby power could provide the annual power needs of 35,460,993 Americans (11% of our population) or the entire country of Canada (35,158,304 people).6

If the electricity used to generate our 100 billion KWHs of standby power comes from a fossil fuel burning power plant, the figures below show how much coal, natural gas, or petroleum would be burned to produce 100 billion KHWs of electricity (based on data from EIA7).

  • Coal: 107,000,000,000 pounds (billions)
  • Natural Gas: 100,000,000,000,000 cubic feet (trillions)
  • Residual Fuel Oil: 8,000,000,000 gallons (billions)

As you can see when we add all our household energy vampires together across the U.S. standby power represents a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions and wasted energy.

In the next post, we’ll find out what we can do about energy vampires and wasted standby power.

Related Posts:


  1. U.S. DOE – 3 Easy Tips to Reduce Your Standby Power Loads
  2. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – Standby Power FAQs
  3. U.S. Energy Information Administration – Electricity in the United States
  4. ENERGY STAR – Celebrating 20 Years of ENERGY STAR, Product Retrospective: Standby Power
  5. U.S. Energy Information Administration – How much electricity does an American home use?
  6. Wikipedia – List of countries by population
  7. U.S. Energy Information Administration – How much coal, natural gas, or petroleum is used to generate a kilowatt-hour of electricity?


Energy Empowerment – October is National Energy Action Month

On September 30, 2013, President Obama proclaimed October 2013 as National Energy Action Month. The keyword is action. We can and must reduce our energy consumption, use energy more efficiently, and move to clean renewable energy sources.

“Years from now, our children may wonder if we did all we could to leave a safe, clean, and stable world for them to inherit. If we keep our eyes on the long arc of our future and commit to doing what this moment demands, the answer will be yes.”
2013 National Energy Action Month Proclamation

If you have been meaning to do something to reduce your energy footprint, empower yourself to take action now. This post will provide readers with energy saving ideas that are either free or low cost to implement and will save money over the long run.

Energy Scavenger Hunt

The words energy scavenger hunt caught my eye while I was scanning search results for National Energy Action Month. I pictured a Halloween scavenger hunt with costumed kids and / or adults searching for and then snapping photos of items like solar panels, ENERGY STAR appliances, and hybrid cars and winning LED light bulbs or locally made treats.

As it turned out, the article in the Central Wisconsin Sustainability Newsletter was for an online energy scavenger hunt for kids which looked educational and fun.

Action: mix it up this Halloween by organizing an energy scavenger hunt for a school, work, or neighborhood group. Contestants will learn about energy use and have fun doing it.

Bring Your Own Bottle

Author's Reusable Water BottleBottled water is an energy intensive product. Energy is used during plastic water bottle manufacturing, bottled water processing, bottling, transportation, and recycling.

Transporting a single 16.9 ounce (1/2 liter) bottle consumes enough energy to run a 100-watt light bulb from 7 to 14 hours.1 Multiply that by the billions of bottles of water consumed in a year and that is a huge amount of energy—wasted.

Action: if you are still buying bottled water, stop. Use a glass at home and take a reusable water bottle when you go out.

Ditch the Car

The benefits of walking and biking on personal health and wellbeing are well known. Reducing car travel, even for one trip a week, decreases energy use, air pollution, and car wear and tear. It also reduces driver and passenger stress caused by traffic jams and trying to find a parking place.

Action: at least once a week, walk or bike when you would normally use your car. Walk or bike to school, work, or to run errands. Leave your car at work and run errands on foot during your lunch hour or park at one store and walk to the others.

Snug Home

Snug House - Scarf Wrapped Around Miniature HouseOn average, 53% of our total home energy is used to heat and cool our homes (45% and 9% respectively).2 A snug exterior keeps warm air in during the winter and cool air in during the summer and defends against excessive energy use and high utility bills.

A 1/8” gap under the front door lets in as much air as a having a 2 ¼” hole in an exterior wall.3

Action: check your home for drafts, air leaks, and cracks then seal them with caulking and weatherstripping. Not so handy? Offer a friend or family member who is a home cooked meal or babysitting in return for their help.

Light with LED’s

About 6% of household energy is dedicated to lighting.2 Incandescent light bulbs are inefficient and add to a home’s heat load. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are more efficient but contain a small amount of mercury. CFLs require special handling if broken and at disposal. LED bulbs use 70%-75% less energy and can last 25 times as long.2

Action: replace incandescent and CFL bulbs as they burn out with LED bulbs. Although more expensive to purchase than their less efficient counterparts, LED bulbs make up for it in energy savings and long life.

Shower Savings

Low Flow Handheld Shower

Showers and baths account for part of the 18% of home energy used to heat water 2 and about 17% of the water used per day.4 A full standard bathtub uses about 50 gallons of water. The average shower lasts 5-10 minutes and uses 12.5 to 25 gallons of water.4

Action: skip baths except for rare occasions or bathing children. Time yourself and take shorter showers or install a low flow showerhead. You won’t miss the excess water.

Use Your Thermostat

Thermostats can have a significant impact on heating and cooling energy use and cost, especially for those who live in areas with cold winters and / or hot summers. You can save 10% a year on heating and cooling your home by using your thermostat.2

Action: adjust your thermostat to 68° or lower in the winter and 78° or higher in the summer. Depending on where you live you might benefit from purchasing a smart thermostat.

There’s an App for That

I saw a post about an energy saving contest at North Carolina State University using a free smartphone app called JouleBug. Students, faculty, and staff collect pins and badges for energy saving actions and can win prizes. Smart—make saving energy a game.

Action: smartphone enthusiasts download one or more free or low cost apps that help you assess, monitor, and reduce your energy use. Start a friendly competition with your family or friends.

During October, take one or more of the actions listed above or come up with your own. The most important aspect of National Energy Action Month is to actually take action.

Related Posts:


  1. What is the Environmental Impact of Bottled Water?
  2. U.S. DOE – Energy Savers: Tips on Saving Money & Energy at Home
  3. Seal Air Leaks to Reduce Home Energy Use and Cost
  4. Water Saving Shower Ideas – Low Flow Showerhead